It is ironic that the short journey across the Causeway is associated with tit-for-tat policies that inhibit travel, when bigger plans are afoot for a high-speed rail link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to do just the opposite. By a quirk of timing, the hike of Causeway toll charges by Singapore fell on the 91st anniversary of the bridge. But this arose because of a longstanding policy to match its toll charges to those set by its closest neighbour. The Malaysian government had raised its toll rates in August to gain revenue to offset subsidies for the operation of an expressway that ends at the Johor checkpoint.
Singapore's rationale for matching any fees is based on fairness. Should Malaysia reduce or remove all toll charges, Singapore has said it would do the same - moves that would benefit all who use the Causeway. Conversely, when the link is seen as a revenue-generating tool and policies are implemented without sufficient consultation between the two sides, these can adversely affect commuters and visitors. Malaysian traders and Singaporeans with businesses in Johor would also feel the strain of impediments when goods are moved across the Causeway.
The pinch was felt in Johor Baru after the toll charges increased sharply on the Malaysian side, with business falling by 30 per cent by the middle of last month. This is hardly the dynamic envisioned by the Iskandar Malaysia project. Leveraging each other's relative strengths for mutual economic gain is one part of the interaction.
Another is the easy two-way flow of people for a multitude of purposes - shopping, dining, playing golf or pursuing unique diversions. But layers of tolls both slow down the journey and lead to higher costs that can be expected to show up in prices to be borne by consumers. After a certain point, growing expenses, never-ending levies and the tedium of it all will take their toll on links between people on both sides of the Causeway.
Malaysia might require vehicle entry permits for all foreign vehicles entering Johor, ostensibly to match Singapore's practice. But the land-starved Republic uses such permits to "equalise the cost of owning and using a foreign-registered vehicle in Singapore, with that for a Singapore-registered vehicle", as the Land Transport Authority explained.
Whatever steps are taken by both countries going forward, policymakers should not lose sight of the larger aspiration of Asean to remove barriers to the movement of people and goods across common borders. The goal of regional economic integration by the end of next year will appear more as a far-fetched dream if Asean neighbours are unable to make gateways as open as possible even among the closest of neighbours.