JOHOR BARU - Businesses and workers in Johor are all geared up for an economic revival from the reopening of land crossings between Malaysia and Singapore on Friday (April 1), after two years of border closures dimmed prospects in the southern state.
Johor was one of Malaysia's worst-affected states when borders shut due to the Covid-19 pandemic, depriving it of consumer spending from Singaporean holidaymakers as well as local workers earning in the Republic.
With the return of day trippers and the daily commute across the Causeway - once one of the world's busiest border crossings - local traders hope for some semblance of pre-pandemic normalcy.
As at Thursday, the streets round Jalan Trus and Jalan Dhoby - located in state capital Johor Baru and just 2km from the Causeway - remained largely empty, even though Malaysia has lifted most of its Covid-19 safety protocols. But traders in these colonial-era shop lots are anticipating an influx of Singaporean travellers who used to make this area one of the busiest in the capital.
Hua Mui Kopitiam, a popular destination for those from Singapore, has hired and trained new staff in anticipation of the Friday reopening.
"We used to have around 10,000 orders a day (before the border closures). From day till night, we constantly had people queueing up to buy food here. There was no time to rest. After the lockdowns started, the number of orders fell to about 3,000 a day," said Ms Shee Yin, 29, an employee at the cafe.
"We have trained new staff and we are prepared (to handle an influx). We will try our best," added Ms Shee Yin who has worked at Hua Mui, which operates several branches across the state, for eight years.
A short walk away from Hua Mui is Salahuddin Bakery, one of the oldest businesses in the area. It has started putting its workers back on their normal shifts. About 80 per cent of the bakery's visitors used to be Singaporeans who thronged the outlet in droves to buy freshly baked buns and assorted curry puffs.
"We never reduced our manpower, but we cut down the shift of our workers. Now we will put them back on normal shifts," said Mr Rahim Khan Salahuddin, 34, a fourth-generation operator of the bakery. The bakery was started by Mr Rahim's great grandfather in 1937, and still uses the same traditional coal oven from eight decades ago to prepare its pastries.
According to Mr Teh Kee Sin, adviser to the Johor South SME Association, the higher spending power of Singapore's six million people will significantly boost the state's economy. "Retail, tourism, restaurants, services and hotels are expected to pick up once the border opens," he said.
The excitement has also spread to Mr Ernee, who declined to give his full name, a food delivery rider who has started making plans to return to work in Singapore. He had worked in Singapore's hospitality industry for over six years, but decided to return to Johor with his wife ahead of the lockdowns so as not to be separated from their young children.
Now with the daily cross-border commute set to be available again, Mr Ernee is keen to return to Singapore for any job. "We used to earn in Singapore dollars and our financial commitments are very high. So I need to earn in dollars again to manage our life, but I can't afford to stay in Singapore because I need to consider my two kids," the 34-year-old said.
He has received a couple of job offers, but will wait until after the Hari Raya Aidilfitri festivities in May before returning to work in Singapore.
The border reopening has also brightened prospects for tourist development.
On Thursday, Johor ruler Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar launched a new international ferry terminal that will connect the resort town of Desaru on Johor's eastern coast with the Tanah Merah Ferry Terminal in Singapore.
The terminal is part of a larger development called Desaru Coast, which aims to make the south-eastern tip of Peninsular Malaysia an international resort destination. Located about 80km from the Causeway, Desaru Coast is already dotted with five-star hotels and resorts, such as Hard Rock Hotel and Westin Hotel.
The ferry service is aimed at drawing leisure travellers who want to avoid traffic on the land crossings. Its services may be expanded in future to link Indonesia's Batam and Bintan Islands with Johor.