Bridging vehicle permit fee differences

The Causeway and Second Link, as vital arteries for the throngs travelling for leisure, work and trade, ought to be symbols of best practices in cross-border cooperation. This is hardly the case, as recent events have shown. Instead of making daily crossovers as convenient as possible, measures in the air appear to be retaliatory in nature and narrow in focus.

Road tolls are par for the course and one would not expect countries to make distinctions for foreign vehicles as curbing congestion is often a key concern. For small nations, like Singapore, congestion to the point of crippling gridlock would be nothing short of a national disaster. Hence, its long obsession with vehicle ownership and usage levies, now among the highest in the world. Against this, a Transport Ministry policy to "equalise the cost of owning and using foreign-registered vehicles on Singapore roads" should not appear unreasonable.

Yet, an uproar has surfaced, leading citizens of both nations to wonder if their officials are placing sufficient emphasis on prior consultation on all cross-border matters. Most tellingly, Singapore's Foreign Affairs Ministry had to ask its counterpart for more information about works to build a man-made island in the Strait of Johor - partly below the Second Link on the Johor side - only after media reports appeared last month on the massive reclamation. Similarly, media reports about Johor's internal proposal in February to impose a fee on Singapore vehicles and the Republic's foreign vehicle permit fee hike this month both gave no indication if bilateral steps had been taken to discuss the implications of such moves.

Singapore's fee hike will not affect the majority of Malaysians - there is no increase for motorcycle users, almost nine in 10 in cars will pay nothing as they drive in on free days or during free hours, and goods vehicle drivers will in effect pay just $1.33 a day. Malaysians commuting daily by car would be the ones seeing usage costs levelling up to those of Singaporeans who pay $33 a day (the amortised cost over 10 years of a $120,000 car, excluding insurance, road tax and interest).

Malaysians will have to weigh the impact of their vehicle fees on tourism and synergies touted by Iskandar Malaysia. Singaporeans form nine in 10 of all visitors to Johor and the Republic is the single largest foreign investor in Iskandar, pouring in billions since its inception.

Seen rationally, there is every reason for officials from both sides to meet to discuss fee issues and pave the way for smoother cross-border flows. Not doing so allows critics to cast the debate as largely tit-for-tat fiscal measures. These, certainly, would exact a heavier cost down the road and affect all.