Can Johor Bahru recover from the coronavirus double whammy?

Johor Bahru was the location of Malaysia’s first coronavirus case on Jan 24 and although it is not the place with the most Covid-19 cases, the economic impact has been tremendous, and worse than on many other urban centres.

Loss of business, loss of capital and loss of jobs are only some of the fundamental problems. As many would testify, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. The problem is far more serious and more far reaching than one can imagine.

It is likely that JB’s problem is because more than 300,000 of its population are dependent on income derived from working in Singapore.

When the borders were closed, the flow of income stopped. Businesses were also heavily dependent on Singaporeans coming here. No visitors means there is now no business, and no revenue.

Many businesses have no choice but to close down, lamented a friend who lives in JB.

Bars, cafes, restaurants, hair salons, spas, beauty parlours, supermarkets, etc…. the list goes on. Since June, many popular seafood restaurants are no longer in operation.

Another JB friend believes some popular malls may not survive for much longer. Closures mean more jobs will be lost.

He predicts that there will be a pandemic of a different kind, a ‘financial pandemic’, when people with housing loans start defaulting (a six-month loan moratorium will expire in September).

On a recent visit, I found JB to be unusually and eerily quiet. Some of the roads formerly congested roads are now deserted. The Causeway used to handle more than 200,000 vehicles daily but is more or less traffic free.

JB has many completed apartment buildings but very few units have lights on, meaning those in the dark have not been occupied at all.

Many construction work sites in JB have been temporarily closed and some friends question if JB would ever recover.

“One thing for sure, it exposes our weaknesses in many areas: town planning or the lack of it; property overhang with no regards for the basic needs of the locals; destruction of the local community in our haste to pander to a foreign market; and worse of all, lack of economic plans to create employment for the local population,” complains a close friend over coffee in a posh cafe which he owns.

“This is not the result of the pandemic alone,” chips in another friend. “It is the accumulation of economic neglect and failure to plan the city properly over the years.”

As he puts across his point, my other friend nods in agreement. There is no argument over JB’s current state. “Yes, we should plan our city for our local population first, and not for the pleasure of others,” he says.

I’m not sure if I would be able to stay and suffer in JB. It is now too quiet for my liking. And now I’m also aware that the gap between the two sides of the Causeway is even wider.

Should we be spending so much on a new transport link that will enable our people to travel, work and spend in another country?

Should we not be more concerned about developing the local Johor economy and making sure the people have work within the state? Develop our own economy instead of providing labour to another country.

The recently concluded agreement on the Rapid Transit System between JB and Singapore will cost Malaysia quite a substantial sum. While I wholly concur with the idea of a better people mover system, some of that money could have been better spent developing the local economy.


The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.