Workers Across The Border
The typical day for the worker from Johor began at 4.00am. Time spent commuting both ways, 4-5 hours. Working hours, 8 hours. Rest was a luxury. Most of Singapore’s factory workers and cleaners from JB used their travelling time on buses to catch up on sleep. No wonder the illumination on the typical bas pekreja is so dim.
The slightly more fortunate ones have their own motorbikes. For those who live in JB, the day starts at 5.00am. At the time of writing, the Second Link was already in use (1998) but with 300,000 crossing every day, jams were unavoidable.
Often forgotten or ignored by the masses in Singapore, these workers are the true workhorses in every industry, indispensable to the Singapore economy. Why would they go through all that trouble to shuttle between JB and Singapore every day? The answer lies in the strong SGD and the relatively low cost of living in JB. For many Malaysians (not only those in Johor), it was a temptation they could not resist. The authors described it as 淘金 or prospecting for gold.
The authors interviewed a young father from Ipoh who moved to JB 5 years ago. Back home, he only earned the equivalent of $600 a month. Working in the construction industry in Singapore, he could earn $2,000 a month. He had tried living in Singapore, but that meant squeezing into a small room with three other men. Spaces were tight, food was expensive and there wasn’t much entertainment within his budget. He thus made the better choice of living in JB, travelling to work in Singapore every day.
For these workers, Singapore was a gold mine, but it’s expensive to live in the gold mine. To get the best of both worlds, they shuttled between the two cities. According to the Malaysian government’s statistics in 2000, Johor Baru is the Malaysian city with the fastest population growth, with a growth rate of 4.59%. From 1990 to 2000, the total population in JB swelled from 704,400 to 1,064,800. JB now has “representatives” from every state. Most of them had plans to return home after earning their pot of gold. They would not stay in JB, let alone Singapore.
In a way, these workers reminded the authors of our forefathers who had migrated here from China. But leaders in Johor were concerned because these Malaysians had no sense of belonging in Johor. As such, their heartfelt contributions to the community were very limited. Many Johor residents held the same view.
There is another problem which is even more serious – brain drain. A woman who worked for an IT firm in Singapore lamented that she could not find an equivalent job in JB. Even though JB is officially the second largest city in Malaysia, many jobs in IT and mass media were not available there at the turn of the century.
In contrast, there was tremendous demand for talent in these areas in Singapore. Besides, many professionals in JB realised that their incomes in Malaysia were even less than that of the workers who biked to Singapore every day. While globalisation had indeed blurred the lines between countries, it’s very clear to these workers where they should work and where they should reside.
However, for the professionals whose incomes are high enough for them to live in Singapore, the danger of brain drain was very real. Then DPM Abdullah Bedawi urged Malaysians working overseas to return home if they miss durians! What a pathetic attempt to lure Malaysians away from SGD, the authors lamented.
Searching for jobs online was not popular back then. Thus, job agencies in JB were inundated with applications for jobs in Singapore. Some of these applications were not successful, but eager to earn SGD, these people crossed the border to wait at petrol stations so that they could be picked up to do temp jobs illegally. Some of these folks were happy to earn just $30 a day.
Besides those who crossed the border daily, there were also Malaysian workers who spent their weekends back home in JB. Most of these folks worked long hours in Singapore and had families in JB. Their incomes were also above average. They would share apartments with other foreign workers and return home to JB every Friday, “booking in” again on Sunday night – a bit like army boys.
While there is little difference in the culture between Malaysia and Singapore, some astute observers had noticed the gradual change in JB society as more and more people worked in Singapore. The authors also noticed that many JBians, especially those working in Singapore, have become more and more “Singaporean”.
Nevertheless, there are JBians who did not have a pleasant experience in Singapore. A director in a multimedia company in JB complained that he was exploited because he was Malaysian. As his bosses were aware that his salary was already high by Malaysian standards and figured that he would not get the same pay if he went back, they did not bother to give him any raise. He went back and started his own business.
For the sake of “convenience”, some Malaysians revealed that they were even compelled to apply for PR by their bosses. Many had done it – for the sake of convenience, but to continue enjoying the best of both worlds, these workers realised that they could not give up their Malaysian citizenship.
As inter-marriage became more and more common, the authors postulated that the JBian’s Malaysian’s identity crisis would only deepen in the future. Given that Singapore will always be more stable, safer and prosperous, a very significant number of Malaysians will eventually change sides.