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Seperated By a Mental Bridge: Thoughts on the Iskander Development Region

In this essay written many years back in Singapore, I examine why Singapore and Malaysia are separated by a mental bridge.

Yesterday, the Malaysia-Singapore Joint Ministerial committee started their first meeting on the Iskander Development Region (IDR) in Johor Bahru. The conclusion of the first meeting leads to the committee forming four common task force groups to explore the areas (on environmental matters, boosting tourism, facilitating immigration clearance and enhancing transport links) identified by a previous meeting between Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (Malaysia) and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (Singapore) during their recent Langkawi retreat. The principle of the working groups is to achieve a win-win outcome for both countries and the committee will meet every quarter to discuss further cooperation and taking stock.

The IDR plan was conceived to follow the Hong Kong-Shenzhen model, which has enjoyed economic success. However, there are notable differences. First of all, in the Hong Kong-Shenzhen model, the model is “one country, two systems”. In the IDR case, we have possibly “two countries and hopefully one system”. From the perspective of Singapore, there are good economic reasons why we need to move to the IDR. First of all, we need to expand our markets and industries to the surrounding and we are reaching the limits of our population on the island. A combined economic region will help to diversify and increase growth for the region as a whole. The Malaysian side will also benefit from the technology transfer and the increased trade between both countries. All these sound too good to be true. So, the question is, “What’s the ceveat?”

There are some infrastructure barriers which we need to overcome. The first is the immigration issue. Listening to the stories from my parents’ generation, between 1965 and 1968, even though Singapore has gained independence, people from both countries were allowed to move between borders without much immigration checks as compared to today. I wonder how many of us remember that there used to be the blue Malaysian passport. The next issue is the connectivity issue and those who crossed the causeway often complained of the car jams in the weekend or public holidays. There is only one public bus (bus 170) and very few private transport services to bring you across the causeway. The working groups has taken a start to crack this solvable questions.

The key is the mental bridge. Singapore and Malaysia are not just separated by infrastructural issues brought about by two causeways, but the mindset and attitudes of the younger generations are vastly different from the previous generation. Our governments and civil services have also evolved after two generations. There is a mental bridge which citizens of both countries need to cross. Most Singaporeans view the project with a lot of skepticism, citing concerns of security and the change of leadership in the future (which might lift away the current privileges). I am sure that a different set of complaints about Singaporeans will also emerge from the other side of the bridge. The solution, of course, is to resolve that mental bridge by encouraging more interaction between the younger generation of both countries.