Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Pepper Crabs in JB, no white card required

The APEC Summit winds down with calls for everything from a new free trade area to a reordering of the world economy. In the context of increasing integration, Singapore - Malaysia relations are worth revisiting.
Despite the tumultuous start to Singapore's nationhood, practical considerations have been paramount in dictating the friendship between the two neighbours.

The Tuas Singapore - Malaysia Second Link was opened in 1978 to ease traffic flows between the two countries

Of course, spats between the two countries erupt from time to time. The causeway, the immigration checkpoints, Pedra Branca islets and the cost of water all have their place in the relationship. They are real issues which bureaucrats must ultimately resolve.
Still, the Pedra Branca dispute resolution underlines the 'matter of fact' ties between the two countries. In a businesslike manner, the territorial disagreement was taken to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at the Hague, Netherlands.
Since the ICJ's decision in early 2008 both nations have responded positively to the judgement and termed the verdict a 'win-win' for both. Quite rightly, neither side wishes to turn the territorial dispute into a protracted issue.
Geography has mandated that the fate of Singapore and Malaysia is connected.
Malaysia is Singapore's largest trading partner, both as a source of goods (imports) and a destination (exports). The value of total trade between the two sides has been above SGD 100 billion since 2006.
Trade is one side of the story. Family, work and leisure linkages complete the picture.
Almost every Singaporean has travelled to Johor Bahru (JB) for food and shopping at some point in their life. To Singaporeans, Johor Bahru is better known by its affectionate nickname, JB. Singaporeans crossing into JB constitute almost 50% of Malaysia's annual tourist flows.

Many Malaysians work in Singapore and commute into the country on a daily basis. It is estimated 300,000 Malaysians work in Singapore, of which approximately 150,000 commute from JB every day.
The Causeway is used by about 60,000 vehicles daily, with additional weekend traffic to cater to Singaporean searching for sea food and shopping bargains.
Undoubtedly, JB's economy is tightly connected to Singapore's growth.
APEC and the region's mandarins are mulling how to deepen regional cooperation and further liberalize trade flows.
Singapore and Malaysia can blaze a trail for others to follow by reducing travel formalities between the two countries. Like crossing a border between two continental European nations, Singapore and Malaysia should gradually do away with the need to fill out forms and have mandatory entry / exit stamps on passports.
Passport checking should be random. Some may argue that illegal immigration or smuggling will increase if the borders were deregulated.
Customs and immigration are two entirely different arrangements. Customs formalities should remain as stringent as presently.
Given the strict punishments imposed on employers for hiring undocumented workers in Singapore, the crime should remain in check. In Singapore, illegal employment is not merely a matter of sneaking into the country. It is more about finding a criminally wilful employer willing to risk fines and jail time for employing illegal workers.
Earlier this decade, during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis the Singapore and Malaysian Ministries of Health (MOH) treated the two nations as 'One Unit' for the purposes of controlling the spread of the disease. With the extent of travel and trade between the two countries it was impossible to do otherwise.
It is time the Home Teams' of Singapore and Malaysia take a leaf from the MOH book. Increased integration between the two nations is more about easing practical bureaucratic considerations at the Causeway than about photo shoots at APEC Summits.

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