Johor Bahru has been rapidly growing after getting its city status in 1994. The bustling city is more known for industrial rather than tourism related activity. Most of the top electronics companies in the world, including ones based in Singapore, have manufacturing plants in the state. However, with the development of Legoland, Hello Kitty Town, Kota Iskandar, Puteri Harbour front and such other infrastructure it has seriously started to woo tourists. For many decades Johor Bahru has been the bane of Singapore for it is the haven for Singaporeans for entertainment and to ‘shop till they drop’ as they are much cheaper here than it is in the high wage-high cost country. In fact, fuel is almost half the price on the Malaysian side and Singapore introduced the half tank rule. Singaporeans driving across the causeway to Johor had to have half the fuel tank full so that only one half could be filled with the cheaper fuel! The stipulation continues even to this day. The stronger Singapore Dollar has made it attractive for Singaporeans to live in Johor Bahru and commute to Singapore to work. Many even own commercial establishments in Johor Bahru. The large land mass of the state supports about 1.4 million people giving it the status of the second largest city in Malaysia. Despite the natural comparison with glitzy Singapore, Johor Bahru has tried to hold its own with investments in social infrastructure such as drainage, landscaping and gardens.
I was not sure about the time it would take to complete the paperwork in Singapore and hence, wanted to have as much time as possible there so that I could drive into that country at least by late evening. I was at the bus stand by 7 am and in 15 minutes boarded the Causeway Link CW3 to Singapore. Students and commuters were part of the many who boarded the bus. In 35 minutes I reached the Malaysian border after the bus had stopped many times to pick up passengers en route. As soon as the bus stopped the passengers rushed out and ran to the immigration counters where work was done quite fast. I was through the immigration point in 2 minutes of reaching the top of the queue. I did not find any Customs check point and walked to the bus embarkation point, which was crowded. Instead, I had to wait for over 30 minutes to board another bus to the Singapore border.
The ride over the 2nd causeway link to the Tuas check point was a slow ride since it was peak commuting time. I was amazed at the number of motorcycles queueing up to cross the border – it was possibly the most densely packed queue I have ever seen in my life. There were separate queues for motor cycles, cars and buses with traffic signs warning drivers to use the correct lane or face fines. Another significant warning was against drug trafficking, which said “Death To Drug Traffickers”. Chilling. But it brought home the unqualified intent of the administration in dealing with the menace. The queues at the Singapore immigration were very long and I felt that they did not have adequate number of counters to deal with the peak traffic. However, once I reached the top of the queue, which took about 45 minutes, the passport was stamped in about a minute. I was also fortunate to get a bus to Jurong East bus interchange almost immediately after the Customs check where my shoulder bag was passed through the scanner.
I had to take the help of a kind gentleman at the bus interchange to call up Sreekanth who had taken leave that day to be with me to complete the processes. Before we started out for that we had breakfast of sandwiches and coffee. Sreekanth had an extra MRT card for me so that we could use public transportation with that. I exchanged currency before heading to the office of the Automobile Association of Singapore (AAS). Since Sreekanth had already done all the legwork required for the insurance and international circulation permit (ICP) and established excellent rapport with people concerned the work was done quite fast. Normally it takes more than half a day for the two jobs; in my case it was done within an hour. The insurance policy for 7 days was a steep SGD 289 and for the ICP it was SGD 53.50 – consider that the expense of $300 was for driving less than 100 kms, when the car would be parked in a landed property for the best part of the next week! Then it was off to Land Transport Authority (LTA) office to secure the Autopass. We were told to go to lane 19 in the office to get the work done, which, once again, was done without a glitch. Once all this was done, we decided to head to Johor Bahru without any delay to retrieve the car. I encountered delays at both the border immigration points due to a large contingent of loud and noisy Chinese tourists and the number of lanes did not cater to the large numbers. But work was done swiftly at both points.
As we got down from the bus near the Princeton Hotel, where I had left my car, we had lunch; we had to wait a while for the parottas and chicken curry. Just after 4.30 pm we left for Singapore, a day later than originally scheduled. I fuelled up just before the Malaysian border and purchased a Touch & Go card to pay the toll for the road. Immigration formalities were completed in Malaysia and Singapore in ‘drive through’ mode. Carnet stamping was also smooth on the Malaysian side. While at the Singapore immigration booth, I scanned the Autopass to ‘register’ the entry of the car into the country. Autopass is used to pay tolls and ERP charges, which is SGD5 per day, while exiting from the country. A tough Singapore Customs lady officer examined the car in between asking the purpose of my visit. There was a minor delay at the LTA post, where the lady officer wanted to examine all papers. Later there was a bit of confusion regarding stamping the Carnet, which got done eventually. Once we got over all that Sreekanth piloted the car efficiently into 5 Jalan Isnin by 7.45 pm. And, as mentioned earlier, all this trouble for 100 km in Singapore in the next 6 days! That the country does all it can to restrict private cars from coming in is too obvious to miss.
Saroja Rathnam is a 90 year old gem, whose tenant Sreekanth is. She was so effusive and welcoming that I felt as if I was walking into my own home and the Malayalam song Amma manassu, Thanga manassu kept silently playing in my mind. She kept on saying that I looked familiar – I wondered if they were memories of another life. As I have said many times in my blog posts of the past, I consider that all my travels are to connect up with souls that are companions in my travel with through time and space. Sreekanth had told me how voracious a reader she is with interest spanning many subjects and continents. I presented her with a copy of Record Drives… And Then Some.
A short while later we left for Little India, where Sreekanth wanted to shop for setting up the Vishu ‘kani’ for Ammayi, as he referred to the nonagenarian; they had a symbiotic relationship going. At Prasad’s shop Malayalees were milling about doing their Vishu shopping. Prasad is a successful entrepreneur in Little India and he came over for a small chat despite the busy time. At his shop I met Jithesh and Sujitha, a young couple in the IT industry working in Japanese companies. We exchanged notes on life in Singapore and the road trip. When we took leave after quite a while I wished them to secure a quick relocation to Australia. I also warned them that I would land up there for a road trip and seek their hospitality! At another shop I met Satheesh, who hailed from Trivandrum and has been in Singapore for over four years, and his wife who is a Singapore citizen. He was involved with the film industry for some time before he farmed out to Dubai and Singapore.
By the time we went out for dinner it was close to a half past ten. I ordered a chilled Tiger Gold beer that cost SGD 6.5 - nearly Rs 300. We had mixed fried rice and headed back home. I was only intent on sleep; documentation had to wait for the morrow.