Malaysia's new tolls have trickle down effect on heartlands
The Causeway connects more of us than we may actually realise, with coffee shops, offices and companies reliant on the daily commute
It was one protest across the Causeway, in Johor Baru, but the ripple effect filtered down to the Singapore heartland on Friday.
Mr Chua See Yuen, 60, who runs a coffee stall in Woodlands, woke up to calls from two of his kopi kias (coffee boys) early that morning. He relies on the kopi kias to get the stall up and going for the breakfast crowd.
"They called me at 4.45am, telling me they were stuck and could not report on time for work at 6am. They were saying they'd try to walk across but if they couldn't, they would be forced to take an urgent day off."
So Mr Chua had to scramble. He called on his salesman nephew for backup.
Early on Friday morning, drivers of more than 200 buses from Malaysian transport companies parked their buses at the Sultan Iskandar Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) Complex in Johor Baru.
They were protesting against the increase in toll charges - a 500 per cent increase for the bus operators from RM2.30 (S$0.90) to RM13.30 - that kicked in that morning.
The disruption caused a huge traffic jam, and thousands of stranded passengers had to walk 1km across the Causeway to Singapore.
Both Mr Chua's men managed to make it to work by 9am.
But he frets: "What if this happens again?"
He is not alone in his worry.
Many of those approached on Friday afternoon say they are worried that the strike may happen again.
Two "bas pekerja" (Malay for workers' bus) operators and a driver had warned after the protest that if there is no satisfactory solution to their concerns, there will be another protest next week, reported The New Paper yesterday.
The truth is, a lot of life here depends on the workers who commute daily from Johor Baru.
From kopitiams like Mr Chua's to hair and beauty salons, security operations, offices, restaurants and hawker stalls, many are staffed by Malaysians or Malaysia-born Permanent Residents who travel back and forth regularly for work and social visits.
In TNP's report yesterday, Mr Kurt Wee, president of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, said the biggest impact was on companies that hire a majority of blue-collar and administrative workers, such as those in the security, food and beverage, and service industries.
Anecdotes are aplenty during this Heartland Auntie's jaunt around the neighbourhoods this week.
A fair amount of groans and grumbles were heard among those who found themselves affected by the hike in toll charges - even though they may not have been caught in the bus operators' stand-off for now.
Miss Chen Hwee Hwee, a Malaysian who works in a hairdressing salon, grumbles that her boyfriend has "warned" that she may have to find her own way home to Johor Baru on her twice-a-month days off.
Miss Chen, 28, says: "Even though it is a total of only eight rides, he's done his sums and feels that it's stupid to spend money this way."
To add to the questions on people's minds right now, the Land Transport Authority said that Singapore will match Johor's new Causeway tolls "within weeks".
The caveat is that if Malaysia reduces or does away with the tolls, Singapore will follow suit.
On top of the Causeway tolls, Malaysia will soon increase vehicle entry permit fees for foreign-registered cars entering the country.
This comes after a similar move by Singapore, which has said that this is meant to equalise the cost of owning and using a foreign-registered car with a locally-registered one. Buses, taxis and motorcycles are not affected.
I know, these are super technical details, but the point I am making is that the 1km-long Singapore-Johor Causeway connects more of us than we may actually realise.
We can be affected even if we do not plan to drive up to Johor Baru anytime soon.
Just look at the trickle-down effect from yesterday.
Now, imagine a situation where Mr Chua cannot get his kopi kias to come to work. Or workers opting not to work in Singapore.
It will be quite a bitter pill to swallow for those who have to commute between both countries regularly - some on a daily basis - if the transport fees are raised for commuters (somehow, I can see that coming).
And mind you, there are a lot more Miss Chens and kopi kias out there, and your kopitiam in the neighbourhood may just be affected.