JOHOR BAHRU — Malaysian hawker, Mr Sim, was a step away from buying fresh prawns during a holiday in the Pontian district of Johor, only to be stopped by the exorbitant price quoted by the seller.
The 63-year-old Johorean, who declined to give his full name, claimed that the prices were immediately jacked up after the Singaporean tourists who came before him blurted out: “Wah, so cheap!”
“I wanted to buy prawns, and I heard the seller quoted the Singaporean group RM20. But once it was my turn, the seller quoted me RM30,” he told TODAY.
Although this happened some years ago, the story remains fresh in his mind. While Mr Sim said he had no problem welcoming Singaporeans to travel around his home state, he had only one request for them.
“It’s better to keep quiet when buying things. There’s no need to say so loudly that the prices are cheap. What about the locals who don’t think the prices are affordable?” he said.
Mr Sim’s experience will resonate with many Johor residents even today, particularly those residing in the state capital, as Johor Bahru has been a favourite destination of Singaporeans for the longest time.
The perennial “bird people” behaviour — characterised by the continuous exclamations of “cheap, cheap, cheap” — found its way into the limelight recently when a Singaporean financial content creator publicly urged Singaporeans to be more humble and sensitive to Malaysians.
It’s not just the word “cheap” that runs the risk of being deemed insensitive, but also the general behaviour that some Singaporeans exhibit in their excitement to shop for good bargains in Johor Bahru due to the weaker Malaysian ringgit.
True enough, during TODAY’s visit to Johor Bahru last weekend (Nov 26 and 27), this reporter heard a woman, presumably from the Lion City, proclaiming loudly: “Wow, the prices here. How much are they divided by 3.5? In Singapore dollar.”
The shop visited by the said woman was just opposite the chwee kueh (steamed rice cakes) stall operated by Mr Sim along Jalan Tan Hiok Nee, 1km away from the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Complex.
“There’s good and bad when Singaporeans come over. They have higher spending power, which is good. But they should just be quiet about it,” said Mr Sim.
Johor Bahru residents TODAY spoke to appeared disapproving of Singaporeans treating the city as a bargain haven, as there is a perception that the cost of living has soared in the past year due to more tourist arrivals from Singapore and their ability to spend.
However, contrary to these views, Johor business owners and economists said that Singaporean spending is not the main reason why Johoreans are grappling with rising costs.
They cited other global and domestic factors, such as the country’s economic woes and policies Malaysia adopted during the pandemic as well as current geopolitical tensions, for the inflation faced by Johoreans.
Singaporeans have been flocking to Johor for shopping and holiday following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions and the reopening of borders, with lengthy traffic jams at the checkpoints a common occurrence, particularly during the weekends and public holidays.
For example, during the long weekend from Aug 31 to Sept 4, a record number of more than 1.7 million travellers passed through Woodlands and Tuas checkpoints.
One factor why more Singaporeans head to Johor Bahru is the steady strengthening of the Singapore dollar against the ringgit, from about 3 at the start of 2020 to new highs of 3.17 in April 2022 and 3.5 today.
This makes dining out in Johor, shopping for groceries, or topping up petrol particularly attractive given its proximity to Singapore, particularly as Singaporeans have also been grappling with high inflation for months.
A financial consultant, who wished to be known only as Mr Hiew YZ, told TODAY that he believes that the political changes in the last three years have a significant part to play in the depreciating ringgit.
Before Mr Anwar Ibrahim became prime minister following the 2022 general election, Malaysia had had three prime ministers in as many years.
“Our prime minister has just held the position for a year. There’s still a lot of time until the next election, so hopefully, things will be better by then,” Mr Hiew said.
Retiree Chin AB, 76, said Malaysians should not “blame” Singaporeans for soaring prices because inflation is happening worldwide, not just in the country.
“Perhaps, yes, there will be some impact, but ultimately, Singaporeans coming over makes JB a livelier place,” he said.
WHAT DO BUSINESS OWNERS THINK?
TODAY’s interviews with several entrepreneurs found that while they had mixed views on Singapore’s impact on inflation in Johor, some did not think that the influx of Singaporeans is a significant reason behind rising prices.
Contrary to residents’ beliefs, some of these businesses were more concerned about domestic and external factors, such as the weakening ringgit, which has led to a spike in the cost of raw materials.
Triple K Cafe shop owner Keoh Teik Hoe, who serves beef noodles, said he gets his beef supply from Australia and New Zealand, and the suppliers trade in United States dollars.
Amid the continuing weakening of the ringgit this year, beef prices had increased by 20 per cent this year, he told TODAY. In October, the ringgit fell to a 25-year low against the US dollar.
Singaporeans make up 30 per cent of Mr Keoh’s customer base, while the rest are primarily locals and regular patrons.
“I cannot simply increase my prices. For now, I will still absorb the cost because I can still get by even with profits going down by 30 per cent.”
Mr Keoh was adamant in his belief that “it is not right” for business owners to adjust their prices “just because” Singaporeans can afford the higher prices.
“Then what about the locals? Yes, Singaporeans have higher spending power, but they are only here on weekends. The locals here can visit your business several times a week because they live here,” he said.
Third-generation owner of Hiap Joo Bakery, Mr Lim Toh Huei, 35, said the prices of bananas had shot up after the MCO, so the bakery had to increase its banana bread prices from RM10 to RM12 last year.
“You can get 1kg of bananas for RM2.50 previously, but now it costs RM4.50 to RM5. The prices fluctuate, but since the last review, we don’t plan to change our pricing again for now. We can still bear the costs first,” he said.
Mr Lim, whose business is largely patronised by Singaporeans on weekends, said Johor Bahru is “definitely impacted” by Singaporeans pouring into the city.
“For businesses like mine, it’s good. But for the rest of us, it means we need to continue working hard to put food on the table.
“Now that times are tougher, I think it’s important for everyone, especially young adults, to come out and work to earn their keep because there’s no such thing as a free lunch in this world,” he said.
Domestically, Dr Ferlito said Malaysia has been impacted by China’s economic slowdown. “China was particularly ‘suicidal’ in its policies on the lockdowns, and now it’s paying the cost. You cannot switch on and off the economy like it was a car or an engine.”
Since Malaysia is an important trade partner of China, he said: “The weakening of China directly affects Malaysia.”
Asked what the Malaysian government can do to help citizens, Dr Ferlito said it is vital for Malaysia to adopt business- and market-friendly solutions for the economy to gain strength on its own.
“Giving cash handouts might seem like a politically appealing manoeuvre, but this actually makes people poorer because, in the end, everything will become more expensive.”
On its part, the Johor state government has announced various schemes to help residents cope with inflation.
These include a RM300 monthly allowance given to Johor fishermen and a rice aid programme where all households are entitled to a 10kg bag of rice. Married couples get relief with a one-off RM1,000 financial assistance under a programme for newlyweds.
In announcing a RM1.8 billion budget for 2024 on Nov 23, Johor chief minister Onn Hafiz Ghazi said: “We understand that the rakyat (Malay for people) is facing hardships such as the high cost of living, with necessities becoming more expensive and the drop in ringgit value, which have contributed to the rising cost of living.
“The 2024 state budget was planned as a continuation of our effort to develop Johor’s economy for the well-being of the Bangsa Johor people,” he added.
The state has set aside more than RM300 million in the Johor 2024 Budget to assist residents who fall within the lowest 40 per cent category by income.
A TALE OF TWO CITIES’ SYMBIOTIC TIES
While the jury is still out on the extent to which Singaporeans have contributed to rising prices in Johor Bahru, the symbiotic relationship between the two cities linked by the Causeway cannot be denied.
That relationship became most pronounced when the pandemic forced both places to close off their borders to visitors.
Shopping malls and the surrounding tourist enclaves in Johor Bahru were empty, with nary a soul in sight save for retail staff.
“It’s clear that the shops there exist to cater to the needs of Singaporeans,” said Mr Hazree Mohd Turee, managing director of BGA Malaysia. BGA, short for BowerGroupAsia, works with companies across various sectors to provide solutions and help them strategise and expand.
Now that demand has gone back up after Covid-19 restrictions were lifted, it is no surprise that people from Singapore are crossing the Causeway in droves, eager to buy groceries and household items at a lower cost again.