Speed train
And population
When Malaysia’s capital is 90 minutes away, can it help reduce our need for a bigger population? By Seah Chiang Nee
Jun 30, 2013

(Synopsis: Speeding into new frontiers – The new fast travel will bring in more opportunities for both Malaysia and Singapore.

BY 2020, Singapore – with a proposed 6,000,000 population – may be linked by a fast train arriving from Kuala Lumpur in just 90 minutes.

For many commuters from Johor towns, the travelling time will be a lot shorter.

Meanwhile, an agreement has already been reached to extend Singapore’s mass rapid transit (MRT) to Johor Baru.

The new rail connection will not only be a new social and economic link for the two countries, but could also help resolve Singapore’s manpower shortage.

With some planning, it may reduce Singapore’s requirement for more foreign workers within its over-crowded space – if enough Malaysians find it attractive to commute here to work.

For many Malaysians, it would offer new job options, allowing people from as far away as Kuala Lumpur to work without having to live in Singapore and paying its exorbitant rents and high cost of living.

Working in Singapore is, of course, not every one’s cup of tea.

But for some, the idea of earning Singapore dollars while living and spending money in Malaysia with its cheaper living costs may be an attractive one.

Right now, Malaysians make up the largest proportion of the estimated 553,000 permanent residents (PRs) here.

The large majority has declined to take up Singapore citizenship and many have said that their hearts remain in Malaysia.

However, they would prefer to continue to work or study in Singapore as PRs.

The starting date for building the speed train is not known, but completing it by 2020 is the target.

Many of my Singaporean and Malaysian friends are looking forward to it. Singapore needs manpower and space, while Malaysians could do with more job and business options.

In fact, some parents prefer that their kids study on the island.

Most people in Singapore probably prefer to resolve their country’s manpower shortage in this way if possible, rather than continue to import hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Indians and Filipinos into the densely populated island.

For people in the Federal capital, spending 90 minutes on a rail trip to Singapore (compared to the current five hours by road) isn’t an impossibly long trip.

It is just about what many suburban Japanese spend travelling to work in central Tokyo every day.

Five towns in Malaysia were reported to be earmarked as “stop stations” in the initial plan for the high-speed rail link.

They are Seremban (Negri Sembilan), Ayer Keroh (Malacca) as well as Muar, Batu Pahat and Iskandar Malaysia in Johor, according to the Transport Ministry.

Many Malaysians who currently work in Singapore or potentially may decide to work in Singapore live in these places.

Increasingly Singaporeans have been protesting against their government’s immigration policy, particularly that of the proposed six-million population by 2020.

In fact, a government White Paper, which has been approved by Parliament – but strongly opposed by the public - talks of a 6.9-million population by 2030.

All this government-people tug-of-war in Singapore is being watched by the Malaysian PRs with growing concern.

Four years ago when public feelings here were beginning to rise, some Malaysian friends had expressed their fear to me that this backlash might one day affect them.

Historically, Malaysians had made up the largest number of permanent residents in Singapore, many having arrived since the separation in 1965.

Even before many of today’s Chinese, Indian and Philippine professionals began to arrive, the Malaysians were already a large part of the landscape and a major contributor to this economy.

But as the trend intensified and local anger rose, many Malaysians began to feel uneasy and were worried that it could result in restrictions against foreigners – including them.

In 2009, quite a few spoke of their worries to me. The Malaysians, who once shared this country with Singaporeans and still occupy a special place in their hearts, were uneasy that their lives here would change for the worse.

Their concern was not misplaced. Since then the government has reacted to placate public feelings, and foreign workers had found it harder to get work approvals here.

They feared that there was now a closed door policy. For example, in 2009 Singapore had 533,000 PRs – or a rise of 146,000 or 37.7% over the previous four years. However, between 2009 and 2012, only 20,000 PRs were granted.

It wasn’t only the fewer numbers, but the reduced subsidies in healthcare and children’s education as well.

Earlier this year, Singapore got tough on foreign property buyers, including PRs, by imposing additional stamp duty of up to 15% for non-Singaporeans in order to cool the booming market.

Slowly the pressure has grown. Malaysian PRs working here now fear that with such strong public sentiments, things may become worse as Singapore heads for a general election in 2016.

Until now PRs in Singapore have had plenty of official support.

It is one of the few places where they are classified together as “Singapore residents” with Singaporean citizens.

In most official statistics, PRs are described as part of the local citizenry.

For example, when a government official says that 70% of workers in the two casinos are locals, he means they are Singaporeans and PRs - even though foreigners may form the majority.

In most countries, a PR is half a citizen but remains an alien who is waiting for citizenship. Like the name suggests, he can stay in the country permanently.

In Singapore, a PR cannot vote but enjoys certain perks not given to foreigners, including cheaper fees and buying resale public flats.

He is spared from serving in the national service as required of an actual citizen. However, his children are not.

Despite all the pushes and pulls of politics, history will probably tell that most Singa­poreans are in favour for Malaysians here.

They will be still be closer than most others to Singaporean hearts.

(This article was first published in The Star, Malaysia)