View of Singapore from across the Straits

A couple of days before Christmas last year, I had the pleasure to hear from Jeevan Singh, the Consul-General of the Republic of Singapore in Johor Baru.

My view of the delegates in the Forum, seated in
 my place with the panelists, in front of them.
CG Jeevan reminded me that our paths had crossed in 2014 when I published my story (NST Streets Johor, 10 June 2014) on the United Sikhs’ humanitarian walk in which he and other members of the JB Consulate-General of the Republic of Singapore took part.

Then CG Jeevan went on to tell me about a delegation of Singapore civil servants who will be making a study visit to Johor in mid-January 2020 as part of the Specialised Understanding of Malaysia and Indonesia (SUMI) course organized by the Singapore Civil Service College.

SUMI is a programme aimed at helping middle managers in Singapore’s civil service gain a deeper understanding of Malaysia and Indonesia.

He explained that this study visit is a crucial component of the course, which will help the participants appreciate first-hand, the history and depth of Singapore’s relationship with Johor.

He then invited me to be part of the panel of speakers in an informal, closed-door discussion with the participants on the topic, Across the Straits: Johor’s View of Singapore.

CG Jeevan hoped that I will consider his invitation favourably and expressed his anticipation of my view as author of the My Johor Stories series of books, to provide my thoughts from the human and familial angle.

He explained that each panelist will speak for about 10 minutes on their view of Singapore and the Singapore-Johor relationship, before participating in an interactive Question and Answer session with the delegation.

His telephone call was followed by an official letter of invitation dated Dec 30 and a handwritten note that read, “Truly appreciate your willingness to speak to our civil servants.”

In the follow-up discussion with the Consul members from the office of the Consulate-General of the Republic of Singapore in JB, I began to understand that they were aiming to capture different perspectives of how Johoreans perceived Singapore and Singaporeans from three panelists.

Closer to that date, I was informed that my fellow panel members in this Forum were politician, YB Cheo Yee How, Assemblyman for Perling, and businessman, Anthony Tan Boon Siong, Managing Director of Leep Thye Trading & Transport.

Meanwhile I pondered over this, recognizing it as a huge responsibility weighing heavily upon my shoulders because my voice at this Forum was going to represent the common view of Johoreans.

In the course of my work, I meet with a wide range of people and have learnt to listen when they talked. I soon realized that this formed a wealth of resource for me.

As I mulled over this, I recalled snippets of conversations while interesting comments and incidents published in the news, started to pop into my mind.

I then linked together all the bits and pieces and compiled it into a simple presentation to share with the delegation in the given 10 minutes.

In the run-up to the date for the Forum, I was reminded that this was an informal, closed-door discussion and encouraged to share my views honestly.

I could probably read and refer to my notes for this presentation but more importantly, I not only wanted to provide an honest view but also a constructive one.

On the day of the Forum, I was met by CG Jeevan and Consul members along with the other two panelists, YB Cheo and Anthony Tan, for coffee in a holding area while the delegation completed their earlier session.

YB Cheo was accompanied by the Counciller for Johor Bahru City Council, Febrius Sim and Counciller for Iskandar Puteri City Council, Ang Yien Meei.

In response to my query, CG Jeevan said that this delegation was made up of some 50 civil servants aged between 25 and 45, one of the largest groups they had so far.

He explained that the delegation was on a day trip to JB with an itinerary that included a visit to a manufacturing plant of a familiar Singapore branded product based here and will end with dinner at Puteri Harbour.

I was glad that this delegation will drive through Iskandar Puteri and get a glimpse of the new developments happening here.

Based on my assumption (which turned out right!) that most of the delegates have made personal excursions to JB, mainly to the malls and heritage quarter, I guessed most of them may not have ventured further to Iskandar Puteri.

Then we were ushered into the meeting room, where CG Jeevan had the role of Moderator. He started with a brief introduction of each member of the panel.

The Forum Moderator, CG Jeevan Singh [Right] with
panelists [Left to Right] YB Cheo Yee How,
myself and Anthony Tan
Each panelist was invited to speak, beginning with YB Cheo, followed by me, with Anthony as the final speaker.

In my presentation, I took the delegates on a historic journey by reminding them that the Johor Empire once covered a large area encompassing the southern part of the Malay Peninsular including Pahang in the the North, part of Sumatra in the West and to the South, Singapore and the islands in the Riau Archilpelago.

The influx of Arab traders, Javanese, Bugis, Chinese and Indian (plus Sikh!) immigrants as well as the arrival of the British and other Europeans, created a melting pot of cultures from great civilizations that resulted in an interesting culture and culinary heritage.

I wanted to establish the fact that Malaysia and Singapore were once ONE country.

We share a COMMON history and SIMILAR culture heritage. In fact, our Johor Ruler used to administer from Telok Blangah in Singapore before the state administrative centre was moved to Iskandar Puteri, the former name of Johor Baru.

I said we are like brothers but somewhere along the way, we went our separate ways and each developed at a different pace.

And just like brothers or siblings, we have our squabbles but we make up and try to get along with each other because in the Asian context, our blood is thicker than water.

When I asked (by a show of hands) if they had relatives here, we saw from the raised hands that many of the delegates have family members who live on both sides of the causeway.

Johor is now linked to Singapore by the Second Link bridge and the Causeway that spans only 1km across the Johor Straits and we have a border crossing which can be counted among the busiest in the world.

They laughed when I mentioned that Singaporeans can be easily be identified by their dressing, their language and of course, their large shopping bags, backpacks and drag-bags! Some even use cabin bags!

And they liked to queue!

When I mentioned the crowd seen queuing up at Hiap Joo bakery to buy woodfire baked banana cake to eat and to take-away, many chuckled…

I observed how the delegates listened intently to the speakers while some were jotting down copious notes, probably preparing their questions to ask later.

Saifudin Hamsuri from the Civil Service College
presented souvenirs as a token of appreciation
When all three panelists had spoken, CS Jeevan thanked us and succinctly summed up, citing two sides to that proverbial coin:

While Johor depended on the Singapore Dollar to boost its economy, there was a dark side to Singaporeans who do misbehave when they were outside their country.

Then the Q & A session was opened, and questions invited from the delegates.

Those who raised their hands to ask a question had to state their name and the department or ministry they were from before asking their questions.

What ensued was a lively session where the panelists took turns to respond to their burning questions with interesting and informative replies.

As the Forum Moderator, CG Jeevan kept a close watch on the time because the delegates would proceed to lunch before leaving on their day-long itinerary in JB.

Then someone announced that as a special treat, they will have a taste of the popular woodfire baked banana cake bought from Hiap Joo bakery, and the delegates responded with loud cheers!

The Forum ended with a presentation of souvenirs to the panelists by Saifudin Hamsuri from the Civil Service College and a word of thanks from CG Jeevan.

One for the album, CG Jeevan Singh, the panelists and members of the delegation at the Forum
It was indeed my privilege to be part of this distinguished panel and to be the voice of Johoreans in sharing a human perspective of how Singapore and Singaporeans were viewed from across the Straits.

Thank you, CG Jeevan! I’m looking forward to more conversations that will help strengthen the Johor-Singapore relationship.