Darren Chin gave up a 15-minute train
journey to his office in Singapore for a two-hour drive with a
stop at passport control. The reason: By commuting from Malaysia,
he can afford his own two-story home and car.
“It’s worth it,” said the Malaysian financial adviser,
who leaves his house before 6:45 a.m. to get to his job at
Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. (OCBC) on time. “I’m saving on rent and
I’m paying for my own house.”
Chin is part of the expansion of Southeast Asia’s richest
city across its borders as residents and companies seek property,
labor and amenities, often at half the cost or less. The result
is a three-nation urban complex with a population bigger than
London and an economy that would rank as one of the fastest-growing in the region.
“Without the regional perspective it would be a lot more
difficult, if at all possible, for Singapore to maintain the
role that it has as a global city,” said Milica Topalovic, an
associate professor at Future Cities Laboratory in Singapore.
“Most of the pressing questions that Singapore has today — of
land, of workforce, of aging — can be solved easily in a
Combine the dominant forces of the 21st-century economy –
globalization and urbanization — and the result is a metropolis
that crosses borders, cultures and currencies. Southeast Asia’s
prime example is known as Sijori, an acronym derived from
Singapore, the neighboring Malaysian state of Johor, and
Indonesia’s Riau Islands.
For an island-state at its limits, access to land and labor
in neighbors that were once arch-rivals is crucial. Economic
growth and soaring immigration have strained Singapore’s
resources, making it one of the most expensive places to live in
Singapore’s population density rose to 7,540 per square
kilometer in 2013, closing in on New York’s 10,425. The Ion mall
in the Orchard Road shopping district descends four stories into
the ground, and the government is exploring building underground
storage, transport hubs and shopping areas.
The island, whose $290 billion economy is bigger than that
of Nigeria, the Philippines or Greece, has seen its population
surge by almost a third in the past decade to 5.4 million. Add
Johor and the Riau islands, and the number was about 10.1
million in 2010, according to estimates by Aris Ananta, a senior
research fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in
Singapore. That could rise to 18 million by 2030, he said.
The Sijori triangle’s economy will expand 5.7 percent
annually in 2013-2020, compared with an average of 4.2 percent
for Singapore, show forecasts by Toh Mun Heng, an associate
professor at the National University of Singapore Business
Relations among the countries weren’t always cordial.
Singapore and Malaysia were part of the same union for two years
after independence from Britain until the city-state was ousted
in 1965 by the leaders in Kuala Lumpur. Colonial bonds remained
in the form of a pipeline from Malaysia that still supplies
about half Singapore’s fresh water and a railway that ran across
the island, but was owned by Malaysia until 2011.
Those links caused decades of squabbles between the two
nations as the fledgling countries competed in economic
development. In 1997, former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew apologized after describing Johor as “notorious for
shootings, muggings and carjackings.”
His son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has developed a
stronger relationship with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak,
solving the rail dispute and encouraging joint development.
We’re “trying to manage the consumption of scarce
resources, like water, energy, and pricing them properly so
people have the incentive to save and not waste these
resources,” Lee said on June 1 at the opening of the World
Cities Summit in Singapore.
With cheaper land plentiful in southern Malaysia, money is
pouring across the border. Singapore has invested at least 11
billion ringgit ($3.4 billion) in Iskandar Malaysia, a special
economic zone in southern Johor established in 2006 that’s three
times the size of the city.
Khazanah Nasional Bhd. and Temasek Holdings Pte, the state-owned investment companies of Malaysia and Singapore are
developing projects including a 210-acre area that will comprise
a wellness center, apartments, malls and spas valued at about 3
billion ringgit ($930 million).
“There’s a natural economic dynamic that will make a lot
of Singaporeans invest in Johor Bahru,” said Francis Yeoh,
managing director of one of Malaysia’s biggest builders, YTL
Corp. “It’s quite a good time to invest in property.”
A five-bedroom, two-story home with private pool in
Iskandar was advertised last month for 3.9 million ringgit. A
similar-sized home on Singapore’s prime Sentosa district with a
waterfront view was on sale for about 15 times as much.
The tri-nation super-city does have some unique problems.
With only two road links to Malaysia, rush-hour traffic can
cause delays of 90 minutes or more at immigration. More than
130,000 vehicles a day cross the kilometer-long Causeway, built
in 1923, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean told
parliament in February. The second route, a bridge opened in
1998, has the capacity to take another 200,000.
“I try to leave Singapore as late as possible, or the
traffic is very bad,” said Chan Ong Yong, a Malaysian truck
driver who lives in Johor and works in Singapore delivering and
installing sheet glass. “If I lived in Singapore, the rent
would be too high and school would be too expensive.”
Chan, a 30-year-old father of three, earns about S$3,000
($2,393) a month, twice what he would get in Malaysia. The cost:
Some nights, he doesn’t get home until after 11 p.m.
“Sometimes I fight with my wife because I spend so little
time at home,” Chan said.
Commuters like Chan face two stops for passport control and
customs each way, with vehicles frequently searched for
contraband goods that are cheaper in Malaysia. Singapore-registered cars entering Malaysia are required to have fuel
tanks at least three-quarters full, as gasoline is less than
half the price across the Causeway.
Developers and businesses also face currency risks and the
need to deal with different legal systems. Singapore’s dollar
has risen about 4 percent against the ringgit in the past year
and 20 percent against Indonesia’s rupiah, making the satellites
even more of a relative bargain.
Less than an hour from Singapore by fast ferry across the
Singapore Strait, one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, the
Indonesian islands of Batam and Bintan, two of the largest of
the Riau Islands, also are booming.
Singapore-listed Amtek Engineering Ltd. completed moving
all its manufacturing operations to Batam in October and expects
lower costs to improve profits after about a year, according to
Chief Executive Officer Daniel Yeong.
“The cost is by far lower,” Yeong said in an interview on
May 7. “It’s a 45-minute ferry away. I don’t have to lose any
of the high-quality people.”
Gallant operates ferries between the islands as well as
managing a stretch of resorts on Bintan’s north coast that
includes a Club Med, an elephant park and golf courses designed
by Greg Norman, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
Last October, it began marketing 139 villas as vacation or
retirement homes, with two-bedroom units starting at S$770,000.
Access to the resorts area is restricted to resort guests and
employees, according to Gallant’s website.
“The region as a whole maybe in terms of culture, tourism,
might be seen increasingly as one entity,” said Topalovic from
Future Cities Laboratory.
For OCBC’s Chin, who used to lease a room for himself in a
Singapore public-housing block and now has a four-bedroom house,
the benefits are worth the inconvenience.
“I’ve got more control on where I want to go,” he said.
“I couldn’t afford a car in Singapore.”
To contact the reporter on this story:
Sharon Chen in Singapore at
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Adam Majendie at
Stephanie Phang at
Cut-Price Luxury Homes Fuel Singapore Tri-Nation Sprawl