Food & Shopping, the siren call of Johor Bahru

We had just bought a couple of things and I wondered out loud, “if you think about it, its only the exchange rate that makes JB seem cheap…” Everyone nodded their head in agreement.

Singapore was too expensive for the new year break so we hoped across the short causeway to Johor Bahru in Malaysia to spend New Year over there. Whereas the 1st of January is a public holiday in most places, it is not a public holiday in Johor state in Malaysia, so it’s actually a good time to go explore the Malaysia city without coming unstuck with public holiday closures. It’s not that Malaysia is cheap, the cost of living in Malaysia is really high, we merely benefited from earning a salary in Singapore dollars and having a good exchange rate (at that point almost 1SGD to 3 MYR) at that time.

This matters a lot, although cost of living indices suggest that Singapore is more expensive, since when average income is factored in Singapore is not necessarily more expensive than Malaysia.

If Malaysia and Singapore are said to be silblings, than Johor Bahru and Singapore are separated twins. Why? Because the only time Johor Bahru and Singapore were under completely different administration is now. Throughout the history of Malaya, Singapore had always been a part, of Johor – usually the royal capital. Even during the Birtish era, after the two areas were split and the sultan of Johor moved from Singapore to Johor Bahru, it was extremely common to hear of traders who would have offices in Singapore and plantation in Johor. The split in administration however did not signal the death of thee bond, the human bond between these two places still exists. Many Singaporeans have relatives in Johor, many Johorians today make the daily trip across the crossway to work and study in Singapore, many Singaporeans live in Johor.

But humans realtions aside, what else is it about Johor that draws people across the causeway?

The answer says more about Singaporeans as a whole than it does about Johor Bahru, but the answer is really easy and obvious – shopping, cafe hunting, food and fun, not the history or culture of the city. Johor Bahru and Singapore are so similar in culture and so tied in history (it actually makes locgical sense to include part of Johor’s history into out history textbooks, I think), that going across the border feels like going to another part of the country, just nicer on the wallet.

A good exchange rate means that products that may cost the same monetary value in Malaysia would be much lesser when converted back to Singapore currency (not always though, but that’s for another post) and if there is anything to say about Singaporeans and shopping its that the generalised Singaporean is always sniffing for a good deal. Besides, finding the occasional nice gem that costs way less than what I’d be expected to pay sounds like a nice outing.

A good excahnge rate also means that food that would be otherwise prohibitive in Singapore suddenly becomes affordable in Johor Bahru. The clearest example perhaps are the seafood restaurants. Whereas most Singaporean seafood restaurants import their seafood, many Johorian ones are located at their own fishing kelongs so they have fresh seafood reared themsleves, sold at amazing prices (especially when converted).

That’s why seafood restaurants in Johor Bahru are all experts in preparing Singaporean styled seafood and Singaporean dishes such as Chili Crab and Black Pepper Crab for example. And they are also crazy packed with Singaporeans and locals. Whats not to like, the seafood is as fresh as can be – cooked right after you select it, the price is three times less than in Singapore, the flavour is not any less fragrant. The one we visited above is impossible to get to without a car, and yet Singaporeans somehow managed to find their way in. The service at these places were not good, but we weren’t there for the service.

But it’s not just seafood and shopping, Johor Bahru also provides a sense of respite from the unceasing blind march to progress that occurs down south in Singapore and offers a taste nostalgia and a very different sense of development. Instead of preserving their old city district in the colourful banality of tourist friendly get ups, the old town of JB is grimly but alive with the buzz of age-old activity continuing till this day.

Then there are the open air food centres sheltered by a large sheet of plastic, elements that speak to a Singapore that disappeared completely by the early 1990s.

This is not to say that Johor Bahru is backwards. Far from it, the city that is emerging is one that has learnt from the mistakes of Singapore (in the early 1960s-90s). We are just not focusing our trip on that narrative of Johor Bahru this time around.

The siren call of Johor Bahru beckoned us for a few days, and off we went. Having already written 9 articles about Johor Bahru, how many more can I write without sounding like a broken record? Come along and let’s see 😉


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