JB-S’pore water taxis?

HOW'S that an idea? We keep talking about grandiose cross-border projects like a new (third) friendship bridge, high-speed train and even an MRT, but the obvious seems rather oblivious to our leaders.

What is so unique about Johor and Singapore is that we are only separated by a thin strip of water. At some points, this distance between us is hardly 50m, which perhaps explains why Singapore's infamous fugitive Mat Selamat Kastari managed to literally swim across the straits for a brief refuge in Johor Baru back in May 2009.

We now have three crossings into Singapore – the Causeway built in 1924, the Malaysia-Singapore Second Link which opened in May 1998, and the Railway Crossing, which now ends in Woodlands, instead of Tanjung Pagar previously.

Unknown to many, there is also a sea crossing between Tanjung Belungkor near Desaru and Changi Point near Changi Village in the northeast of Singapore.

This facility, when introduced in 1993, came with a RoRo (roll-on/roll-off) ferry service, which enabled Singaporeans to bring their cars into Johor. However, this was terminated in 2002.

But strangely, despite the abundance of water there has been no concerted plan of action by either the government of the day or the private sector to launch a water taxi service between the two neighbours.

With more than 100,000 cars, motorcycles, buses and lorries plying the Causeway daily, and the multitude of people who make the crossing every day for work, leisure or pleasure, there is certainly a compelling reason to find alternative modes of transport to ease the congestion.

And water taxis would be ideal ... they are cheap to operate, do not require sophisticated infrastructure, tariffs are low and most importantly, able to move great numbers of people with relative ease between two points.

The public can also choose various landing points according to their convenience ... Stulang Laut to Sembawang, Danga Bay to Keranji, Puteri Harbour to Raffles Marina or even between Pengerang and Changi Point.

Depending on where you take the water taxi, the journey should not take more than 30 minutes at most to make the crossing. For the average motorist who agonises for hours daily on the causeway due to horrendous traffic jams, this would truly be a godsend.

With the massive waterfront developments planned for the entire 8km stretch of Danga Bay, it would indeed be a marvellous idea to introduce water taxi services ... not just as an alternative mode of transport for commuters, but also to spur tourism through scenic river cruises.

Indeed, Danga Bay built a landing point complete with customs and immigration checkpoint facilities in the hope of launching this service in big way. But the plans were scuttled by the hawks in Iskandar Malaysia, who wanted it moved to Puteri Harbour.

A grand and expensive ferry terminal has since opened there, but it has become a virtual white elephant with hardly enough patronage to justify its continued existence.

JB residents may also be familiar with the Danga Cruise Ship, which plys the Johor Straits every night. This is hugely popular with families, for it offers a unique dining and cruise experience.

Indeed, water taxis are common in most Asian countries. Nearer home, almost everyone would have heard of the enormously popular Singapore River Cruise which covers some 16 landing points along the Singapore River and eight in Marina Bay, for a flat rate of S$3 for a one-way trip.

To cater to those working in the Singapore Central Business District, water taxi services there operate at 20-minute intervals every day from 7am to 10pm, and at 10-minute intervals during peak hours.

In Bangkok, everybody knows the city is impossible to navigate. People who travel by road find bottlenecks everywhere. Hence, the penchant to switch to water taxis, which provide a taste of the canals and the wide Chao Phraya River that punctuates the city's geography.

This service has become so popular that many Thai operators have now opted for more expensive tourist boats or long-tail charters.

In Jakarta, the administrators not too long ago also introduced water taxis as part of an environmental campaign to raise awareness about the need to keep the river systems clean. It has now become a creative and entertaining way of educating the public on the importance of keeping the rivers clean. How clever!

Indonesia's rivers, like ours at home, are heavily polluted because locals prefer to build their houses along riverbanks and dump rubbish into the water.

We really need to change our mindset and find new ways of turning our waterways into a modern and convenient mode of transport.

The question is why are we not doing it when it is so practical as well as fun.

Roy is a keen watcher of trends on both sides of the Johor Straits. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com