Making waves down south

SINGAPORE does not easily get rattled by the movers and shakers in Johor. Frankly, the economic powerhouse could not be bothered by what happens on this side of the causeway. But occasionally, we do manage to cause ripples across the Johor Straits. And when that happens, Singapore sits up, takes notice and unleashes its counter action.

One such episode is the shock waves we created when the Port of Tanjung Pelepas (PTP) lured two of Port of Singapore Authority's (PSA) biggest clients – Maersk Sealand and Evergreen Marine Corporation – to exit from the island.

Maersk Sealand, the world's largest container ship operator, took a 30% equity stake in PTP's holding company, Seaport Terminal in a deal concluded on Aug 17, 2000, effectively shifting all of Maersk's operations to the new port from Singapore by the end of that year.

Maersk was once the largest operator in Singapore, and the shift represented a 10% drop in business there.

Following suit, in 2002, Evergreen Marine Corp, then the world's second largest shipping company after Maersk, also shifted its operations to PTP from Singapore.

This raised alarm bells in the Singapore port, with speculation in the shipping community that Evergreen's endorsement of PTP demonstrated that Maersk's move may not be an isolated one.

Other lines have also since started direct services at PTP.

Although our southern neighbours will never acknowledge this, the PTP coup did indeed shake up the republic because PSA is the lifeline of the Singapore economy and any threat to this is taken seriously.

More recently, the emergence of Pengerang as the region's newest oil and gas hub is also worrying Singapore because this new Johor installation has what it takes to give Jurong Island a run for its money.

Jurong Island, the 32 sq km (12.4 sq mile) offshore hub, is home to 96 global petroleum, petrochemicals and specialty chemicals companies. But a scarcity of land, however, has stymied the city-state's growth of the business.

This is why Pengerang is such an attractive proposition to investors there. With the opening of the Pengerang Independent Petroleum Terminal, there is now tremendous "pull" for the relocation of players in Jurong Island.

Cost savings aside, Pengerang is also strategically located along international shipping routes, has deep water port facilities of up to 24m draft and is close to petroleum production and demand centres in the Middle East, India and China.

So naturally, Singapore must be on pins and needles about the real possibility of an exodus of potential investments from Jurong Island.

The southern growth corridor, Iskandar Malaysia, is another thorn in the flesh of Singapore, especially the fabulous waterfront properties, including hotels, high-end condos, shopping malls and a host of other public amenities coming up along Danga Bay and stretching to the Tebrau-Plentong Basin, on the eastern side of the Causeway.

With mega Chinese investors now spearheading some of these exciting new developments, a new integrated waterfront city is in the making in JB, which obviously poses a threat to Singapore's booming tourist industry.

While previously the island republic was indifferent to the happenings on this side of the causeway, today they are scrambling to contain the damage and stem the possible outflow of foreign exchange from the country.

A case in point is the sudden flurry of activity in Woodlands – one of the most "ulu" districts in the northern part of Singapore, which for years has thrived primarily on the patronage of Malaysians working in the republic.

This part of Singapore has not seen much development over the years. Indeed, most Singaporeans hardly even go to Woodlands because it has never been a "happening" place.

But all that is going to change.

Call it a knee-jerk reaction to Iskandar Malaysia, if you like, but suddenly big plans have been unveiled for Woodlands (ostensibly to fend off the competition from Danga Bay and other waterfront developments in JB).

This includes a new northern gateway to Singapore, otherwise known as the Woodlands Regional Centre, which among others will include retail, business, residential and lifestyle elements spread over two districts – Woodlands Central and Woodlands North Coast.

This major development will put Woodlands in the same ranks as the Jurong and Tampines Regional Centre which have undergone successful transformations.

But what is beguiling about this is that the Woodlands Regional Centre will have a coastal waterfront setting.

Indeed, when completed residents in Woodlands can look forward to the stunning views of the Straits of Johor, something that only the residents in Marina Bay and Sentosa Cove enjoy at the moment.

Indeed, according to Singapore's Urban Redevelopment Authority's Draft Master Plan 2013, the Woodlands Waterfront will be expanded eastwards so that the entire waterfront area can be opened for the public to enjoy.

New and sensitively designed residential developments will be built along the expanded waterfront park. The shipyard in Sembawang will also be relocated to create more waterfront sites.

Plans are also afoot to create a new commercial belt incorporating Woodlands, Sembawang, Seletar, Punggol and Sengkang West which will see a buzzing pool of research and development activities here.

Undoubtedly these plans are in direct response to the "action" taking place in Iskandar Malaysia. While there is nothing Johor can do about it, it is still good to know we can cause ripples in Singapore.

Roy, a long-time resident of JB, is a keen watcher of economic, political and social trends on both sides of the Johor Straits. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com