Johor Bahru & Singapore: Is the conurbation defining megaregion in the South-East Asia?

Megaregion is a regional planning unit concept, and it is argued that larger geographical regional units such as megaregion are economically more competitive in terms of contributing towards the national economy. In the light of climate change, megaregions are also known to be developed and implemented as a strategy to consume optimum resources. While the traditional debates on megaregion argued about form versus function, and integration of economic activities, the contemporary debates are around emerged versus strategically planned megaregion to achieve economic growth through urbanization. For instance, Asian countries are known to strategically develop megaregions as part of their low carbon development strategy. A recent study explores the concept of megaregion in India through its new economic and industrial corridors (here). In this blog, some preliminary ideas are presented to explore whether Johor Bahru-Singapore conurbation can be evaluated as a megaregion. The interesting point is that it would be a transnational megaregion. Moreover, there would be strong rationale to think about how this is positioned in the Singapore-Malaysia-Indonesia triangle context (here).

Johor Bahru, a city located in the southernmost city of Peninsular Malaysia, used to be considered the backyard of Singapore until 1900s. The physical connection between Johor Bahru and Singapore, which can be crossed in 15 minutes by car, provided the traffic flow is smooth, is the only point of communication between Singapore and Malaysia (shown in picture). As shown in a media report in 2015, there are 296,000 pedestrians commuting to Singapore everyday. The approximate data on other vehicles are: 126,000 vehicles daily, including 4,000 trucks and lorries entering Singapore. There is a second link by road that has capacity of 200,000 vehicles per day and the approximate number of motorcycle users is 100,000.

The rationale for Johor Bahru to be backyard of Singapore is that it is convenient for one to work in Singapore, with a salary as large as three times of what they would earn in Malaysia and live in the neighbourhoods of Johor Bahru, from where it is convenient to commute to Singapore. This makes the transportation infrastructure between Johor Bahru and Singapore critical. In addition to above numbers, there are company buses that shuttle between JB Sentral and Singapore. With huge volume of traffic, congestion is one of the main issues the regional development authority has to deal with. In comparison to overall Iskandar region, the share of traffic volume in between Johor Bahru and Singapore is significant. It also takes almost six hours of daily commuting (both ways) in terms of door-to-door service.

However, with Malaysia’s aspiration to be amongst the developed countries and with the forecasted urban growth, there is a new trend of urbanization in progress. Iskandar Malaysia, which is the brand name adopted by the regional development authority (Iskandar Regional Development Authority), is being considered the gateway to Malaysia. Iskandar Malaysia was declared a Special Economic Zone in 2006. In addition, in line with Malaysia’s commitment towards reducing carbon emission, Iskandar Malaysia has developed a blue print for Low Carbon Society that mandates delivery of low carbon infrastructure, including public transport (here). Besides Iskandar Regional Development Authority’s Low Carbon Society Blueprint, there are two other planning framework of Johor Bahru, which are its structure plan and master plan. The structure plan of Johor Bahru also highlights its importance in Malaysia-Singapore-Indonesia triangle, and Johor Bahru is the node located in Malaysia. Acknowledging the need of mass transit project between Malaysia and Singapore, both governments have recently approved high-speed rail project between KL and Singapore (here), and another MRT project between Johor Bahru and Singapore (here). Further, the federal government of Malaysia has approved partial funding for a large-scale mass transit project on Bus Rapid Transit in the region that will be connected to HSR, easing the commute between these two cities/regions from 2021 (here). Hence, investment in strengthening the connection between Johor Bahru and Singapore can be placed in the wider framework of both Low Carbon Society Blueprint and Johor Bahru’s Structure plan. It is worth noting the importance of the Singapore-Malaysia (Johor)-Indonesia triangle that aims to improve the regional economic competitiveness to attract investors, and hence, Johor Bahru has taken a decision in favour of strengthening this regional connectivity, besides supporting the wider national interests that come from Kuala Lumpur region.

Following are some criteria to evaluate a megaregion and assessment of whether Johor Bahru-Singapore conurbation could be identified as a megaregion. It would be worth to look into the models of Johor Bahru-Singapore, and Shenzhen-Hongkong (which is considered a model for Johor Bahru-Singapore) in order to be able to define megaregion in the South East Asian context.

  1. Megaregion: Traditionally megaregions were identified based on population and geographic area. One main debate on the concept of megaregion is whether it is about economic integration or is it about accumulation of urban form. However, there is no magic figure. The link between Singapore and Malaysia is already established in the broader framework on Malaysia-Singapore-Indonesia context.
  2. Flow of people and goods: As reflected in media reports, approximately 300,000 people cross the border of Malaysia everyday to commute to their jobs in Singapore. However, such huge influx of people could be unidirectional for the purpose of jobs. The flow of people on economic grounds would be for tourism. Johor Bahru is considered as the gateway to Malaysia, and many tourists choose to travel to Malaysia from Singapore. For instance, Johor Bahru hosts many national level tourist festivals and sports festivals that attract additional huge number of tourists in a year.
  3. Investment in transport infrastructure (low carbon infrastructure: HSR and BRT within JB) is made to improve urban mobility both within and with other regions, both for flow of people and goods. The first rationale for investing in transport infrastructure is definitely on economic grounds, and by investing in low carbon infrastructure; the region is strategically implemented as a low carbon development.
  4. Challenges for Malaysia: Heavy investment in regional connectivity between Singapore (developed economy) and Johor Bahru (still in developing state) creates challenges for Johor Bahru, especially in terms of ensuring the interests of local people. Developments like forest city (here) raises questions on gentrification, which the planning authorities are also aware of. Besides local peoples’ financial capacity to own such property, their access to natural resources (such as sea beaches) is also threatened in the process of attracting external development and investment. This will also address the question of whose megaregion (attracting outsiders or for locals), how (through investment both in infrastructure and development) and why questions of megaregion (low carbon development, economic growth), as discussed in the academic literature (here).
  5. Differences in traditional development pattern: Singapore and Johor Bahru remain two regions with completely different development patterns as of now. In terms of public transport, while Singapore has a already developed a well-appreciated public transport system, and a supporting culture, Iskandar region is quite the opposite. The region grew based on automobiles like other cities in Malaysia, and there has been difference in development strategies between these two countries. It is to be noted how these two regions deal with their differences, while still being identified as a region, and what is the homogeneity.
  6. Focus on climate change and low carbon infrastructure: There is focus on low carbon infrastructure in terms of strategy and investment due to even Malaysia’s commitment towards reducing carbon emission.
  7. Does the megaregion also address the concern of climate change/ low carbon infrastructure? While megaregion remains an old concept, and it was not always related to low carbon development, it is to explore whether authorities consider this as a strategy to mitigate carbon emission and resource consumption, as many Asian countries do.
  8. Contribution towards the national economy: The main rationale behind promoting megaregion is its contribution towards national economy. This is the main point to explore both for Singapore and Malaysia.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank MIT-UTM Malaysia Sustainable Cities Program as I was based at University of Technology, Malaysia (UTM), Johor Bahru, for a semester as part of the program. I have spoken about Johor Bahru and Singapore relationship to a senior faculty at Faculty of Built Environment, UTM and to one of my colleagues for the fellowship, also based at UTM. I am thankful to them for the discussion and ideas.

Photo credit: online OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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