On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

A Catch-22 but Johoreans plod on

One MP said that a coffeeshop owner had approached him for help after having lost a bundle in the stock market.

“I told him there was nothing I could do. He was not the only one hit by the depressed stock market. I, myself, have been affected.

“He clarified that he wasn't asking me to bail him out financially but to mediate with his tai yee loong (loan shark) to stop him from being beaten up after defaulting on his loan payments,'' the MP said.

The other MP spoke of how one of his constituents had complained about the increasing high cost of living in Johor, saying politicians should know what they are talking about.

“The retired clerk, who lives on his pension, said it's fine for leaders to talk about economic policies and other bigger things but they should not forget how much basic items cost now.

“He gave me an earful, asking me to tell the higher-ups in Kuala Lumpur that the small people from Johor have been buying local products for years.

“He also insisted I bring up continuously in Parliament the high cost of living in our state.''

For Johoreans, the weak ringgit has been both a boon and bane. The state already has a reputation for being the most expensive one in the country.

The prices of many household necessities, such as fish and vegetables, in Johor markets are higher than in other states.

That, however, has not stopped many Singaporeans from shopping in the state and pushing prices up further.

It's a Catch 22 situation. The presence of Singaporeans in the state has contributed substantially to the Johor economy.

The high exchange rate and the demand for goods from these islanders have led to undue profiteering by Johorean traders.

This scenario has been going on for years. It's an old story except that this time, things have become more complicated and emotional because of the currency situation.

The Johor Government, for example, talks about launching a retail sales campaign to woo Singaporeans to shop there. At the same time, the Government has to grapple with local resentment towards Singaporeans buying essential  items.

One hears of civil servants earning RM1,000 having to hold two jobs to make ends meet. After office hours, they moonlight as taxi drivers, security guards, part-time hotel staff and even pub singers.

At the pasar malam, these civil servants are also prevalent; they either conduct their own business or help their spouses or family members sell ulam, traditional medicine or plastic goods.

These efforts, though seemingly menial, are done to earn the extra buck which can help ease the tight financial situation.

Housing is a pressing problem in the state, particularly for the middle-class who do not qualify for low-cost housing but are too poor to  buy houses costing RM100,000 and above.

Singaporeans cross the Causeway daily for almost everything, from buying groceries to burial lots in Kulai.

Shopowners prefer dealing with cash-rich Singaporeans who buy in quantity and spend freely.

Many Johoreans also cross the link each day to work in Singapore, earning the kind of salaries they cannot find in Malaysia.

A sizeable number of Johoreans send their children to schools in  Singapore, even at primary level, taking advantage of the quality  educational facilities in the republic.

Singaporeans and Johoreans have this love-hate relationship. The economy aside, when diplomatic ties turn prickly at times, Malaysians down south feel it the most.

Johoreans have better access to Singapore media coverage about Malaysia. They question why Malaysian leaders are sometimes not accorded the same respect and sensitivity given by the Malaysian media to their Singaporean counterparts.

There is much at stake for both sides. Almost everything is inter linked and sometimes, as neighbours, we take things for granted and forget the larger picture.

The need to treat issues delicately needs to be re-emphasised, especially during the present rough economic patch which both countries are experiencing together.

But not everybody is frowning in Johor. There is a price war among  traders selling pirated CD-ROMs and VCDs.

“Not everything is expensive in Johor. We sell CD-ROMs and VCDs between RM5 and RM8 each. It's probably the cheapest in Malaysia,'' said one shopkeeper.

It was already near closing time but one shopping complex in Jalan  Harimau Tarum was still packed with Johorean and Singaporean bargain-hunters.

At Senai, about 40km from Johor Baru, the oil-palm growers are smiling. The commodity has enjoyed a price increase in ringgit terms against the backdrop of a depreciating ringgit, with an increase of between RM1,700 and RM1,800 per tonne.

Their hopes are high because the sentiment is that palm oil should be  traded at RM2,000 a tonne in the international market.

Despite the gloom generally prevailing among Malaysians who have taken a beating with the currency and stock market problems, one can still detect energy and enthusiasm in Johor.

Over a drink at a hotel in Taman Century, a remisier who had been  suspended from trading was still in a mood to talk about certain attractive counters.

“Look at those counters dealing in commodities. If you have the money, go in now, don't regret later,'' he advised.