JOHOR BARU: The impending construction of a 1.2km pedestrian walkway linking Malaysia and Singapore at the Causeway has, since its announcement last month, received widespread praise for its outside-the-box concept.
Plans for the walkway, as well as a pledge to widen and lengthen the Causeway, build a passageway for vessels, expand the entrances at checkpoints, and other infrastructure improvements, were generally hailed as a turning point to fix the longstanding issues plaguing the crossing, which since 1924 had served as a major land link between Malaysia and its southern neighbour.
However, experts believe that these won’t be the magic bullet that will cure the Causeway’s traffic problems. The real solution instead lies in improving the Immigration process to cater to the heaving mass of 300,000 people who ply the Causeway daily, making it one of the busiest border crossings in the world.
The Special Committee on the Causeway Congestion, chaired by Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, during its first meeting in Putrajaya on Aug 21, had announced a slew of improvements, with an initial RM70 million allocation dedicated to the endeavours.
The lion’s share of the RM70 million, however, will go towards the Immigration Department, for better efficiency at immigration counters, staffing and other measures undertaken by the department.
Johor Works, Transport and Infrastructure Committee chairman Mohd Solihan Badri said the solution was less about the structure of the Causeway, and more about how to facilitate the clearance of a huge mass of people between the borders.
“This issue of congestion is not at the Causeway’s (structure). It’s about what happens at the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) complex.
“The issue is not the Causeway itself. Yes, that is where the route is, but we (state government) are more focused on what happens at the CIQ and where the checks are done. That is where the problem lies,” he told the New Straits Times.
Solihan said that was why much of the initial allocation to tackle the congestion was being channelled to the Immigration Department as it handled the bulk of the movement of people at the overland checkpoints.
“The funds will be used for the department’s plans to upgrade checkpoints.”
Motorcyclists scanning their Radio Frequency Identification at the Sultan Iskandar Building Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Complex in Johor Baru. -NSTP/File pic
He attended the special committee meeting as the official representative of Johor Menteri Besar Datuk Dr Sahruddin Jamal.
One of the most important decisions made at the meeting was in appointing the Home Ministry, which oversees the Immigration Department, to manage the multi-agency operations at the Sultan Iskandar Building (BSI) at the Causeway and Sultan Abu Bakar Complex (KSAB) at the Second Link.
The decision officially recognised the importance of the Immigration Department’s role, which has all the while led the operation committee comprising 22 agencies at BSI.
There are between 1,200 and 1,300 Immigration Department staff members at BSI.
The decision does not affect the maintenance of BSI, which remains under Advanced Maintenance Precision Management Sdn Bhd, which is appointed by the Prime Minister’s Department’s property management division.
Stulang assemblyman Andrew Chen, who heads a state government task force to monitor the congestion at the border, said federal funding had gone to measures to increase the number of Immigration staff.
“For example, the number of Immigration Department personnel at the Causeway has been increased.
“Between January and May, the number was increased by 163 and the number will continue to be increased periodically.
“Another measure being implemented is to combine the payment and Immigration counters at the vehicle lanes.
“This will enable drivers to stop at a single counter instead of the two counters they previously needed to go through for Immigration clearance and road charge payment. About RM5.3 million has been allocated for this purpose.”
The “single counter” idea had been mooted by the special task force. This and other suggestions were outlined in a report presented to the special committee.
He said the government had implemented or was implementing several suggestions in the report, which took six months to prepare.
“The setting up of the special committee shows the federal government’s commitment to solving the problem. It is a move in the right direction,” said Chen.
Issues that directly impact people who commute daily between Johor Baru and Singapore for work, study and other business remain a key concern for the Johor government.
Of particular note are the 100,000 to 150,000 people who cross the Causeway by foot daily, despite the absence of a proper pedestrian lane.
Solihan said the special committee had approved the construction of a covered walkway on the Malaysian side of the Causeway.
He said the Johor government received a proposal for the RM15 million structure walkway from a consultant, and it would soon forward it to the Works Ministry for consideration.
The pedestrian walkway will be built on top of the Malaysian-bound motorcycle lane. It consists of three levels for Singapore-bound pedestrians, Johor-bound pedestrians and a ground-level that will retain the current motorcycle lane.
The NST obtained an initial artist’s impression of the walkway, which revealed that it will be 8.75m high and 2.15m wide with escalators built at the entrances.
Solihan said construction could start as early as next year and be completed within 18 months.
“The walkway will stretch from BSI to the halfway point of the Causeway.
“I have asked the Public Works Department to engage the consultant (who forwarded the proposal) and to prepare to take the plan to the federal level.
“But in principle, the federal government has agreed to it.”
On June 19, a spokesman for Singapore’s Transport Ministry welcomed Malaysia’s proposed walkway, and said it was committed to working with Malaysia to find solutions to resolve the congestion.
For the record, there is a pedestrian walkway, located beside the vehicular lane on the Singapore side of the Causeway.
Solihan said the state government would propose that the road approaching and exiting the CIQ be widened.
“The Eastern Dispersal Link, which was built to ease traffic flow to the CIQ, has not fulfilled that purpose because the multiple lanes are reduced to two lanes when motorists enter BSI.”
The lack of signages at the checkpoint is problematic too, and the Johor Baru City Council has been urged to add more signs to warn motorists and pedestrians at the route.
Chen said it was very important for the government to quickly resolve issues at the Causeway due to the huge impact it had on the economy.
“Out of the hundreds of thousands of people who cross the Causeway daily, at least 35,000 of them comprise Singaporeans who come to Johor. Singaporeans would spend money to eat and shop, which improves the local economy.
“If we could solve the congestion problem, more people from the republic would come to Johor, which in turn would create a more vibrant economy in the state,” said Chen, who attended the special committee meeting.
Solihan, however, hoped the federal government would shed more light on certain decisions that were not discussed at the meeting.
He said these included the proposal to widen and lengthen the Causeway and another idea to build a passageway for vessels.
“There was also no mention of abolishing the special task force which was set up in Johor. But for the sake of continuity, and in my capacity as an executive council member in charge of works and transport, I will get the agencies under my portfolio to continue discussions on this matter.”
The NST had, in a two-part series starting Jan 20, highlighted the congestion motorcyclists had to endure at the Johor-Singapore border to get to work. Most of them set out as early as 4.30am and have to endure an hour to 1½ hours of congestion to get through Immigration and Customs clearances.
The issues affecting the Causeway and Second Link came into focus following an apparent interest by the federal government to revive a Crooked Bridge project to replace the Malaysian side of the Causeway.
TOMORROW: Even as the debate continues over the benefits of building a passageway for vessels at the Causeway, activists in Johor are urging the government to first repair the culverts that previously spanned the length of the 1.06km-long link. They believe that a better aqueduct system could improve the environment in the Straits of Johor and prevent it from becoming a “giant toxic sink”.