Commentary: Of all places, Singaporeans miss that trip to JB most – and not just because of the food
From monthly shopping trips to regular seafood dinners, Annie Tan says Singaporeans’ love affair with travelling across the Causeway comes from a pretty unique place.
SINGAPORE: My friends and I recently went on a “JB” trip.
Before you get all riled up, we did not sneak across the causeway for a day of gallivanting in the middle of the pandemic. “JB” is our little acronym for “just binging”.
Though you are right to guess that it was inspired by the spirit of our pre-COVID Johor Bahru (JB) trips.
For the recent “localised” JB trip though, the five of us climbed into my friend’s mini-van and ate our way through hawker stalls and ice cream cafes in Singapore, ending our day-long food marathon with late-night lok-lok - skewers popular in Malaysia - and barbecue.
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Then, sweaty and smelling of barbecue grease, we sauntered into a small massage joint at 11pm to seal in the flavours of the trip with a good rubdown with cheap massage oil.
As enjoyable as the day gallivanting around town was, it just wasn’t quite a trip to JB – something many of us have been craving since travel lockdowns kicked in last year.
And if any of us were hoping for that to change soon, our hopes were recently dashed.
In January, Malaysia imposed a second movement control order (MCO) in several states including Johor, which was later expanded to most of the country. A state of emergency was declared.
It will be a while before Malaysia manages its COVID-19 infection waves – and any hopes we have for travelling there will have to be put on the backburner.
COVID-19 and Malaysia’s MCO were a reminder of just how much our world has shrunk since the pandemic, transforming even a 1km causeway between Singapore and JB into an insurmountable distance.
Much as we accept these realities, that inability to bridge that stretch of land into another country is most upsetting. More than our annual trips to Australia, Japan, London, Bali or Bangkok, it is the frequent but short trips to nearby JB that we miss.
SO NEAR YET SO FAR
Indeed, pre-COVID, on any weekend or public holiday, you would likely find a long queue of cars at the Causeway, as well as a snaking line of Singaporeans queuing at immigration checkpoints.
Why did we cross the Causeway every chance we got? Perhaps it came down to our nature as a migratory species as researchers have documented.
“Like many birds, but unlike most other animals, humans are a migratory species. Indeed, migration is as old as humanity itself”, Princeton University sociologist Douglas Steven Massey wrote in a 1999 publication.
We are hardwired to be on the move. In fact, the word “wanderlust” stems from the German word “wandern”, meaning to hike, and “lust”, meaning to desire.
Given how small our island is, these cross-Causeway trips expand our sense of space. They allow us to get away, and put some distance between ourselves and our everyday reality and struggles, even if it means simply sipping latte from a garden-themed café in Johor Bahru.
Compared to other travel destinations however, JB has always occupied a very different mind space for most Singaporeans. Its proximity, accessibility and familiarity give it a certain intimacy beyond any other cities or states.
In many ways, it feels like part of our own local neighbourhood.
STRETCHING THE DOLLAR
Many Singaporeans, permanent residents and Malaysians working in Singapore have family and loved ones in JB whom they used to visit frequently, but probably haven’t seen for more than a year now.
But for the rest of us, the main draw of JB is the stronger Singapore dollar that makes these trips a consumer haven.
Unlike once-in-a-lifetime destinations that blow a hole through our bank account and require months of planning, it is far more affordable to the point we each have our go-to restaurants, hairstylists and masseuses.
Much of our trips revolve around stocking up on daily necessities - milk powder, diapers and groceries - and topping up petrol at a fraction of the cost in Singapore, maxing out the legal limits, before returning from a day of adventure.
But a lot of it was the chance to live like a king, to enjoy the simple pleasures of life. Remember the seafood dinners at famous food haunts at Sentosa, Pelangi or Tebrau? Those cheap and satisfying RM80 (S$26.30) full-body, full hour massages? Those trips to the Johor Premium Outlets for cheap designer deals?
Even those short trips to City Square mall, often meant to be a casual pop-in, typically end up with us carrying home bags of knick-knacks and goodies.
So many Singaporeans have their favourite haunts in JB – Banafee anyone? - but this fragile reality underlying a once-happy arrangement cuts both ways in a COVID-19 world.
Media stories highlighted how City Square was temporarily shutting its doors because of the MCO, and given how most visitors, almost 10.2 million in 2019 alone, from Singapore, in 2019 alone have all but evaporated since the MCO were first slapped in March last year.
Clearly, the trilateral relationship between Singaporeans, shopping and JB is a strong one.
The impact on Singaporeans’ lives goes beyond having the travel bug.
Some people I know have literally felt a pinch in their pockets – having to buy their kids’ daily necessities, such as diapers and milk powder, locally rather than Jaya Jusco.
Some parents may have felt going back to school this year more expensive than previously as school shoes and bags were bought here rather than in JB.
Others have cut down on lifestyle choices – having massages, manicures, or having that dinner of crabs, lobsters and venison. Without that RM8 car wash, we might clean our cars ourselves.
These things count though not as much as the impact on Johor businesses and workers.
DISTANCE MATTERS TOO
Besides the bargain shopping deals, the other thing that attracts Singaporeans to JB is the proximity. Short, spontaneous jaunts are much easier to coordinate with friends and loved ones.
There are no frenzied packing and red-eye flights cramped in narrow seats. There is no pressure to maximise our limited seven-day-six-night trip to check off iconic, well-trodden destinations – Studio Ghibli in Japan, the Palace of Versailles in France, the Blue Lagoon in Iceland.
Because it is not a bucket list trip, there is no need to pose for the same selfies as everyone else at postcard destinations. Unhampered by our fantasies and expectation, we also had a better actual experience.
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Though there are no dramatic landscapes, or radically different cultures and cuisines, JB holds a special place in our hearts.
It gave us license to go slow and focus on another equally important aspect of travel – spending long stretches of uninterrupted time with friends and loved ones and building meaningful memories.
So while we all have been hit by the travel bug, JB would be near the top of the list for many Singaporeans when travel restrictions are lifted. I am willing to wager a bet on that – perhaps on a seafood meal in Tebrau Gardens when we can.
Listen to Malaysians coping with a new wave of COVID-19 share their very different experiences of living through the pandemic in Johor, Kuala Lumpur and Sabah:
Annie Tan is a freelance writer.