JOHOR BAHRU: As it pivots from the harsh economic impact caused by COVID-19, Johor is keen to develop its agriculture sector and position itself as a key food exporter to Singapore, said the state's Chief Minister Hasni Mohammad.
Speaking to CNA in an exclusive interview on Thursday (Nov 19), Mr Hasni was asked on the state government’s plans to help businesses and residents impacted by the pandemic.
He said that the government is looking to focus on agricultural activities and create stable digital platforms so that locals can be involved in the gig economy.
“I believe that Johor has always been strong in our agricultural activity and I would like to expand it further. In fact, more than US$20 billion of food product is exported to Singapore, and if Johor can position ourselves strongly, I believe that our food industry will be a key contributor to our future economy,” said Mr Hasni.
Johor's major agricultural products include oil palm, livestock farming as well as fruits and vegetables.
Singapore reportedly imports about 37 per cent of its chicken supply and 15 per cent of its fish from Malaysia, among other produce like eggs, vegetables and milk.
Mr Hasni added that expanding Johor's agriculture sector would also boost the state’s food security. It will also mean the southern state can act as a "food bank" for other countries, including Singapore.
Mr Hasni said that serving as a food bank for Singapore would be one area of collaboration between the two neighbours.
READ: From malls to hotels, the Singaporean haunts that have gone quiet in Johor Bahru amid COVID-19
LACK OF DATA TO DETERMINE JOHOREANS WHO NEED ASSISTANCE
Commenting on broader efforts to help Johor recover from COVID-19, Mr Hasni noted that many Johoreans have been retrenched or are unemployed.
He said that the state government is determined to help them with job opportunities or offer to train and upskill them.
However, he acknowledged that the state government might not have sufficient data, to accurately collate information on the residents who require assistance.
“The only issue the state is facing is the (lack of) data. We know for a fact that everybody is affected (by COVID-19), but we need to know whether our data covers those who require our help,” said Mr Hasni.
“(Now the data we have) definitely does not encompass 100 per cent of those out there. If it’s less than 50 per cent or 60 per cent, then it’s definitely not enough. I have to do something because I want to be able to capture all those who require assistance in whatever form. If we have complete and accurate data, we will be able to plan things out much better,” the chief minister added.
JOHOR-SINGAPORE BILATERAL PROJECTS
Commenting on Singapore-Malaysia bilateral projects, Mr Hasni was optimistic that the two rail projects, the Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link and the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) project, would benefit Johoreans once they are completed.
The RTS Link aims to connect Bukit Chagar in Johor Bahru to Woodlands in Singapore, serving about 10,000 passengers per hour each way to help ease traffic congestion on the Causeway.
Construction for Bukit Chagar station is scheduled to kick off on Sunday afternoon via a virtual ground breaking ceremony.
“(The RTS Link) is a game changer for us because for the first time in history, we have such an advanced and updated mode of travel between Malaysia and Singapore. So I look forward to that launching and it will create jobs and it will boost the economy,” said Mr Hasni.
Previously, it was announced that the construction will happen in two phases. The development and civil phase will take place from 2021 to end of 2024, while the commissioning and testing phase will take place from 2025 until the end of 2026.
Passenger service is targeted to start from end-2026.
Meanwhile, for the HSR, Mr Hasni said he was optimistic that a decision will be made before the end of the year on whether both sides will proceed with the construction phase.
He added that the project is something which “gives hope and expectations” to the locals as it boosts employment opportunities and economic activities in the region.
In September 2018, Singapore and Malaysia agreed to postpone the construction of the HSR until end-May this year. Malaysia had to pay Singapore S$15 million for costs incurred in suspending the project.
Malaysia later requested a further seven-month extension to allow both sides to discuss and assess Malaysia’s proposed changes to the project.
Mr Khaw Boon Wan, who was then Singapore’s Transport Minister, agreed to the “final extension of the suspension period” until Dec 31.
Both countries had also announced that the HSR service would be expected to start by Jan 1, 2031, instead of the original commencement date of Dec 31, 2026, as a result of that suspension.
The proposed HSR line aims to reduce travel time between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to around 90 minutes by train, from the current 11 hours on existing train services.
When operational, the line will offer an express service between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, a domestic service from Kuala Lumpur to Iskandar Puteri and a shuttle service from Iskandar Puteri to Jurong East.
During the interview, the chief minister also touched on the Johor Economic Tourism and Cultural office (JETCO) in Singapore, which is slated to open in the first quarter of 2021.
Mr Hasni said the office will facilitate Singapore businesses who are interested to commence operations in Johor as well as attract investments for the state.
He added that JETCO is also a vehicle for the Johor state government officers to be seconded to various agencies in Singapore, so that “they can learn and be exposed to new ways of doing things”.
“We should learn from Singapore’s success stories,” said Mr Hasni.
“In managing water, the environment, how certain infrastructure are carried out, and even housing policies,” he added.
Tune in to CNA on Monday morning from 7am to see more of what the Chief Minister has to say about Johor’s economy and cooperation with Singapore.