Friday, 28 November 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 9

Malta (Malta) - Singapore (Singapore)

In this episode, The Amazing Race 25 made its way from one island city-state, Malta, to another, Singapore.

As in Malta, the proximity of much poorer neighboring countries makes immigration and border controls a political, economic, and social issue in Singapore in ways that tourists who arrive and depart by air may not notice.

Singapore is an island, but it’s linked to the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and the rest of the Asian mainland by a road and rail causeway and a second highway bridge. More than a hundred thousand people cross between Singapore and Malaysia every day.

Singapore was formerly part of the same British colony, and then part of the same independent country, as what is now Malaysia. Relationships between such formerly united countries vary widely.

Vietnam, Germany, and Yemen have been reunified after periods of partition. North and South Korea, and Ethiopia and Eritrea, are officially at war, although both Korean governments profess a desire for reunification. It’s possible to travel between them only by way of other countries, most often China or Russia in the case of the Koreas, and Yemen, Saudi Arabia, or the U.A.E. in the case of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The governments of both Taiwan and the P.R.C. also both profess a desire for reunification, although most travel between them continues to be via the anomalous enclave of Hong Kong. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have “normalized” their diplomatic relations since the wars that accompanied their successive partitions from each other. Except between parts of Kashmir, it’s easier for foreigners to travel between them than most people think (I’ll save that story for another day), but the borders between them are still largely closed to locals.

The relationship between Singapore and Malaysia (and to some extent also Indonesia) has much in common with that between Mexico and the portions of the USA that used to be part of Mexico. The ratio of average income between Singapore and Malaysia is quite similar to that between the USA and Mexico. Singapore relies on lower wage Malaysian workers, and Malaysians take jobs in Singapore for the money despite discrimination against them in Singapore and what many perceive as a crowded yet atomized and soulless city life.

Mutual economic dependence is mixed with mutual hostility and mutual fear about wealth, race/ethnicity, language, and religion. As in so many other regions, rhetoric of “diversity” on both ends of the causeway masks the existence of overlayed “communities” that often live side by side with only limited interaction. The epitome of this is of course in Los Angeles — nominally one of the world’s most diverse metropolises — where people who drive everywhere fly over each other’s neighborhoods on elevated freeways, without stopping and often without even being aware of who lives down below, much less what their lives are like. Similar phenomena are found in, among other places, Johannesburg and São Paulo.

Singapore is a dense, high-rise city, with roughly twice the land area of Malta but ten times the population. So you might expect that, at least when they aren’t working, people who live in Singapore would be eager to get away to the Malaysian countryside. In practice, wealthy Singaporeans and wealthy expats tend to fly to places further away on their vacations.

While there are exceptions, many Singaporeans and wealthy expats living and working in Singapore hardly ever visit Malaysia, even for a day trip or a weekend. And if that seems surprising, consider how many people live their lives in San Diego and rarely, or never, visit the larger city of Tijuana just across the line that divides the trans-border metropolitan area. For tourists, it’s regarded as a minor sideshow among the attractions of the region, not — as it should be — as essential to getting a sense of regional context.

Because most of the people crossing between Singapore and Malaysia are Malaysian workers, Singapore has put a low priority on improving passenger transit links. There is no rail connection between downtown Singapore and Malaysia: Long-distance trains from Malaysia, which used to run through to a station in downtown Singapore, now terminate at “Woodlands” at the Singapore end of the causeway. The nearest stations on the Singapore MRT (subway/metro train) are a long, hot walk from the causeway. But it’s easy and inexpensive, if a bit time-consuming, to take an inexpensive local bus from the MRT station across to Johore Bahru (“J.B.”), the Malaysian city at the north end of the causeway.

You can get buses either directly from downtown Singapore, or somewhat more cheaply from J.B., to points throughout Malaysia. Malaysian trains are comfortable and cheap but slow and have limited routes. There’s been talk of building a new high-speed rail line between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, but progress has been slow and even the route into Singapore has not yet been agreed.

Depending on traffic, taking a taxi across the causeway or the newer “Second Link” bridge might save you time and isn’t too expensive.

Customs and immigration formalities are generally straightforward, but as at the border between San Ysidro (south of San Diego) and Tijuana, traffic jams and substantial delays are always possible. A few years ago, crossing from Singapore to Malaysia on a Friday evening, I spent two claustrophobic hours, after I got off the bus at the checkpoint at the Malaysian end of the causeway, in a throng of Malaysian workers going home to their families for the weekend.

Walking would sometimes be faster than waiting in traffic, but pedestrians aren’t currently allowed on either the causeway or the Second Link bridge. Bicycles are allowed on the causeway, though, paying the same toll and using the same two-wheeler lanes through the customs and toll plazas as motorcycles and scooters. You can also take bicycles on the “bumboats” (inexpensive shared water taxis) that shuttle across to Malaysia from a ferry terminal in the Changi neighborhood near Singapore’s airport.

Indonesia is also nearby, but not nearly as close or as accessible. The Singapore Strait between Singapore and Indonesia is deeper and much wider than the Johore Strait between Singapore and Malaysia. There is no bridge between Singapore and Indonesia, and few ferries.

The closest Indonesian island to Singapore is Batam, about an hour away by ferry. Because of its proximity to Singapore, it’s one of the fastest growing urban areas in Indonesia, with a population that has doubled to more than a million in the last decade. Batam is a free trade zone dominated by foreign-owned export-goods manufacturing and assembly plants like the “maquiladoras” in similar zones in Tijuana and elsewhere in Mexico along the USA border.

Many foreign visitors imagine that it would be inexpensive to travel “overland” or by boat from Singapore to Jakarta or other more touristed portions of Indonesia. Unfortunately, that isn’t true. Distances are large, and inter-island ferries are infrequent and don’t go directly from Singapore to any of the major Indonesian islands or tourist destinations. By the time you pay for ferry fare as well as food and lodging at unavoidable layover points along the way, it’s cheaper to fly.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 28 November 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Hi, thanks for the great blog! Being a San Diego resident, I agree with your comment about Tijuana often being overlooked by tourists and by many San Diego residents themselves, some of whom (incorrectly in my view) consider Baja California unsafe to visit. However, I think your characterization of Tijuana as being the larger of the two cities is likely incorrect. Certainly when considering the respective metro areas, San Diego is bigger, with roughly 3 million to Tijuana's 2 million. When just considering city population, the tally is closer, but Wikipedia (which cites 2010 US and Mexico census data) has both populations at 1.3 million, with San Diego's narrowly higher (by 7000 people).


Posted by: Ryan, 23 August 2015, 22:02 (10:02 PM)
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