This conference builds on conferences held in 2017 and 2018 on Johor’s economic transformation. It will focus on the inter-related themes of people, land use and management, and the environment.
MALAYSIA STUDIES PROGRAMME
From left to right, Mr Ng Keng Khoon; Dr Francis Hutchinson, moderator; Mr Benedict Weerasena; and Dr Serina Rahman. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
Tuesday, 13 August 2019 – Building on two previous conferences held in 2017 and 2018 on Johor’s economic transformation, a conference on “Johor: People, Palm Oil and Places” was held at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. With a focus on the inter-related themes of people, land use and management, and the environment, the conference featured four presenters who shared excerpts from their respective chapters for a forthcoming volume on Johor to an audience of around 50 researchers, diplomats, civil servants, journalists, and members of the public.
Dr Serina Rahman opened the first panel with a discussion of the constraints, challenges, and prospects of tourism in Johor. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
Dr Serina Rahman opened the first panel with a discussion of the constraints, challenges, and prospects of tourism in Johor. In 2016, Johor received a total of RM11.5 billion in tourism income, backed by an average annual tourism growth rate of 6.9%. Furthermore, Johor occupies the pivotal role of being the entry point for Singaporean visitors, who collectively account for almost half of the total inbound foreign visitors to Malaysia. The Singaporean tourist has also been crucial for sustaining tourism development in the Iskandar Malaysia region of Johor, making up 82% of visitors to the area. Dr Serina also mapped the roles and responsibilities of the various state and federal agencies involved in the tourism bureaucracy of Johor, identifying key local players such as Johor Tourism, the Majlis Bandaraya Johor Bahru (Johor Bahru City Council), and the Iskandar Regional Development Authority (IRDA) and outlining their various tourism-related policy programmes and initiatives. She also shared the Johor state government’s tourism goals for 2021, which includes increasing the number of tourist arrivals, receipts, and per capita expenditure. After briefly reviewing the various tourism-related prospects being developed in Johor to achieve those goals, she commented that the sector still faces the challenge of ensuring that tourism benefits the local population of Johor, particularly in terms of employment opportunities. There were also issues related to the disparate and fragmented nature of grassroots tourism in Johor, the lack of a data collection and feedback system as well as the perennial congestion of the land border crossings between Singapore and Johor.
Mr Ng Kheng Khoon presented on the different state and federal agencies as well as private corporations that are driving the urban transformation of Johor Bahru. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
This was followed Mr Ng Kheng Khoon’s presentation on the different state and federal agencies as well as private corporations that are driving the urban transformation of Johor Bahru. In particularly, he highlighted the tensions arising from the interactions between the government-linked companies, the bureaucratic elite, and foreign developers as they jostle to reshape planning practices in the state. Johor presents a great opportunity for real-estate developers given the state’s size and population as well as “strategic proximity” to Singapore. The Johor state government also has its own strong commercial presence through the state’s investment arm, the Johor State Economic Development Corporation—now known as Johor Corporation or JCorp—which was responsible for establishing Johor Port and the Pasir Gudang Industrial Estate. According to Mr Ng, despite the strong presence of federal interest in Johor since the 1970s, the Johor state-linked enterprises remained autonomous economically, especially in the matters of land and natural resources. He gave the example of Nusajaya, which is majority-owned and developed by UEM Sunrise, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the federal sovereign wealth fund Khazanah. However, direction for the development of the region, which was hitherto federally-driven, has gradually been turned over to the Johor state government. For instance, in 2016, the Johor state secretary Ismail Karim announced that Nusajaya will be renamed ‘Iskandar Puteri’, while the Johor royal house has been critical of the IRDA for “usurp[ing] the power of the state government in matters like land, local government and state development planning”. Mr Ng described these actions as partly reflecting the Johor’s state government’s desire to “maintain its long-term competencies in city development and international property markets without relying on fiscal support from the federal government”.
Mr Benedict Weerasena addressed Johor’s “dependency dilemma” on migrant labour in light of the federal government’s efforts to reduce the proportion of foreign labour. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
Closing the first panel, Mr Benedict Weerasena addressed Johor’s “dependency dilemma” on migrant labour in light of the federal government’s efforts to reduce the proportion of foreign labour to 15 per cent of the total workforce. With a strong sectoral presence in manufacturing, construction and agriculture in Johor’s economy, Johor is heavily reliant on foreign labour and has the second highest rate of hiring migrant labour after Selangor. Mr Weerasena estimated that there are currently around 116,050 undocumented foreign workers in Johor, which amounts to 21.8 per cent of the state’s total labour force. Furthermore, according to a survey of 300 manufacturing companies in Johor, firms prefer to hire foreign workers since they are willing to enter into occupations which locals shun and work longer hours and under less-than-ideal conditions. He argued that it was thus important to ensure that efforts to reduce Malaysia’s reliance on foreign workers be undertaken carefully to avoid damaging economic growth both in Johor and Malaysia. He also called for a multi-tiered levy system to regulate labour migration as well as initiatives to improve the welfare of foreign workers, including preventing the exploitation of migrant labour over salary and remittance issues.
Dr Geoffrey Pakkiam (middle) explored the growth prospects of the palm oil industry in Johor. Dr Cassey Lee (left) was the moderator for the second panel. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
During the second panel, Dr Geoffrey Pakkiam explored the growth prospects of the palm oil industry in Johor, arguing that the industry’s most acute challenge lies in finding an adequate labour supply to sustain its operations. Dr Pakkiam shared that Johor have had a major palm oil industry presence since the 1920s, helped along by colonial state authorities offering cheap land and the railway link to Singapore. Currently, Johor holds 13 per cent of the total oil palm lands in Malaysia, with a sizeable downstream industry supporting it. For instance, a quarter of the national refining capacity resides in Johor, while the Johorean ports of Pasir Gudang and Tanjong Pelepas accounted for 28 per cent of Malaysia’s oil palm-related products in 2017. The development of the palm oil sector in Johor has benefited from significant political support, which allowed developers to acquire cheap tracts of land for plantation estates. Government capital and enterprise such as Sime Darby Plantation Berhad was also instrumental in developing the palm oil industry in Johor, with Sime Darby currently running 27 oil palm estates, six mills and a refinery in the state. Government schemes was also key in supplying the necessary labour to sustain the industry, especially under FELDA programmes which was successful in relocating settlers to oil palm estates from the 1970s. However, Dr Pakiam argued that the future development of the oil palm sector in Johor is threatened by the labour shortages, especially since field productivity remains stagnant and automation of farm operations appears difficult. While the current shortfall has been met through hiring undocumented workers, this is not a viable long-term solution.
Dr Serina returned for another discussion on the challenges confronting Johor’s natural environment as development continues apace. Citing the future developments of the the Tanjung Pelepas Port Extension, the Tanjung Pelepas Maritime Industrial Park and the Forest City in the western Tebrau Straits, she warned that Johor runs the risk of losing important flora and fauna, which would have an impact on the traditional livelihoods of fishermen in the area. She also identified the state-level government as the main locus for environmental governance in Johor, while suggesting that the previous Barisan-led state government was more proactive and receptive to ideas about environmental conservation and management. However, environmental governance efforts were thwarted by the lack of public participation and support on the ground, the shifting priorities of an often-rotated leadership in environmental agencies, and the territorial fights between different departments. The unprecedented shift to a Pakatan-led state government has not improved matters. The current state government has displayed anemic leadership on environmental issues, evinced by their tepid response to the chemical poisoning incident in Pasir Gudang and a state budget that has only reserved 2 per cent of its expenditure on environmental priorities.
Over 50 people attended the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)
The audience also engaged the four speakers with questions about the transport network in Johor, the plans for the redevelopment of the Johor Bahru city centre, the viability of oil palm tourism, the prospect of the foreign workers’ levy to regulate immigration, and the impact of the European Union’s concerns about the sustainability of oil palm farming, among others.