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Smoother trips for people working on both sides of Causeway with Johor-Singapore special economic zone: PM Lee

SINGAPORE: The proposed Johor-Singapore special economic zone (SEZ) should lead to smoother trips for people working on either side of the Causeway, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday (Oct 30).

Mr Lee said the SEZ aims to achieve “better and easier” arrangements for the flow of people who have to work both in Singapore and Johor.

“They can go in and go out, then the investor companies in the SEZ will be able to get the personnel they need and the right mix of professionals, skilled workers and other general workers,” he said.

Mr Lee was speaking at a joint press conference with Malaysia Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim at the end of the 10th Singapore-Malaysia Leaders’ Retreat, where the two leaders discussed areas of cooperation and outstanding bilateral issues.

He was asked about the priority areas of development for the SEZ, which is expected to improve infrastructure and connectivity, and bring about better jobs and livelihoods for the people of Johor and Singapore.

Plans for the SEZ were first announced in October as the countries sought to embark on a flagship project for economic cooperation. However, few operational details – including the SEZ’s precise location – have emerged as discussions continue.

Mr Lee said on Monday that officials on both sides are conducting a feasibility study on the SEZ to determine interest from investors and market demand. Mr Anwar said a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the SEZ is expected to be signed on Jan 11 next year.

“Preliminarily, I think there are three things you want to do. One, improve the flow of goods between the two sides because SEZ may mean special tax arrangements and bonded warehouses and therefore more easy border flows,” Mr Lee said.

Mr Lee said the SEZ should also enhance the investor ecosystem in Singapore as well as the Iskandar development region in Johor.

“We can make something meaningful for Iskandar as a place where investors will be focusing their attention, and it means that for companies in Singapore, they can think of having a presence on both sides and therefore having more flexibility and being able to do things which they couldn’t do if they were only in Singapore or only in Johor,” he added.

“So, we have great hopes. But first we have to do the feasibility study and we have to negotiate the MOU, and we’re hoping to have that done by early next year.”

Mr Anwar said officials will try their best to accelerate the process, as he acknowledged the “very short timeline” to agree on the SEZ’s parameters.

“I hope that they can succeed. I don’t think it’s too much of a complex problem because they have discussed excessively,” he said.

WATER AND PEDRA BRANCA ISSUE

As for the topic of water, which he said had been “long outstanding”, Mr Anwar affirmed his country’s commitment to supply water to Singapore.

Singapore and Malaysia hold differing positions on the right to review the price of water Singapore buys from Johor under a 1962 agreement.

“Our position is we have to honour the commitment of the water supply from Johor to Singapore and we will have to work jointly to ensure that Johor would be able to enhance the capacity to Johor river to supply both for Johor needs – which is also expanding – and Singapore,” said Mr Anwar.

“I think instead of focusing purely on price mechanism, we should also look at the possibility of Singapore participating in a joint effort, both in terms of study which can be conducted immediately, and also in terms of management of the Johor river, particularly with Johor state.”

And on the issue of Pedra Branca, Mr Anwar said on Monday that both countries have in the past year tried resolving the issue of delimiting maritime boundaries surrounding the strategic rocky outcrop at the entrance of busy shipping lanes.

“But our position is that both AGs (attorneys-general) in particular should then conduct the discussions immediately to try and resolve it,” he added.

“Because I think Malaysia and Singapore should showcase how two great friends can try and resolve in a win-win situation.”

During his first official visit to Singapore in January, Mr Anwar told Malaysian media that he had urged Singapore to examine its reclamation activities at Pedra Branca to ensure they did not affect the environment and Singapore’s borders with Malaysia.

“That must be finalised. I have Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s agreement to hear our arguments in the near future,” he said then.

This is Mr Anwar’s first retreat in his current capacity as prime minister, and his third official visit to Singapore. During his January visit, he and Mr Lee witnessed the signing of agreements on cooperation in the green and digital economy.

The annual retreat is an important platform for the leaders of both countries to discuss bilateral issues and explore new areas of cooperation, and has historically produced some significant agreements.

For instance at the 2018 retreat, the countries agreed to embark on the Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System Link project, aimed at easing congestion on the Causeway and is on track to be completed by the end of 2026.

Mr Lee said on Monday that he and Mr Anwar discussed efforts to alleviate congestion at the countries’ land checkpoints.

The Causeway is one of the busiest land checkpoints in the world, with about 270,000 travellers passing between Woodlands in Singapore and Johor in Malaysia daily.

Mr Lee cited various initiatives by Singapore to make cross-border travel smoother and more efficient, while maintaining border security.

These include redeveloping Woodlands Checkpoint to increase its capacity and meet the expected long-term growth in cross-border commuters. “I am glad that PM Anwar welcomes and supports Singapore’s efforts,” Mr Lee said.

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