JOHOR BARU, May 28 — Like many entrepreneurs in Malaysia, Mohamad Ridwan Mustafa breathed a huge sigh of relief when the country started to transition into the endemic stage from April 1. He had been struggling to keep his restaurant business in Taman Universiti, near here, afloat the past two years.
“It was such a tough time for me and my family… we tried all sorts of things including home deliveries and different operation hours. The business was struggling but I just couldn’t give up as it’s the only thing that helps to take care of my family.
“Alhamdullilah (thank God), we managed to overcome this big hurdle of lockdowns as well as restrictions and can now look forward to improving the business,” added Mohamad Ridwan when met at his Dapur 3 Dara restaurant.
Right now, the 36-year-old runs the restaurant with his wife Mustika Mohd Rani. They are helped by his sister and one other staff member.
He now helms the kitchen after his chef left but he is optimistic that business will improve with the reopening of the Johor-Singapore land borders.
“It was the second week after the April 1 announcement that Singapore customers started coming in. For me, that was a good sign and hopefully we can fully return to the pre-pandemic days,” he said.
Mohamad Ridwan had quit his full-time job as a pest control technician back in 2020 to fully concentrate on his food business which he first started as a side venture.
A Singaporean favourite in JB
Another business that has been reporting brisk sales since the border reopening is the famous Hiap Joo Bakery on Jalan Tan Hiok Nee.
The small century-old bakery is famous for its banana loaf cakes which have been a perennial favourite of Singaporean customers.
Hiap Joo Bakery’s co-proprietor James Lim said since the reopening of the border, sales has been very good.
At present, he said the bakery has maximised its output to 10,000 loaves a day.
“Such is the demand for our banana loaf cakes where a bulk of it is bought by Singaporean customers. Even this isn’t enough… the output figure is more than before the MCO where we only maximised our banana loaf cakes to 7,000 a day,” said Lim, referring to the movement control order or lockdown.
Lim also pointed out that Hiap Joo just revised their price list in February and the banana loaf cake is now selling at 20 per cent more.
He said even with the new price of RM12, the banana loaf cake is still popular with both Malaysians and Singaporeans.
However, Lim thinks the sudden spike in sales is just for the short term. “It’s mainly due to the border reopening and Singaporeans who missed our banana loaf cakes the last two years. We expect the sales to realistically taper off a bit in the months to come.”
The return of Singapore visitors
For the first time in two years, many businesses in Johor Baru are coming back to life with the reopening of borders last month.
This is also due to the preferential currency exchange where the Singapore dollar is stronger against the Malaysian ringgit.
However, Singapore visitors have always been attracted to food outlets nearer to the city or the border crossing.
Among these is Restaurant Liang Chen in Taman Perling that is close to the Second Link crossing in nearby Gelang Patah.
Owner David Chan said business has been picking up since April 1; they received calls from their Singaporean customers enquiring about the restaurant’s operation hours and menu offerings.
“Basically it’s been over a month and our regular customers from Singapore have started coming here again after a long two years.
“Our Singaporean customers, as well as Malaysians who are working in Singapore, will usually come over on weekend nights.” Chan added that some of his Singapore customers are golfers who drop by his restaurant after a game in Johor Baru.
He said it was cheap and convenient for Singapore golfers to play in Johor where many will make their way here for a weekend round of golf.
Border reopening, JB set to rebound
Another food outlet owner M. Muz, who operates a popular mee rebus and satay stall in Taman Perling, said business has been picking up with the return of Singapore customers in the last two weeks prior to Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
Despite the positive momentum, Mus believes that the spike in Singapore visitors was more to do with the fasting month.
“I believe that the increase in Singaporeans coming to Johor Baru for shopping and food was due to the holiday season. Give it some time… JB city has always been synonymous with Singaporeans,” said Muz, referring to Johor Baru.
Chan also shared Muz’s sentiments and added that it will take several months for business owners in Johor Baru to see if there is indeed a large rebound due to Singapore visitors.
“I can’t estimate how long it will take for businesses in Johor Baru to return to the pre-pandemic days but the general outlook looks positive,” he said.
Other JB services
Besides food and shopping, Johor Baru is also a popular destination for vehicle servicing.
Most workshops located within the city and its outskirts near the Second Link crossing cater to Singaporean motorists who mainly go for basic servicing such as oil change and scheduled parts replacement.
City centre based motorcycle mechanic Nadzri Yasin said there has been a gradual increase in Singaporeans servicing their motorcycles in Johor Baru since the border reopening.
“It’s positive for us and we hope that Singaporean customers will increase over time.
“For them (Singaporeans) our servicing labour charges for small to large capacity motorcycles is much cheaper than in Singapore,” explained Nadzri.
Nadzri said with the increase in the number of Singapore motorcycle customers, there will be a need for smaller workshops to expand to cater to a growing market.
He, however, said it may be too early to expand or hire additional manpower.
“Businesses need to give it some time before committing,” said Nadzri.
Taman Perling based car workshop Hong Fatt Garage has seen a return of their former — as well as new — Singaporean customers.
Its proprietor-mechanic Yeap Leong Eng said since the reopening of the borders last month, there has been a gradual increase in Singaporean customers.
“Our business is known to Singaporeans mainly through word-of-mouth. However, Singaporean customers don’t make the bulk of our overall customers but nevertheless they still contribute to our business,” explained Yeap.
“Overall, this is a good sign the economy is reviving,” he said.
Maintaining the momentum
Johor Baru Malay Smallholders and Light Industry Association secretary Mohammad Salezan Mohd Salleh said since the border reopening, many businesses that traditionally catered to Singaporeans have reported an uptick in business.
He pointed out that in Johor Baru, the Bazar Karat night bazaar and the Pasar Borong Pandan wholesale market are popular with Singaporean shoppers.
“Both places have seen a steady increase in their sales from Singaporeans after the second week of April. “The fasting month period towards Hari Raya Aidilfitri was when traders at both areas reported a big spike in sales from Singaporeans,” he said.
Mohammad Salezan attributed the positive sales momentum to Singaporeans taking advantage of the preferential currency exchange and the fasting month.
“Basically most traders know that the positive sales is a temporary thing due to the holiday season as well as the border being newly open.
“What is important is that traders do not indiscriminately increase their prices or lower their quality throughout this time as the country is also going through inflation,” he said.
Johor South SME Association adviser Teh Kee Sin concurred with Mohammad Salezan that the rebound reported by traders is only temporary and it is essential for traders to maintain their prices.
“So, we have basically not realised the full potential yet as many Malaysians who were previously working in Singapore before the pandemic are currently trying to make their way back to the island city for work,” said Teh.
Meanwhile, Teh believes that Johor Baru traders need an additional three to five months before they can accurately gauge their sales from Singaporeans.
“By September to October we may be able to see the full impact,” he said.
“After more than two years, many Johor Baru traders will need to expand their businesses or even hire more manpower to cater to the increase in sales,” he said.
Johor Baru, with a population of about 700,000 residents, is considered one of the fastest-growing cities in Malaysia after Kuala Lumpur.
The city also has one of the world’s busiest land crossings where the Johor Causeway connects Johor Baru with Woodlands in Singapore.