The large southern state of Johor in Malaysia is rich in both cash crops and agricultural resources. In the cash crop category, for example, oil palm can be utilized for producing biodiesel while its food supply farm facilities features livestock (and dairy products like milk and eggs), tropical fruits and vegetables with Singapore as a major destination market. Malaysian aquaculture is also prolific with fish exports to Singapore. There is greater economic complementarity between the two countries, given that Johor has been affected by the economic impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic while the same challenge has made Singapore realize even more the importance of food security, diversification and advantages of an agriculturally-rich next-door neighbor. The Johor Mentri Besar Hasni stated that the state government is tapping into their agricultural producers, farmers, fishermen, consumers and all stakeholders to target the local, regional and global market demand for agricultural products. While Johor producers are interested to engage with the Singaporean consumer market, Singaporean consumers are also reaching out to Johor for agricultural economic growth opportunities as well. Some individual efforts include setting up the country's largest Ostrich farm in Desaru. There is compatibility in these two-way flows between the two countries with a land-scarce virtually farmless city state that is well-capitalized and flush with technological capabilities next door to a large agricultural space that is keen to develop and upgrade its farming economy. They can leverage off each other's comparative advantages while meeting food security needs (for Singapore) and ramping up economic growth (for Malaysia). Both are further incentivized to tackle the ongoing challenges brought about by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. If managed effectively, it can be a template for managing future challenges.
Keywords: Malaysia, Johor, Singapore, farm, food, agriculture
The State of Johor and the Republic of Singapore: an ironclad relationship like gum and teeth
World-class cosmopolitan city Singapore is often nicknamed the ‘brain’ of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and world-renowned economy that punches far above its weight. The agricultural sector is no exception as farming ideas flow from Singapore as well as strategies tapping into neighboring sources of food supply. The State of Johor and the Republic of Singapore are linked by causeways including the oldest Woodlands causeway connecting southern Malaysia with Singapore that can handle motorists and pedestrians. Another newer causeway is located at Kranji while the two will also be linked by Mass Rapid Transport (MRT) trains. The state of Johor is also an agriculturally rich and diverse region. Johorian main crops include oil palm (for producing biodiesel), livestock rearing, fruits and vegetables with Singapore taking in approximately 37% of Johorian poultry supply and 15% fish inputs from Malaysia while other products include eggs, vegetables and milk (Afifah, 2020). It therefore makes perfect sense for the two to get even closer together.
At the height of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in late 2020, both Singapore and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have indicated enthusiasm in designating Johor as their major food supplier in the coming years with Mentri Besar Datuk Hasni Mohammad who is the Chief Minister of the Malaysian state of Johor indicating that his state government had started negotiations with both countries from end 2020: “Singapore and UAE are now focusing on ensuring food supplies to their respective countries, and if we look at Johor’s location, we are their best choice, in particular for the island republic…Once an agreement has been reached, it will create new opportunities for those in the food industry…[before making it happen, Johor must strengthen its food security plan not only for Malaysia but also for across the Causeway] (Mohd, 2020).” Johor is determined to capitalize on such economic opportunities while Singapore is keen to diversity food supply as well as access nearby sources of food as well. This is a win-win situation.
The State of Johor is also enthusiastic about the opportunities to boost its own agricultural industry as the State had been hit by the economic fallout from the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and it intends to become the major food supplier for its southern neighbor (Afifah, 2020), a world-class economically dynamic and a global financial center, by working with Singapore’s visionary and progressive government that has navigated Singapore safely and successfully through the pandemic. To enhance food security, Mentri Besar Hasni declared that the state government is mobilizing agricultural producers, farmers, fishermen, consumers and all stakeholders in the supply chain to gear up for the local, regional and global market demand, realizing the stakes involved given his articulation that: “This is because at the present moment, Singapore already imports more than RM500mil worth of food and food products from us each month…Johor’s strategic location is a preferred choice for Singapore not only in terms of food supply but also for various industries such as properties, manufacturing and services (Mohd, 2020).”
Singaporean investments in Johorian farms
Singapore is historically one of the largest investors in Johor, investing RM11.6bn (US$2.9bn) into 1527 projects in the state between 1980 and 2012 driven by Singapore’s high costs, shortage of human resource and rising wages but the ringgit’s decline in 2015 (drop of 20% in value against the US dollar and Singapore dollar) made Johor wages and cost of doing business even more competitive (Oxford Business Group, Undated). In general, manufacturers noted a cost saving of 20-30% in producing goods in Johor rather than Singapore though high-skilled workers in value-added industries tend to head to Singapore for jobs due to better pay and career opportunities (i.e. Johor is a good source of skilled manpower for Singapore) (Oxford Business Group, Undated). Private non-profit sector firms like Management Development Institute of Singapore (MDIS) has started a RM350m (US$86.6m) campus in EduCity in 2016 dispensing training for Johor human resource in hospitality, tourism and business, with an expanded student body in 2020, even attracting Mid-East students who are comfortable studying in the Islamic environment of Johor (Oxford Business Group, Undated). In the high tech sector, the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector in Johor enjoying proximity and a sizable significant market in Singapore. Now Johor is also focused on becoming a food basket for Singaporean consumers too (Oxford Business Group, Undated).
Besides Johorian farms ramping up their supply potential to Singapore, Singaporeans are also venturing out into the Malaysian state to seek agricultural economic opportunities. Some have already done this for decades. Singaporean fighter pilot turned ostrich farmer Colin Teh (68 years old) is a good example of a Singaporean who invested in Johorian farms. By now, he is already a veteran of more than 20 years. There are certain advantages in rearing ostriches as they live long up to 60 years old with healthy appetite consuming approximately 3 kg of grass and feeds daily and can tolerate different temperature settings impervious to tropical wet heat in Malaysia and, as the largest birds, ostrich eggs are about twice the size of a human fist and hit the scale at approximately 1.4kg while A-grade ostrich meat retails for 150 ringgit or US$36.40 per kg (Yong, 2018).
Colin’s Pengerang Johor-based Desaru Ostrich Farm is the biggest of a total of four ostrich farms in Malaysia and it provides four restaurants with meat while running its own eatery that dishes out protein-rich low-cholesterol ostrich egg omelette, satay, lean ostrich meat bak kut teh, nuggets and stir fried ostrich meat with chilli/onions for 10-25 ringgits (S$3.30-S$8.30 or US$2.43-US$6.08) designed by Colin and his wife (Yong, 2018). Bak Kut Teh is originally a peppery pork broth served as pork ribs and garlic (the Malaysian version is chocked full of traditional Chinese medicine or TCM herbs). This is a highly popular dish both in Singapore and Malaysia (particularly so in Johor where there are many Hokkiens in a Cantonese dominated country). The Tehs are probably the first in the world to innovate the dish by substituting it with ostrich meat.
Colin’s spouse Joyce (68 years old) is a homemaker turned farmer who went against the opinions of her family members and friends to support Colin’s initial farm business at Kajang before selling the farm to shift to the Desaru ranch in 2000 (Yong, 2018). She articulated how they built up the business from scratch through trial and error: “Last time, the (incubator) in Kajang is the big one. You can set about 120 eggs inside…All this knowledge, I slowly pick up, step by step, until today, I am very confident… (If) there’s a bad egg and then there’s a smell, (it means it is) contaminated already. You don’t know which egg (it is, so you have to) check them one by one. (Otherwise) it will affect the good and healthy eggs…[in catering to the ostrich “unique temperament”,] You must have at least a pair of ostriches in the enclosure. Single one, they will get stressed (and) they don’t eat. They get weaker by the day…We even put a chicken there sometimes. This chicken actually becomes their partner…They will get aggressive (if they feel threatened). They will kick you and at the same time, they have one (sharp) toe, they will scratch you [a worker had to stay in bed for seven days after a male ostrich kicked her while she was collecting eggs]… [Colin himself was hurt on his stomach, chest and thigh]... (Such incidents) are quite rare, and we always remind parents not to let small children into the enclosure...We are already 6, we hope to retire. If anybody wants, we would like to teach them [her children] to take over (Yong, 2018).”
For more than 20 years, Colin and Joyce’s Desaru Ostrich Farm, a nostalgic, dust-filled, a warm and humid ground, has a flock of elongated black-necked ostriches (a 100 kg reptilian bird that can sprint at high speeds but not take off in flight) that are hemmed into an enclosure surrounded with corrugated steel fence while enjoying their sun bathing (Yong, 2018). Colin explained affectionately: “Ostriches like to peck…They peck 1,500 times a day. (But) it doesn’t hurt. They have no teeth, no sharp ends…Ostriches have a unique character. You try and reach them, they will run away. You stay still, they will come to you (Yong, 2018).” The farm’s profits are made possible by visitor-ship of 2,000 tourists per month (entrance fees for the farm: 20 ringgit or US$4.86 for grown-ups and 15 ringgit or US$3.65 for kids) who are mostly Singaporeans with Malaysians, Taiwanese, Hong Kongers and South Koreans and many visitors like to outreach towards the big birds and then feel the sensation of their pecking on his fingers (Yong, 2018).
Singaporean administrator Adeline Ang (43 years old), who visited the farm last year with her two kids (7 and 11 years old), commented: “It’s a very rustic place, and the owner gave us a good brief of the place and the animals. My kids loved the ostrich satay…I was inspired by his story of how he started this business many years ago. I thought he was very brave and a risk taker (Yong, 2018).” Desaru is 45 minutes by boat from Singapore so Colin can still be within proximity of his friends and relatives but he will also be by the side of his wife Joyce (now owner and helper of the farm) who surmounted her shy nature to manage many ranch customers and now both husband and wife likened the birds as “docile” and “tame” “children” to the Teh family (Yong, 2018). Desaru Ostrich Farm is now a hub for tourist buses (up to 30 bus full loads daily) through word of mouth (Yong, 2018).
The State of Johor plays a critical role to Singapore in terms of food supply chain, compared to other proximate regions, because of at least two reasons as discussed above. The first reason is the close ties between the peoples of both nations. The case studies in the writing indicated that the two peoples of Johor state and Singapore are virtually bonded together whether in the arena of Singaporean investments, people-to-people exchanges, intermarriages, historical/cultural worldviews and now increasingly through food supply, especially after how the pandemic revealed Singapore's food security vulnerability. Throughout the pandemic, the Malaysian government allowed food trucks to pass into Singapore without breaks, keeping a constant supply of food into the city-state. Johor benefits as well with revenues from the food deliveries to facilitate Johor's recovery from the pandemic. This closeness in eclectic ways positions Johor as an even closer neighbor than the Indonesian Riau islands which developed differently under a colonial Dutch system and then the pancasila (‘five principles’) social system under the Republic of Indonesia. By comparison, Singapore and Malaysian were both British colonies and were once a single entity until 1965. Singapore and Malaysia developed into multicultural systems that were open economies to attract foreign direct investments (FDIs) from their inception of independence.
The second reason is the discussed factors of complementarity in comparative advantages between the two countries with adequate land space, lower labor costs and cost of doing business in Johor paired off with the tech-capabilities in the capital-rich city state of Singapore. The two countries are also connected by two causeways in Woodlands and Kranji and soon a mass rapid transit system will link up the two. The Indonesian Riau island of Batam by comparison requires an hour boat ride using high-speed ferries. The proximity facilitates the state of Johor's agri-food ambitions as well. Johor’s Mentri Besar Hasni’s ambition is to assist Johorians who were laid off or lost their jobs by enlarging Johor's agricultural sector and turn Johor into a "food bank" for Singapore and others (Afifah, 2020). He noted: “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 products are 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 (Afifah, 2020).” Singaporean supermarkets like Sheng Shiong and NTUC Fairprice are already importing leafy green vegetables from Johor.
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