The southernmost Malaysian city of any size, JOHOR BAHRU – or simply JB – is the main gateway into Singapore, linked to the city-state by a causeway carrying a road, a railway, and the pipes through which Singapore imports its fresh water. More than fifty thousand vehicles each day travel across the causeway (the newer second crossing from Geylang Patah, 20km west of JB, is much less used because of its higher tolls), and the ensuing traffic, noise and smog affects most of downtown Johor Bahru.
The city has been moulded by its proximity to Singapore, for better or for worse – it has the air of both a border town and a boomtown. The vast majority of visitors are day-trippers, many drawn by the cheap shopping, and Johor Bahru’s nightlife caters more than adequately to the appetite of Singaporean men for liquor, hostesses and karaoke.
That said, Johor Bahru is taking steps to broaden its appeal. An ambitious collaboration with Singapore, known as Iskandar Malaysia, set out to stimulate local industry but has grown to embrace property development and tourist facilities. There is also evidence of smaller-scale entrepeneurship such as a rash of new cafés and boutiques, and already the city deserves to be seen as more than merely a hurdle to jump on the way to Singapore, Melaka or Kuala Lumpur.
JB stands with Melaka as one of the country’s most historic sites. Chased from its seat of power by the Portuguese in 1511, the Melakan court decamped to the Riau Archipelago, south of modern Singapore, before upping sticks again in the 1530s and shifting to the upper reaches of the Johor River. There they endured a century of offensives by both the Portuguese and the Acehnese of northern Sumatra.
Stability was finally achieved by courting the friendship of the Dutch in the 1640s, and the kingdom of Johor blossomed into a thriving trading entrepôt. By the end of the century, though, the rule of the tyrannical Sultan Mahmud had halted Johor’s pre-eminence among the Malay kingdoms, and piracy was causing a decline in trade. In 1699, Sultan Mahmud was killed by his own nobles. With the Melaka-Johor dynasty finally over, successive power struggles crippled the kingdom.
Immigration of the Bugis peoples to Johor eventually eclipsed the power of the sultans, and though the Bugis were finally chased out by the Dutch in 1784, the kingdom was a shadow of its former self. The Johor-Riau empire – and the Malay world – was split in two, with the Melaka Straits forming the dividing line following the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. As links with the court in Riau faded, Sultan Ibrahim assumed power, amassing a fortune based upon hefty profits culled from plantations. He established his administrative headquarters in the fishing village of Tanjung Puteri, which his son Abu Bakar – widely regarded as the father of modern Johor – later renamed Johor Bahru (“New Johor”).