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.
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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”).
Around the seafront
The views across to Singapore from the seafront, just a short walk from Sri Mariamman Temple, are doubly impressive after the cramped streets of the city centre. Several interesting attractions lie on or around Jalan Ibrahim, while just north of here is the fortress-like Sultan Ibrahim Building; formerly the home of the state government, which has been moved west to Kota Iskandar, the building is eventually scheduled to become a museum.
JB is a sprawling city, and many of the administrative offices have been moved out of the centre to Kota Iskandar in the west. Most places of interest to visitors, though, are still downtown or close to the waterfront near the Singapore causeway. The downtown area blends the scruffy with the modern: the claustrophobic alleys of the sprawling market are within a few paces of thoroughly contemporary shopping malls such as City Square. Close by, the huge CIQ (customs, immigration and quarantine) complex – built to streamline travel between JB and Singapore – includes JB Sentral station, combining bus and train terminals.
Arguably the most interesting part of the area, though, is on and around Jalan Tan Hiok Nee and Jalan Dhoby. Formerly quite seedy, these streets have been tidied up and are now at the centre of a vibrant shopping and dining scene.
The sultans and the law
The antics of the British royal family are nothing compared to what some of the nine royal families in Malaysia get up to. Nepotism, meddling in state politics and flagrant breaches of their exemption from import duties are among their lesser misdemeanours, which generally go unreported in the circumspect local press. The most notorious of them was Johor’s late Sultan Mahmud Iskandar Al-Haj ibni Ismail Al-Khalidi, usually known as Sultan Iskandar, who died in 2010. He is alleged to have beaten his golf caddy to death in the Cameron Highlands in 1987 after the unfortunate man made the mistake of laughing at a bad shot.
Such behaviour had long incensed the prime minister of the time, Dr Mahathir, who was itching to bring the lawless royals into line. He got his chance in 1993 when yet another beating incident involving Sultan Iskandar was brought up in the federal parliament along with 23 other similar assaults since 1972. Following a stand-off with Mahathir, the sultans agreed to a compromise – they would waive their immunity from prosecution on the condition that no ruler would be taken to court without the attorney-general’s approval.
Despite the peccadilloes, and worse, of the various sultans being the subject of popular gossip (though little coverage in the press), the sultans are still revered by many Malays, for whom they symbolise continuing Malay dominance of a multiethnic nation.