Johor has been growing rapidly over the past few years and is fast becoming an economic powerhouse, especially with increased investments and positive tourism numbers. NELSON BENJAMIN speaks to state Tourism, Domestic Trade and Consumerism committee chairman Datuk Tee Siew Kiong to find out about his ideas and plans for this sector.
Question: Is it true that investments into the state has been on the up trend over the past few years? What are the factors leading to this?
A: Yes it is true. The trend over the past few years has been on the increase. In 2013, we achieved investments of RM14.4bil and it grew to RM21.2bil in 2014. Last year, for the first six months, we achieved RM27bil.
Many investors are now choosing to set up their headquarters and factories here. One example is the investment from chocolate maker Hershey’s, which has invested about RM1bil in Senai. Their products for Malaysia is only 5% while the remaining 95% is for other countries including Asian countries.
One of our major advantage is our proximity to Singapore. In this global era, we cannot afford to be adversaries but instead form smart partnerships with each other to develop both countries. That is why the relations between both countries have always been good. Our mammoth growth corridor Iskandar Malaysia is also successful in attracting investors as it is strategically located.
Question: What are the hopes for development taking place in Johor?
A: Both our Johor Ruler Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar and Johor Mentri Besar Datuk Mohamed Khaled Nordin want the state to be the next economic powerhouse. They do not want Johor to compete with Singapore but complement it.
We are trying to lure more investments, which are high-tech and advanced, using green technology, creative industry and also those that are less labour intensive.
That is why we have the Johor Investment Committee (JIC), which is chaired by the Mentri Besar and I am his deputy. The JIC is a co-ordinating body between the Federal government, the state government and the Johor local authorities. We help investors and have a good relationship among the state departments. We also collect feedback on problems faced by investors and bring it up to the right authorities for it to be resolved. We hope with all these developments taking place, more locals would be able to get better employment opportunities.
Question: The falling of the ringgit. Is it hurting Johor’s economy badly?
A: The currency issue is not just affecting Malaysia but other countries in the region as well including Japan and Australia mainly because of the strengthening of the United State’s economy. Maybe importers who are trading in US dollars will feel the pinch but in Johor, our exports are higher than imports. In 2014, our exports totalled RM187bil.
Besides that, we have about 400,000 Malaysians working in Singapore who earn an average of S$1,500 (RM4,500) which works up to close to RM2bil each month. Also, Singapore tourist arrivals are about 16.5 million annually and if they spend just RM500 per person, that totals up to more than RM8bil annually. There are also a lot of multiplier effects. Just the income from our workers and visitors from Singapore are earning us more than RM30bil annually. In fact, with the weakened currency, more Singaporeans will be spending their money shopping and dining at our restaurants. I am sure Johor’s economy is much more vibrant and active compared to the other states.
Question: The tourism sector is also booming in the state? Can you elaborate?
A: Presently the weakened currency is bringing about more opportunities for tourism industry players to work together. One night’s stay in Singapore is actually equivalent to three-days stay in Johor for the same level of service. There is huge potential. Tourist arrivals into the state has been steadily increasing from 2011 with 3.7 million to 6.42 million last year. It has been increasing for the past five years. We also like to thank the Federal government for allowing China tourists visa exemption as this will draw more visitors, especially Chinese tourists visiting Singapore. This will allow Chinese businessman who visit Singapore to hop over to Johor. We hope the Federal government will study the policies from time to time to help boost tourism.
Tourism is also another field that we can work with Singapore to come up with attractive tour packages such as a six days, five nights package to visit Singapore and Johor. People can also use our train services, which saves time especially with the increase to 22 trips daily between Johor and Singapore. I feel that tour companies in Johor should come up with packages where tourists from Singapore could enter Johor Baru via the train service and have tour buses pick them up at JB Sentral, located in the heart of the city.
This can save time and cost as tourists will not have to waste time being stuck in traffic on the Causeway.
Our major events this month are the upcoming International Kite Festival in Pasir Gudang, JB Arts Festival and the annual Chingay procession, and which are all also a hit among visitors both local and foreign. Even the Johor Ruler will be present at the Chingay event.
Question: What are your hopes for the tourism players in the state. What more can be done to enhance cooperation with Singapore tour players?
A: The industry players really need to transform. They cannot just be waiting. We have a lot of good products. We also have an opportunity to work with Singapore. They should capitalise on it. Try to sell products that Singapore does not have such as our beautiful islands off the coast of Johor, our wetlands, which are second largest in the world and our national parks, which are hundreds of years old.
It is a good time for players from both countries to team up as Singapore is supportive of this collaboration.
I have even received a delegation from Singapore including their minister who came to eat durians in Johor.
We must be innovative and take advantage of our weak currency. We need to change strategy and that is why when I go on trips overseas, I take along product owners as part of my delegation. We want them to see tourism from a different perspective. The government also gives incentives to encourage industry players to go global. The state government is serious about developing tourism in Johor and that is the main reason for us to have a 10-year comprehensive tourism development plan. This is one industry with a lot of spin-offs including opportunities for a lot of people including tour guides, taxi drivers, shops, restaurants and shopping complexes.
Question: Johor has always been targeting tourists from China as a new market. But the MH370 and MH17 plane crashes have spooked many air travellers including Chinese tourists. How are you trying to persuade them to come to Johor?
A: These two incidents have caused some tourist arrival numbers from China to dip. But we have not been just sitting down worrying about these incidents but instead have taken initiatives to organise trips to China to woo not just their investors but also tourists.
To achieve this, I have been organising many trips to China with government officers, politicians and industry players to engage and have business matching with the people there. I have an advantage when in China as they are shocked when they hear me converse in Mandarin, as they think Malaysians only speak Malay.
With Mandarin, we become closer and the response has been good. People know about Johor and our many tourist spots. We also managed to get a popular China-based reality show to come and do their video shootings at eight popular locations in Johor, namely Pulau Sibu, Desaru, Legoland, Air Masin Kukup and also in Kluang. All this has helped people to know more about Johor.
Question: You have recently launched an initiative known as duta muafakat (unity envoy). Please elaborate why unity is very important in Johor?
A: I have started this initiative to encourage Johoreans, especially young people to interact with 10 other people of different races. This means that if you are a Chinese, then you must interact with several Indian and Malay friends.
This can be through face-to-face meetings, discussions, outings or even via online. I am confident that the young people in Johor are different as they are driven by the Johor spirit to stay united and to help each other. So far, the response has been good. All this is voluntary and I will see how else we can help this group spread out statewide. We do not want to force anyone to join this activity as our ultimate aim is to promote togetherness, racial harmony and tolerance among everyone.
This activity also promotes volunteerism among the people. My target is to have 1,000 people involved in this activity. I hope that Johor will be able to lead by example when it comes to race relations and unity. We also want to prevent outside factors from poisoning our minds and causing the people to go against each other due to political differences.