Higher toll rates, increased worry

Two weeks after Singapore raised its Causeway toll charges in response to Malaysia's increase, some heartlanders are worried that it will mean tougher times ahead.

This is despite Minister of State for Trade and Industry Teo Ser Luck's statement in Parliament on Tuesday. He said the impact of the higher Causeway tolls on economic activity in Singapore is likely to be small.

Mr Teo cited figures to show that the cost of land transport makes up just 3 per cent of business costs for manufacturers.

In the services sector, it is even lower - 1 per cent. Since Oct 1, a round trip via the Causeway can cost $13.10 - an increase of more than five times.

This follows higher charges imposed by Singapore to match the increased rates Malaysia had introduced on Aug 1.

But not everyone is convinced that the impact will be "small".

At a coffee shop in Punggol, retiree Samuel Low is having his daily kopi-o with four friends.

He admits that it is still too early to get into a panic mode, but wonders aloud if Singaporeans will be affected by the possible repercussions in the long run.

Mr Low, 78, previously ran a banner-printing business and had a factory in Johor Baru.

Backed by nods and loud cries of "yes" from his friends, he says: "Of course, we'd like to hope that Mr Teo is right. And we like the assurances from the business people who said that they would absorb the costs.

"But the question is, how long can and will they do that?"

In a recent report, fresh produce importers and bus operators also told The Straits Times that they would not be passing on the increased costs to their customers and plan to absorb these higher fees.

Also, in his reply to Mr Ong Teng Koon (Sembawang GRC), Mr Teo acknowledged that some businesses are likely to feel the burn from the sharp increase in the tolls, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in sectors such as wholesale and food that often transport goods across the Causeway.

So despite the reassuring statements, there is no escaping the feeling on the ground that prices are bound to go up.

Cabby Adrian Seah, 57, says: "Vegetables and fruits, especially durians, are all imported by lorries.

"If they have to pay more, I don't see how we can escape from being affected by that."

Mr Seah is not the only one who is reading between the lines.

It doesn't help that there is a certain amount of worry and discontent about rising prices.

Of the 60 people I spoke to, 53 are concerned about inflation.

The slightest hint of a reason for a price increase is enough to set tongues wagging and stress levels rising - even though most are uncertain what the impact will really be.

Heartlanders say that even if SMEs in the HDB townships don't conduct direct shipping from Malaysia, they will still suffer if logistics companies offering transportation services pass the higher charges on to them.

Madam Ong Guimei, 55, a babysitter, says: "Everything is getting more expensive.

"If they (the businesses) decide to pass the higher toll on to us, what can we do?"

She is bracing herself for such an eventuality, one that she believes "won't be too long in the future".

An informal poll with the buyers and the stallholders in some wet markets showed similar sentiments.

This week's jaunts into the heartland reflect the worry on the ground.

People feel that "it will still hit me at some point or other," and cannot understand why both sides are not working out a better solution.

Singapore has said that it will match Malaysia's moves, so if their tolls go down to zero, Singapore will follow suit.

But some say the effects have already begun.

Mr Chua See Yuen, 60, who runs a coffee stall in Woodlands, was one of the first to be affected by the changes.

In August, he woke up to calls from two of his kopi kias (coffee boys) early in the morning. The kopi kias he relies on to get the stall up and going for the breakfast crowd had called him to say that they were stuck.

That Friday morning, drivers of more than 200 buses from Malaysian transport companies parked their buses at the Sultan Iskandar Customs, Immigration and Quarantine Complex in Johor Baru.

Mr Chua has since lost one of his kopi kias. The kopi kia, who had worked with him for nearly four years, said it is no longer feasible to work here with the increased transportation toll.

Mr Chua says: "I am not making that much money and I cannot afford to give him a raise. If I do, I have to do the same with the other two kopi kias. That would be quite hard.

"So now, 'bo bian' (no choice in Hokkien) lah, I have to take over the work."


This article was first published on Oct 12, 2014.
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