Tis the season to do some spending, but if you want a change of scenery from the malls of Singapore, Malaysia might be a good option.
The Singapore dollar has traditionally been strong relative to the Malaysian ringgit and people here think nothing of making trips to Johor Baru to shop for groceries, eat and enjoy services such as car washing and polishing, manicures and massages for less than what they would pay here.
But now is an especially good time to get more bang for the Singapore buck across the Causeway. The exchange rate is about S$1 to RM2.66, the lowest in 10 months.
Life! went to Johor Baru recently and saw hordes of shoppers at Johor Bahru City Square, the mall closest to the Causeway and connected by a pedestrian bridge to the Malaysian checkpoint.
Many toted paper bags laden with shopping, and shops such as clothing retailer Uniqlo were inundated with consumers keen to snag good deals.
Singaporeans make up 40 per cent of the 27 million people who visit Johor Bahru City Square each year, says mall management Johdaya Karya.
At the newer adjoining Komtar Johor Bahru City Centre (JBCC), crowds were thinner but there were still plenty of Singaporean shoppers visiting British retailer Marks & Spencer and American ribs restaurant Tony Roma's.
Ms Euphemia Toong, 30, and her family will be ringing in the new year in Malaysia, partly because of the favourable exchange rate. They go to Johor Baru once a month to eat and stock up on groceries.
"I've been calling up our usual money changer to get the latest updates on cashing in at the best exchange rate," says Ms Toong, who works in media and advertising. "But we won't go overboard with our spending just because of the good rates."
Mr Ahmad Sholehin, 32, who is married with an eight-month-old child, says the effect of the good rates can be felt only if he buys bigger ticket items in ringgit.
"I'm thinking of buying a property in Malaysia. But I'll wait and see if the rate will rebound, though the sentiment on the ground is that it will go even lower," says Mr Ahmad, who is self-employed.
Since the ringgit slid against the Singapore dollar last week, money changers here have reported running out of the currency as Singaporeans flock to change money.
But many of the 26 people Life! spoke to said that beyond getting slightly more for the same amount of Singapore dollars, they do not think it is a big deal. Retiree Rostar Salim, 59, who was spotted shopping with her nieces and sisters at Komtar Johor Bahru City Centre, says: "It's the same to me, whether it goes up or down. I will still buy if I see anything nice."
Malls such as KSL City Mall, AEON Tebrau and Sutera Mall are popular among Singaporeans, mainly because of their supermarkets. Groceries cost about $1 to $2 less compared with Singapore.
Johor is also a good choice for families who want to have a short holiday without spending too much money, with kid-friendly attractions such as Legoland and Sanrio Hello Kitty Town located near the Second Link at Tuas.
It is also convenient to get there, whether by car via the Causeway or Second Link or by bus. Buses 170 and Causeway Link from Queen Street and Kranji MRT are popular options.
The recent hike in toll charges, costing an additional $13 for private cars, was expected to deter Singaporeans from entering Johor Baru.
"The Causeway became less congested when the tolls were first implemented. I even thought that I could go to JB every day to shop. But it's back to normal now," says housewife Maya Aman, 41.
Drivers Life! spoke to say that cost savings from spending in Malaysia outweigh the toll increase, with many spending a full day in the city to make the most of the higher toll fees.
But some business owners say that they have noticed a drop in Singapore customers. Mr Tee Yau Chin, owner of nail salon Modus Signature at KSL City Mall, says that sales have fallen by 40 per cent since the higher toll charges were implemented. His customers are predominantly from Singapore.
He adds, however, that he is seeing more Singapore customers in this year-end holiday period.
Big malls in Johor Baru are also doing their best to keep Singaporeans coming, by addressing safety worries that visitors might have. They have, for example, stepped up security measures by hiring guards and installing CCTVs for the safety of shoppers.
Though Singaporeans have not stayed away, some are still wary about car jackings and robberies when they cross the Causeway.
Lawyer Sandeep Menon, 29, says: "The few hundred dollars saved in food and petrol mean nothing if you end up as the unfortunate victim of a crime. We just have to be extra cautious and avoid driving around too late at night."
This article was first published on Dec 13, 2014.
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