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JOHOR BARU, Nov 24 — It is no exaggeration to say most of the businesses here relied on customers from across the Causeway.
Since the Malaysia-Singapore border closed in March this year, businesses in what is popularly known as the JB city centre have suffered.
Before the shutdown, this was a lively area where you could find restaurants and other businesses open till the wee hours of the morning.
Now, businesses are not only suffering from the lack of Singaporean shoppers but also from restrictions put in place because of Covid-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs).
With no sign that the economy will recover this year, many have placed their hopes on next year instead.
Surviving the pandemic
For bundle shoes seller Mohd Zali AR, his business at the popular Bazaar Karat night market took a big hit from March onwards.
“I was at a loss for the first three months as I had given up selling bundle shoes due to the pandemic,” said the 37-year-old.
Mohd Zali said Singaporeans made up the majority of his customers as they usually look out for rare bundle shoes from Japan.
What he did next was to venture into online sales through his Facebook and Instagram accounts.
He said sales were initially slow, but has been picking up for the past few months and he has plans to grow his online business next year.
“But the best will still be having my own spot in Bazaar Karat as I have a good Singapore customer base that wants to physically see the shoes and try them on before buying,” he said, adding that he will concentrate on looking for another spot in Bazaar Karat once the border reopens.
Lyas Lee, the owner of popular downtown eatery Retto Cafe along Jalan Ibrahim, hopes that next year things will be better.
At the start of the lockdown in March, he said the cafe was badly hit for more than three months as they could not operate fully.
“At that time it was really stressful for business owners like myself as we still had to settle the rental and various overheads without making a profit.
“I was close to closing my business as we could not cope with the situation,” said Lyas when met outside his cafe recently.
However, the 34-year-old entrepreneur tried his best to hold on as he felt it was a shame to let go of a premium spot in the city centre.
Today it is earning far less than before "but we are hoping restrictions will end by early next year. At present we are hampered by the outlet’s size as due to the SOPs we cannot have our tables outside like before.
“We hope that the issue of having outside tables can be resolved immediately." The additional tables will not only help them serve more local customers, but this is with an eye on the return of Singaporean ones.
Convenience store Noor Mohd Mart along Jalan Meldrum in the city centre has also been hard hit since the pandemic started.
Store supervisor Mohamad Hanis said there has been an 80 per cent drop in overall sales since March. However, he accepts that such challenges are a world-wide problem.
“Even with the easing of border restrictions by next year, we don’t expect the business here to pick up immediately,” said the 35-year-old.
Noble Supermarket in Taman Perling, which is close to the Second Link crossing, was also very dependent on Singaporeans who came over to shop and take advantage of the currency exchange.
Its supervisor Mohd Asif CK is looking forward to the reopening of the border in hopes that business can improve.
“For us it's more like a chain reaction. If the border reopens and this area is lively, our business also improves,” said the 27-year-old.
Easing of SOPs at eateries
A noodle outlet owner, who only wants to be known as Teo, said their immediate need is to be allowed to have more tables out on the five foot way.
“At present, our daily business is restricted as many have to abide by the municipal council’s social distancing guidelines.
“The coffeeshop now has a reduced capacity and in addition no more outside tables on the five foot way and parking lots after office hours,” said Teo.
He hopes the guidelines can be amended while abiding by SOPs.
Teo said this was the immediate need of a majority of food outlets and hawkers here in the city.
“For us, it is not so much about our Singaporean customers. It's more about the strict guidelines that businesses have to adhere to.
“We cater mainly to breakfast and lunch crowds made up mainly of locals,” said Teo.
SM Kamarul who is a supervisor at an Indian-Muslim restaurant in Taman Pelangi near the city agrees with Teo.
“For us, we need the outside tables and chairs to cater to a bigger customer base after office hours.
“With the current restrictions, we are only making half of what we used to prior to the pandemic,” he said, adding that they hope to see an easing of restrictions by next year.
JB’s services sector
Besides food, JB city centre is also known for its many nightspots as well as massage parlours, car wash outlets and automotive service centres that cater mainly to Singaporeans.
At present, all entertainment and massage parlours are closed due to the pandemic.
Some have even shuttered as they have had no income since the lockdown in March.
For most hairdressers and barbers in Johor Baru, Singaporeans made up a large percentage of their clientele.
Hairdresser Amy Anuar said this year has been the most challenging for his shop located in Bandar Baru Uda.
“Since the start of the lockdown, my profit has been down due to the lack of Singaporean customers. Like most businesses here in JB, we are looking forward to next year when the border can reopen,” he said.
For mechanic M. Khalil, he too is hoping for an easing of restrictions by next year.
“Yes, I have had Singapore customers coming to me for years and they make up a substantial customer base. It's been tough since the lockdown and border closure,” he said.
Khalil said if things still do not improve by next year, he may have to return to his hometown in Batu Pahat to start a small workshop there instead.
The outlook, so far
In September, Johor Mentri Besar Datuk Hasni Mohammad told the state assembly that the Johor government has submitted working papers and SOPs to the Foreign Ministry to expedite the reopening of the Malaysia-Singapore border.
He said he hopes this will be considered, and can be improved upon by the federal government in obtaining the agreement of both countries to fully reopen the border.
Meanwhile, Johor South Small Medium Enterprise (SME) advisor Teh Kee Sin said the reopening of the border is very important for businesses in the city centre.
“I guess business owners in Johor Baru can write off this year since it has been a very challenging year for all of us.
“Let us see how next year will be with the reopening of the Malaysia-Singapore border. However, I only expect things to pick up after March next year as we have several main celebrations such as the Lunar New Year prior to that,” said Teh when contacted by Malay Mail.
“I may sound bleak in my outlook, but that's the situation now. Those who can survive will probably be food-related businesses as they are considered essential services,” he said.
“My advice for businesses is to apply for any government assistance for businesses. Another thing they can do is to reduce their operating costs and reduce unnecessary spending,” he said.