Bridging Islands – Chapter 14

‘Central’ Singapore Island, ‘Peripheral’ Mainland Johor: Making the Link
Paul A. Barter

Singapore, the island (and now city state), lies at the southern tip of the Malayan peninsula, just across the mainland Malaysian State of Johor. These two territories were first connected by a fixed link in 1923 when a causeway of just over one kilometre in length was completed, providing both road and rail links. This case stands in marked contrast to many others discussed in this book in that many of the familiar island and mainland roles are reversed. In particular, changes associated with improved transport links between the two places, including the causeway fixed link early in the 20th Century, were more dramatic for the more ‘peripheral’ mainland in southern Johor than for the more ‘central’ island, Singapore.Interpreting this case hinges on tensions inherent in ideas about islandness. There is surprisingly little consensus, but most notions of islandness go far beyond literal conceptions to focus on various qualities that emerge from the limited transport connections and clearly defined boundaries that are common to many islands. Qualities that are widely emphasized include being bounded, small in scale, separate, hard edged (yet open to flows of various kinds), remote, peripheral, detached, and isolated (yet paradoxically often well-connected). Such qualities have been seen as resulting in social and other consequences, including intensified local interactions, being more prone to the effects of externalities, conscious of an island identity and of uniqueness and. While many have traditionally emphasized limitations and vulnerabilities associated with islandness, more recently others highlight resilience, opportunities and advantages.

In the decades following the 1965 political separation from Malaysia, it initially seemed that Singapore’s islandness might again become prominent. But initial fears that independent Singapore’s economy would be cut off from its hinterland were exaggerated, except perhaps in the cultural sphere. Indeed, Johor emerged with a key role in Singapore’s industrial spill-over and economic restructuring in the 1980s and early 1990s. Accordingly, physical connections and flows between the island and mainland intensified and diversified and the second fixed transport link was planned and built. The obvious impacts of enhanced transport links continued to focus on the mainland while continuing to serve Singapore in less visible ways. Finally, although recent years have seen economic interactions between Singapore and southern Johor remain very important, these have nevertheless been overshadowed to a great extent as both sides increasingly compete to expand their wider international roles. Recent negotiations over fixed links have thus been complex and troubled . It is increasingly difficult to characterise interactions between the two sides in terms of centre and periphery.

We have seen that this case highlights a tension over whether or not peripherality is intrinsic to the idea of islandness. It affirms that islandness can be compatible with centrality without becoming meaningless. Therefore the ‘anomalous’ lack of bridge effects on the island cannot be explained away by denying Singapore’s islandness. A lack of peripherality rather than of islandness seems more likely to explain the absence of bridge effects on Singapore, . We can speculate that being peripheral may be necessary for the emergence of bridge effects.


© 2021 Institute of Island Studies, University of Prince Edward Island. All rights reserved.