SOME 20 years ago, E. Lim (not his real name) would wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of shouting and gang fights in his neighbourhood of Taman Sentosa in Johor Baru.
On most weekend nights, he would hear shouts and fights involving rival gangs at the junction near his family home.
The area also had its fair share of shooting and robbery cases in the past.
“At that time, I was still young and became used to the suroundings as the area we stayed was notorious as a ‘tough neighbourhood’,” recalled the 40-year-old customer care executivem who currently works in Singapore.
Lim was “educated” by his parents on ways to avoid unnecessary trouble as the gangs members were young adults that could influence him.
“It was not easy as most of my former schoolmates were involved in the gangs and they always hung out at the nearby shopping complex in my residential area where they would loiter at the karaoke joints and discotheques,” he said.
Lim’s residential area is one of several that were once notorious in Johor Baru city.
With changing times and with the advent of development, many of the previous notorious areas within the city changed as part of the state capital’s transformation plan.
A visit to Taman Sentosa now shows that it is being swallowed by the adjacent South Key mega development project.
For the younger generation, Taman Sentosa is somewhat jaded, unlike in the 1980s where it once was a fairly new modern residential area that came up with neighbouring Taman Pelangi and Taman Seri Tebrau.
The main commercial area is Plaza Sentosa which is still considered as the landmark of the area. The once notorious shopping complex has since been upgraded with a facelift and new facade to suit the times.
Many Singaporeans still flock to Taman Sentosa area for bargains and cheap food, owing to the proximity of the Causeway checkpoint that is less than 10 minutes drive away.
In some ways, this is indicative that the business community there have been pro-active in ensuring that Taman Sentosa and the adjacent residential areas are safe for visitors.
Lim, who commutes daily, said his former neighbourhood had been transformed as most of the secret societies and gangs became more cautious about their activities and moved out of the area.
“How times have changed. It is definitely different now. There are still fights, but they happen at the commercial areas and not in the residential areas,” he said.
Johor Baru has several old and established residential areas that had a negative image in the past. The seedy image, over the years, has somewhat been “mentally cemented” to the areas.
During the 1980s, Johor Baru was a town that grew organically to accommodate its residents. Over time, it became well-known as a ‘border town’ where, towards the end of the decade, Singaporeans flocked to for cheap food and entertainment.
Gradually, Johor Baru transformed in a big way to accommodate its new residents who were mainly migrant workers from other states. Most came to look for job opportunities in Singapore due to the higher exchange rate.
This peaked in the 1990s where even labour-intensive work in the island republic can give one a fairly comfortable paycheck.
With that, community attitude in residential areas changed as most of the migrant workers only saw themselves working in Singapore for a temporary period.
There was also the issue of crime as some of those from other states failed to get work in Singapore and relied on crime to finance their lives.
Today, the perception that Johor Baru is riddled with crime is slowly disappearing as the state capital develops at a fast pace. But to some, that stigma is still prevalent due to perception.
To be fair, there are still parts of Johor Baru that are still underdeveloped and stands as a mishmash of modernity and old age.
Like most large towns and cities in the country, Johor also has its fair share of crime plaguing the state and its state capital. It is mainly a modern urban problem.
This problem is now further compounded as Johor Baru’s new migrant population increases daily due to work opportunities in Singapore and the growing Iskandar Malaysia economic growth corridor.
Lim feels that Johor Baru has lost its “soul” over the years due to the younger generation leaving the state and the lack of community support.
“I feel Johor Baru citizens need to take an interest in their city and dispel the notion that the city is crime-infested and is just another passing urban area before Singapore.
“JB (Johor Baru) has the potential to be a heritage city. It is also the southern gateway to Malaysia. So there is a need to position the state capital as a unique place,” he said.
And what Lim says makes sense as it is usually the people that make a place what it is, bringing the much needed character to the environment.
With better planning and enforcement by authorities, old crumbling areas of Johor Baru city can be redeveloped to go with the times.
Perhaps it is time to seriously look at redevelopment of older areas in Johor Baru and not just concentrate on new areas.