Singapore-Malaysia border is the Asian answer to the Bermuda Triangle


I personally love tourism data provided by countries. And I particularly love data when they can tell whatever you would like to show. Among weird numbers, there is a mystery around Singaporeans going as “tourists” to Malaysia. Looking at the official statistics from Tourism Malaysia, in 2009 over 12.7 million tourists came from Singapore to Malaysia. Taking the rational by dividing total number of travelers from Singapore to Malaysia by Singapore total population, it shows that each Singapore inhabitant was a tourist in Malaysia 2.55 times last year.

From 2000 to 2009, Singaporean tourists visiting Malaysia has grown by a stunning 135 percent. Just for comparison, growth from Thai travelers to Malaysia during the same period was up by 54.1 percent from 0.94 million to 1.45 million, while numbers from Indonesia jumped by 341 percent, from 0.54 million to 2.40 million arrivals. Indonesia’s quantitative jump is due to the removal of the fiscal tax for traveling to most Malaysian cities, as well as the multiplication of low-cost flights between both countries. Malaysia’s tourism performance looks even more impressive compared to its neighbors with their appalling results. Malaysia travelers to Singapore grew “only” by 35 percent from 2000 and 2009, while Indonesian travelers to Singapore grew by 44 percent. Indonesia registered during the same period of time a decline of 31 percent for Singaporeans balanced by a growth of 80 percent of Malaysians.

It would a perfect world if Singapore Immigration and Checkpoints Authority did not provide a different picture with their own data. In 2008, Singapore ICA indicated that 6.25 million traveled overseas by air and sea, and for the ten months of 2010, this figure reached 5.36 million. Of course, it does not include travel by land transportation – train and road vehicle. A study from Euromonitor estimates that Singaporean did 14.08 million departures to foreign countries including 9.2 million to Malaysia. It would still make a difference with the number claimed by Malaysia for 2008 (11 million), and Euromonitor indicates that these are departures, including day trips.

Even figures about Johor Bahru hotels seem to contradict the figures of Tourism Malaysia. Over 35 percent of all Singaporean traveling to Malaysia have the neighboring State of JB as their destination. Unfortunately, it does not bring many benefits to JB hotels, which recorded in 2008 an average occupancy of 61.6 percent and only 1.71 million of foreigners.

The differences in figures should worry both Singapore and Malaysian authorities, as the vanishing of at least two million Singaporean travelers across the border makes the infamous Bermuda Triangle look safe. Singapore Immigration and Checkpoints Authority wants to be reassuring. “We have different methods to account travelers’ movements,” explained (very seriously) an employee from the Communication Department.

The incredible jump in total tourist arrivals to Malaysia has an explanation, which sounds like a fairy tale. Once upon the time in 1998/1999, a new minister of tourism was appointed in Malaysia. To show to his master, the Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir, that he was an efficient working minister, tourist arrivals between 1998 and 1999 jumped by 43.6 percent and by another 29.1 percent between 1999 and 2000. Within two years time, the total number of tourist arrivals to the country almost doubled, from 5.5 million to 10.2 million. The moral of this story is, the former minister of tourism also loved data.