An aerial view of a stretch of the North-South Expressway near Slim River, Perak. The expressway has cut travelling time from Johor Baru to Kuala Lumpur to three hours. FILE PIC

BACK in the 1970s, the thought of travelling in a car for hours and passing through rubber and oil palm plantations never excited us. The travelling time was spent sleeping. If not, we would have been squabbling among ourselves in the back of the car. It took us more than half a day or more by road from Johor Baru to Kuala Lumpur.

We would start the journey at dawn. We, the children, would continue our sleep in the car, only to be jolted awake as we passed through Pekan Nenas. I remember having to hold my breath as we passed through the town due to the overpowering stench from the river. Waste water from the pineapple cannery flowed into the river.

The main North-South trunk road passed through smaller towns like Kulai, where it cut right through the small town. You can find a bicycle workshop in between a general convenience store and a Chinese coffeeshop with marble topped tables and chairs.

If you set out early, you’ll miss the morning crowd. At the same trunk road, you’ll find people taking buses to various destinations. One time, there was a fire in the town and we had to be diverted through a rubber plantation to get to the other side.

I also remember this long stretch of road in Air Bemban, which was back then notorious for road accidents. It’s a quiet road with a small surau up a little hill on the right if you’re driving north.

There was also Macap, where the famous Aw Pottery is, and Air Hitam, where we would shop for vases and other pottery stuff.

From Air Hitam, we would take the Yong Peng road into Muar or Batu Pahat. Along the way, you could find roadside stalls peddling taro (keladi), pineapples, pumpkins and fruits. While my parents bargained the prices of the stuff, we would be throwing pebbles into the brownish peat water. Oh, how we envied children our age swimming in the little canal along the road.

And you know you are close to crossing the border into Melaka when you reach the Muar Bridge.

On one side would be Muar town, while on the other would be Tanjung Agas and onwards into Melaka.

We would make our breakfast stop here at a Chinese coffeeshop, where there is also a Malay satay stall. Yes, Muar is the only place where satay is served for breakfast.

Driving out of Johor alone was a tedious affair. If you were asleep in the car as you set out on your journey, you’ll wake up to still find that you haven’t crossed the border into the other state.

The only other pit stop my father would make would be either in Melaka (at the house of my mother’s cousin) or at Lake Gardens in Seremban before we arrive in Kuala Lumpur.

Those days are long gone. The younger generation is certainly a lucky lot. My nephew and niece don’t have to spend so much time travelling up and down the country like I did.

The Projek Lebuhraya Utara-Selatan (PLUS) North-South Expressway (NSE) now cuts travelling time from Johor Baru to Kuala Lumpur down to three hours. In fact, my niece takes about two hours to drive from her university in Batu Pahat to her home in Putrajaya. And she could cut down the time further had it not been for the Road Transport Department’s Automated Enforcement System cameras in Pagoh.

The NSE started in 1981, and the entire 772km expressway from Bukit Kayu Hitam in Kedah to Skudai in Johor Baru passing through seven states, namely Kedah, Penang, Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, Melaka and Johor, was fully completed in 1994.

It signalled the coming of age of Malaysia’s road transportation system.

And it became the talk of the town recently when Maju Holdings placed a bid to buy over the NSE concession holder, PLUS Malaysia Bhd, from its two main shareholders, UEM Group and the Employees Provident Fund. Now, this is not the first bid the shareholders have received for PLUS, but Maju Holdings had proposed not to increase toll rates for 20 years if it is successful in its bid.

The NSE has a two-toll system, namely an open system (users only have to pay at certain toll plazas within the open system range for a fixed amount) and a closed system (users collect toll tickets or swipe the Touch ’n Go card before entering the expressway at respective toll plazas and pay an amount of toll at the exit toll plaza).

It was reported that under the revised concession agreement, PLUS is allowed to increase toll rates by five per cent every three years starting last year. The increase will continue until the concession period expires in December 2038. The company had not had a toll rate increase since 2005.

Maju’s no hike proposal was supported by many, including Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, who said the bid should be given due consideration as it would reduce the Federal Government’s burden. He said the government has had to pay PLUS RM900 million in compensation.

But analysts, giving some solid arguments, said there was no reason for any change in the ownership of PLUS.

Both shareholders would not be pressed to sell their stakes in the company, given the yield in the returns that they get from their investment.

People will continue to use the expressway to get out of the city for a break during extended weekends or return to their hometowns to celebrate festive seasons. Statistics have shown that there had been no let-up in traffic on the expressway.

And, whether or not PLUS has a new owner, or if there is a hike or not in the toll rate, there is still an alternative for road users.

The North-South trunk road — or Federal Route 1, which has been in existence since 1880 — is still there for many to use.

The writer, a United Nations’
Journalism fellow and Wolfson
College Cambridge press fellow, with 30 years of experience as a journalist, is Associate Editor, Lifestyle

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