JOHOR BAHRU: Although buying barbecued pork slices, or bak kwa, in Johor Bahru to bring back to Singapore is illegal, some shoppers seem willing to risk getting themselves into hot water to score a bargain across the Causeway.
The issue hit the headlines last week, when Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officers intercepted two illegal attempts to bring in large quantities of bak kwa from Malaysia through the Woodlands Checkpoint. The meat was concealed in pastry or cookie packaging.
However, that incident does not seem to have been a deterrent to some Singaporean shoppers, who were seen earlier this week stocking up on bak kwa ahead of the Chinese New Year celebrations.
On Tuesday (Feb 13) afternoon in the dimly-lit KSL City Mall car park, a man who asked to be identified as Mr Ang was seen loading several plastic bags of cookies and titbits into the boot of his Singaporean-registered car.
Among the clear containers of pineapple tarts and other goodies was an opaque, silver-coloured package - which is how bak kwa stalls in the mall pack their products for Singaporean shoppers. When asked by Channel NewsAsia if it contained bak kwa, the father of one made a hasty retreat to the driver’s seat and drove off after closing the boot.
Over at City Square Mall, less than five minutes away from the Johor Bahru customs checkpoint, a cashier at one of the bak kwa stalls confirmed that Singaporeans are regular patrons, especially in the build-up to Chinese New Year.
While talking with her, Channel NewsAsia observed at least three shoppers - who had Singaporean identification in their wallets - purchasing bak kwa. All, however, declined to comment when asked about their awareness of Singapore’s ban on bringing in meat, meat products and eggs from Malaysia.
OPAQUE, SEALED SILVER BAGS
Part of the reason why some Singaporeans want to buy bak kwa in Malaysia is the price difference. In Singapore, it can cost about S$37 for 500 grams whereas in Malaysia it can be easily bought for RM90 (S$30) per kg.
During the visit to KSL City Mall, bak kwa stallholders told Channel NewsAsia that although they have seen fewer Singaporean shoppers this week, there has still been a steady stream of customers.
"I’ve only seen about 20 Singaporean customers per day during this time,” said Ms Heather Chow. “They’d usually buy their Chinese New Year goods here, and proceed to do their hair and nails here as it is cheaper than it is in Singapore.”
Business was much brisker a couple of weeks ago, said 20-year-old cashier Mr Pang.
“On weekends then, about 80 per cent of our customers would be Singaporeans. On normal days I would say it’s about 50 per cent,” he said. “For sure, there were many more Singaporean customers last weekend.”
He later explained how he puts bak kwa bought by Singaporeans into opaque, silver-coloured bags instead of the normal paper wrappings.
“For Singaporean customers, they prefer these kind of silver bags which we will then seal for them. This way, even if customs were to check them, they won’t be able to discern what’s inside the bags as they are opaque,” added Mr Pang.
He claimed: “Even when placed inside an x-ray scanner, you can’t really tell if it’s bak kwa inside unless you open it.”
AUTHORITIES AWARE OF SILVER BAGS
Nonetheless, taking such measures to disguise the pork products is no guarantee of not getting caught.
On Tuesday, ICA released a Facebook post revealing that they had recently detected two cases of unapproved Malaysian bak kwa imports, which were hidden in silver bags that had misleading labels.
“Officers at Woodlands checkpoint had detected another two cases of ‘bak kwa’ (or Chinese sweet meat jerky) concealed in snacks packaging on Feb 12,” said the ICA post. “As Malaysia is not an approved country for the importation of meat products by travellers, the packets of ‘bak kwa’ were disposed of."
"The cases have been handed over to Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) for further investigations,” it added.
When contacted, the ICA reiterated that the authorities have always been “extra vigilant” with security, with additional checks being specially conducted at the Causeway border for the Lunar New Year period.
The authority said that they have caught Singaporeans attempting to bring over prohibited items related to the (Chinese New Year) festivities. “Some common items we see would include ‘pop-pops’ (and) firecrackers for prohibited items as well as bak kwa and eggs for controlled items,” it said.
“Security at our checkpoints remains the ICA’s top priority against any potential threats to Singapore,” added ICA, in reference to a travel advisory issued earlier this month.
Back home, Singaporeans that Channel NewsAsia spoke to in general were aware of the ban in bringing in Malaysian meat, including bak kwa.
However, it is not just the risk of getting caught which discourages some Singaporeans from stocking up in Johor - taste preferences are a factor too.
"It can get really pricey during the Chinese New Year period, but even though Malaysian bak kwa is cheaper, it isn't necessarily tastier," said Mdm Cher Loh Hoon, who believes it is not worthwhile making the trip across the border to get her New Year goodies.