The Big Read: After more than 500 days, home remains a bridge too far for Malaysians stuck in Singapore

Published date07 August 2021
Publication titleMalay Mail Online

The last time Mr Lim Kok Leong was able to embrace his then five-year-old daughter was on March 17 last year, more than 500 days ago.

'It's been really tough my little princess. At this age, they grow up very fast. And I've been able to see that from the chubby and bubbly type, she's growing skinnier and taller day by day But I'm missing out on all of that,' said the 43-year-old Malaysian, who became a Singapore permanent resident about a decade ago.

For more than half of his life, since 1999, Mr Lim had been making the daily commute across the Causeway from his house in Johor Baru to Singapore, where he currently works as a biomedical engineer.

But the COVID-19 pandemic which began raging early last year threw his daily routine, and his life, into disarray.

Mr Lim has been counting the days: As of Saturday (Aug 7), a total of 508 days have passed since he last returned home, causing him 'great pain'.

While stuck in Singapore, Mr Lim yearns to be reunited with his wife and young daughter, as well as his ailing parents and parents-in-law.

'Many people don't think it is a big deal. They compare us with the foreign workers who come to Singapore to work but the difference is that before coming, they are mentally prepared to stay here for a few years.

'But we were unprepared. We had one day to come into Singapore. We were told this would last for two weeks,' Mr Lim said, referring to the Malaysian's government sudden announcement to impose the first nationwide lockdown last year.

On March 16 last year, amid a worrying spike in COVID-19 cases, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced that a 'movement control order (MCO)' would be implemented from March 18 to March 31 last year. The MCO meant that all businesses, except for outlets like supermarkets and convenience stores, had to close, along with houses of worship, schools and universities. There was also a ban on mass gatherings.

All Malaysians were barred from travelling abroad, and foreign tourists and visitors were not allowed to enter the country. This meant that Malaysian workers in Singapore had just one day to make arrangements for what they thought would be a two-week stay here.

The sudden turn of events saw droves of Malaysian working here rushing to enter Singapore on March 17 last year, via the Johor-Singapore Causeway. They braved long queues and traffic jams as they tried to make their way into Singapore before the lockdown took effect at midnight.

'On that fateful night on March 17, everybody was just rushing in. There were a lot of things that we thought that we could just hold off for two weeks, then we can go back again and we can just move on with life,' said Mr Lim.

Unfortunately, what many had thought would be a temporary disruption has turned into an indefinite stay in the Republic, as the COVID-19 virus refuses to go away, forcing both the Singapore and Malaysian governments to continue restricting travel across the Causeway until today.

What was meant to be a temporary relocation for a couple of weeks turned to months, and then to over a year and counting.

The Causeway - once one of the world's busiest land border crossings, where more than 300,000 Malaysians used to cross it daily pre-pandemic - is now lifeless, empty of traffic.

Like Mr Lim, fellow Malaysian Muhammad Fariezatul Firdaus Ahmed has also not returned home since March 17 last year.

As the youngest son who is unmarried, his family members rely on the 30-year-old for financial support. His mother left her job to look after his father who has a stroke and he has a sister who is disabled.

Mr Fariezatul, a cleaner who has been working in Singapore since 2016, also continues to pay rent monthly for his unoccupied home in Johor Baru, which he used to return to every night.

'I can't think about going home because I have a lot of financial commitments back home.

'I need to stay here and work but maybe if the cost of returning home for a short holiday is not such a burden, I would consider it,' he said.

Obstacles in Their Way

More than 350 Singaporeans stranded in Malaysia during pandemic have returned home

While the authorities in both countries have introduced a few special schemes to allow some form of travel, many Malaysian workers in Singapore have not been able to take advantage of them due to the sharp rise in COVID-19 cases every now and then, as well as the costs involved.

For example, the Periodic Commuting Arrangement (PCA) is a travel lane agreed between the two governments which supports companies in Singapore and Malaysia by facilitating the movement of workers, according to Singapore's Immigration and Checkpoints Authority's (ICA) SafeTravel website.

Companies which need to bring their employees into Malaysia or Singapore can...

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