The recent announcement that some limited travel will be permitted across the Causeway to and from Singapore was welcomed, but it is a very cautious beginning which indicates more fully open borders are still a long way in the future.
As some countries rush to open borders to generate tourist traffic, Malaysia is still showing restraint. Early in the pandemic, the government identified its border as a critical area of defence to contain the spread of the virus.
That was apparently one of the reasons why expats stranded abroad found it so hard to get back into the country when the borders were first closed in the middle of March. We felt this was an overreaction, but clearly the government preferred to err on the side of caution. It seems our view was supported by the very low number of cases among those expats with Malaysia My Second Home visas and work permits and they did not present the risk which some people feared. However, no one can argue that the country has done a good job of controlling the disease’s spread.
However, having got the case numbers to a low level and the number of active cases into double digits (which have now risen back to triple digits), they have not been able to bring the number of new cases into single digits. In fact, the number of active cases, although still small has been rising and is now approaching 200. The government has become concerned about this and threatened to revert to another lockdown if people do not take the disease seriously and follow the mandated procedures, especially maintaining social distancing and wearing a mask.
It is clear that the small number of overall cases and deaths in Malaysia has contributed to a sort of complacency and many people have not been following the rules. The government has announced that effective August 1, you must wear a mask in crowded areas or face a fine of RM1,000.
Malaysia is exploring selective opening of borders with a few countries in this part of the world which have very low number of Covid-19 cases. These include Singapore, as there is a lot of passenger traffic between the two countries. In fact it is one of the world’s busiest borders, with around 350,000 people making the crossing every day before the pandemic struck and they closed the border. A large number of the travellers are Malaysians who commuted to work in Singapore each day.
Now there is a plan to open for a limited border opening beginning on August 17. (It was initially targeted for August 10, but recent reports suggest a delayed kick-off.) Singapore has a relatively low number of cases if you exclude the migrant workers, who is it is felt do not pose a serious threat to the general population. In fact, out of over 50,000 cases recorded in Singapore, around 47,000 have been among migrant workers who live in dormitories where the virus was easily spread. Fortunately, this group of people tend to be relatively younger and fitter than the average population and it seems very few developed serious symptoms.
Even though both sides are keen to open the border, discussions have been slow, and the initial opening will only involve two categories of people. Those are senior businesspeople who have critically important or official meetings to attend and citizens who have long-term passes to work in the other country. The latter group would only be allowed to take a trip back to their home country once every three months, which suggests this border is not likely to open up to the general public for some time to come.
All travellers will need permission to use this special “green lane” and must submit to Covid-19 tests. The key factor is that they will not have to go into quarantine in either country. Final details of the standard operating procedures are still being worked out and will be announced soon.
There are many people with family ties in Singapore who are very keen to connect with loved ones, but it seems it will still be a while before they are permitted to travel there and much will depend how smoothly the current limited opening proceeds.
Clearly, open borders with the rest of the world is something that’s not about to happen anytime soon – quite possibly not until next year. Expats are free to return to their own countries, but if they do so, it may well be many months before they are permitted to return to Malaysia.
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