In Singapore, Travel Is On and Masks Are Off

In Singapore, Travel Is On and Masks Are Off


About nine months after the Singapore government pledged to live with Covid-19, travel is opening up, social distancing restrictions are being lifted, and life is starting to look more like life elsewhere in the world. In a major milestone, one of the busiest land border crossings between Singapore and Malaysia reopened on April 1.

Bloomberg Opinion editor Rachel Rosenthal joins frontline columnist Daniel Moss, who has reopened borders in Johor, to discuss the easing of restrictions and what it means for the rest of Asia. Here is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Rachel Rosenthal: Can you tell us why this border is so important and what it looks like on the ground?

Daniel Moss: My very strong impression is that this is a resurgence in waiting. South Malaysia and Singapore are effectively one economy, with business getting a boost from the opening of the bridge border. However, this is not a huge improvement. Many of those flooded at midnight on April 1 were Malaysians working in Singapore, where they were stranded during Covid. They are reunited with their families. In some cases, those who hadn’t seen the child since birth — and couldn’t leave work on Friday — but wanted to come to see the child while Singapore was asleep in the early hours of Friday morning and come back to work the next day. Holding their spouse and newborn. very precious thing.

Rosenthal: Is there a global comparison of this Malaysia-Singapore border crossing and what was it like before Covid-19?

Moss: Think of the pre-coronavirus commute between Singapore and Malaysia as similar to the commute between New York and New Jersey. Another analogy is the border crossings in Southern California or South Texas where people commute. Singapore imports water, electricity, labor and more from Malaysia. If you look out to the waterfront in the northern part of Singapore, you will see a clutter of high-rise apartments on the southern coast of Malaysia. Many of them are owned by Singaporeans who will work in Singapore, get in the car and drive across the bridge. In peacetime, there was no thought at all about closing the land border, that is, a bridge border about 700 meters long. So closing is a big deal. Reopening is also a big deal.

Rosenthal: Why is Malaysia’s recovery after reopening slow, not changing immediately?

Moss: Social media – certainly what we see in Singapore – is flooded with what the bridge looks like a few minutes after midnight. TikTok memes were flying around in the final countdown, as thousands of motorbikes flocked from the bridge to the checkpoint on the Malaysian side.

When I arrived from Singapore on Monday, I was looking forward to seeing Johor as a thriving city, as if the gold rush had suddenly started again. That’s not what I found. Part of the reason may be that it was Monday. The other part is that many of the people I met in those early hours and on Fridays and Saturdays were Malaysians, so they didn’t spend a lot of money. They don’t come here to spend money. They came to see friends. They come here to visit their families and to hug their loved ones.

Moss: Rachel, you’ve recently traveled internationally. What does that look like?

Rosenthal: It’s good to see that Changi Airport is usually bustling and looks closer to what it used to be. When the kids were out of school, my family and I went on vacation to Sri Lanka. Even before some of the latest announcements, travel in the area was already open. Countries are easing requirements on what needs to be done in and out. Sri Lanka, for example, doesn’t even have an entry testing requirement. This is a huge improvement from a few months ago, when there was a lot of paperwork and various tests. A lot of these things are now starting to be put on hold. So we’ve gotten to the point where travel starts to look more normal. This is a key reason why people live in Singapore. This is a small island. People live here not only to travel, but also to work. They have regional roles, jump to Thailand or Vietnam, or, you know, it used to be Hong Kong, and all those things can be reached in a short flight. This aspect of life looks like it’s only just beginning to recover.

Moss: How much of an existential threat to working from home is working from home for global cities that have built the majority of their operations in regional hubs? Why do you need to work in a regional center if you can work from the living room?

Rosenthal: Part of the appeal of being an expat used to be the idea that you could decide on a Thursday that you want to go to Bangkok, take a cheap flight and go for the weekend. Dan, you wrote a great column on this, arguing that if you can’t travel, there’s no reason to sit in Singapore 10,000 miles away from your family. Now I see two different phenomena: One is the struggle to get people back into the office as some companies have to justify their huge rents and office space. Another is travel. Despite the desire to travel — for business or leisure — I still feel a lot of people are reluctant to go back to the office. Singaporeans in particular – and the managers I’ve spoken to – really enjoy working from home, no different than everyone else around the world. I think you’ll be much faster than getting people back to the office.

Moss: One of the things people have mentioned to me is that if you’re working from home, not only can you wear anything, but you don’t have to wear a mask. Now you still have to wear a mask indoors in Singapore, but the situation in the sector has changed relatively significantly.

Rosenthal: Can you describe what you observed during the loose Covid-19 outbreak in Singapore?

Moss: Beginning Tuesday, March 29, you don’t have to wear a mask outside and social groups of 10 are allowed. That started with five. After 10.30pm you can have a drink in public. At about 10:25 pm that night, I walked into a downtown bar thinking I could have a drink. They hardly let me in. Last order at 10:35pm. Still, it’s great, and it starts out discreetly. By Saturday night, you can really notice a change. Bars and restaurants are booming after 10.30pm. I’ve talked to a lot of people, and I’ll admit I’m one of them, and they feel a little lousy on Sunday morning because of the relaxation. Many dining establishments are closing and social distancing at 10:30 p.m. Since the relaxation was announced, a lot of people have been saying, “You know what, we’re going to stop serving food at 10:30pm, but you can still have a drink.” Go home to see some family members who are still not asleep. In Malaysia, masks are still required outside. In this regard, Singapore is already ahead of Malaysia.

Rosenthal: One of the things I noticed this weekend was that the music started all over again. We were on vacation at Raffles and at the iconic long bar I could hear music and chat. It’s one of those things you don’t fully notice when it’s gone. Suddenly, these signs of life, and seeing photos of people’s faces in groups of 10 on Instagram or social media, was a big change. For many who come to Singapore, it will be a real psychological boost. As travel resumes, not only are people going out, but people are coming back for the first time, and it feels like forever. I saw some people not from Singapore or living here – from South Africa, Australia, Spain and Italy. It’s really refreshing to see some new life.

Rosenthal: Hong Kong is often compared to Singapore. How do you see the differences between the two cities?

Moss: Singapore is in a very sweet place. It has been proceeding cautiously but consistently over the past few months as it reopens. The news from Hong Kong is basically grim, grim, grim. Hong Kong is putting people in what amounts to hollowed-out shipping containers, often without Wi-Fi for up to a month, as they venture away from a regionally connected hub. Singapore has yet to do so, thanks to its enormous credit. Will Singapore replace Hong Kong as a financial centre tomorrow? Do not.

Rosenthal: I think there has always been some regional competition between Singapore and Hong Kong. Singapore is definitely reopening – it’s making great strides and it’s heading in the right direction. The extremely low standards set by Hong Kong may help Singapore. There are many families who can choose to live between the two places, and they all choose Singapore.

Still, Singapore will struggle to catch up with Hong Kong. From the size of Hong Kong’s capital markets to IPOs, from transaction volume to underlying deals — I think a lot — the center is China, and Hong Kong is still the gateway. I have come to the conclusion that Hong Kong and Singapore will always be complementary. Once the Covid-19 pandemic is over, I hope Hong Kong can go back to the way it was.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Rachel Rosenthal is editor of Bloomberg Opinion. Previously, she was a market reporter and editor for The Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg columnist covering Asian economies. Previously, he was executive editor of global economics at Bloomberg News and led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.

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