Malaysia travel ban compounds Singapore woes

Malaysia travel ban compounds Singapore woes

Before the travel ban, there was a traffic jam on the causeway between Malaysia and Singapore.AFP

A ban on Malaysians leaving the country to stem the spread of the coronavirus will hit neighboring Singapore hard, which relies on a large number of workers commuting from next door.

About 300,000 people typically cross the border to wealthier Singapore each day, accounting for about 8% of the small city-state’s workforce, who work in everything from public transport to electronics manufacturing.

But that trend came to a halt on Wednesday as Malaysia began imposing a two-week ban on its citizens’ travel abroad and the entry of foreigners.

Malaysia has reported 790 virus cases and two deaths so far, the highest number of cases among Southeast Asian countries. Singapore has reported 266 cases.

Rajiv Biswas, chief economist for Asia Pacific at IHS Markit, said the city-state was already headed toward recession this year due to the virus outbreak, and the travel ban would only exacerbate the negative outlook.

“Malaysia may need to extend the lockdown if Covid-19 cases escalate further in Malaysia,” he said.

This could have a “further negative impact on the near-term economic outlook” for Singapore, he said.

Singapore, which relies heavily on trade and tourism, is always hit hard by major shocks to the global economy.

Chaos ensued on Tuesday along the 1-kilometre causeway that forms the main border crossing between the neighboring countries, as Malaysians queued for hours to cross the border before midnight restrictions came into effect.

In the middle of the night, long cars meandered on the causeway, the air was filled with the sound of horns, and a large number of pedestrians crossed on foot, some with large suitcases.

Singapore has scrambled to limit the damage, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong saying the government was “working out arrangements” with companies to help Malaysian workers stay in the city-state while the ban is in place.

Authorities are helping Malaysian employees find accommodation during the travel ban and have pledged to provide the company with 50 Singapore dollars ($35) per night for accommodation for each affected employee.

‘Many cannot leave their families’

Bus company SBS Transit said it had arranged several hotel accommodations for Malaysian drivers to ensure its services would not be affected, denying reports that employees would be forced to sleep on deck chairs at stations.

However, bus companies have cut some services between the two countries.

SingPost, the city’s postal service that also provides e-commerce and logistics services, said it had accommodated more than 400 Malaysian employees at the three hotels.

Malaysian bus driver Rammesh Nair said that while he accepted the accommodation offered, not all those affected did.

Many people “can’t come here for two weeks without their families and children and you need to know what’s going on with them”, he said.

A company put a dozen Malaysian cleaners on paid leave because it would be more expensive to relocate them all temporarily in Singapore.

The announcement of the travel ban initially sparked panic buying in the city of 5.7 million amid fears of drying up supplies, but Malaysia was quick to reassure that food and other vital items could still cross the border.

Governments from the United States to Europe are now imposing severe restrictions to stem the spread of the virus, which has infected nearly 200,000 people and killed nearly 9,000.

Colin Heng, a Malaysian aerospace engineer who normally works in Singapore, was stuck at home because he was unable to reach Singapore before the ban came into effect.

He will work remotely, but said it’s not the same to communicate with colleagues via email rather than face-to-face meetings.

“Business needs to get back to normal as soon as possible, and I hope so,” he said.

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