On Monday 16 March 2020, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced the enforcement of a movement control order from 18 March 2020 until the end of the month in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 across the nation. It entails bans on religious, sports, social and cultural gatherings, and closure of places of worship, schools and institutes of higher education. Excluding essential services, all businesses have been closed for this two week period. The control order has also limited interstate movement and restricted cross-border travel between Malaysia and Singapore.
The decision to enforce the control order was sudden, but not entirely surprising. Malaysia saw its largest spike in a single day on 15 March, with 190 new cases. Most of these are thought to be linked to the religious gatherings in the state of Selangor, where 16,000 individuals had congregated between 27 February and 1 March 2020. Responses to the announcement on Monday night immediately manifested in panic buying. Queues extended out onto the street at both supermarkets and mini marts. There was also confusion regarding interstate travel, as authorities retracted their initial plans to implement an interstate travel permit system. Malaysians who commute daily to Singapore have had to respond promptly to the partial lockdown, as it was confirmed that all movement across the causeway, excluding that of goods and cargo, would be restricted. Of the 300,000 Malaysians working in Singapore, approximately half do not have living arrangements in Singapore.
Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, posted a Facebook update on 17 March, explaining that arrangements would be made for Malaysians choosing to stay in Singapore temporarily. Minister of Communications and Information, Mr. S Iswaran explained that the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) will ‘try and facilitate the supply of accommodation’ as well as ‘support to manage the cost associated with it’. In a press release on 17 March, the MOM advised companies to ‘encourage affected workers to stay with their relatives, friends or colleagues,’ or in one of the subsidised short-term housing options made available through the government. These include hotels, dormitories, and rooms in public housing and private residences. In a follow-up press release on 19 March, the MOM announced that from 1 April, eligible employers could apply for temporary housing support of $50 SGD per affected worker per night, capped at 14 nights to cover the extra housing costs incurred.
Whilst the Singapore government has been proactive in addressing the situation of Malaysian commuters, its plans have not yet come into full effect. On 19 March, Today Online reported that at least 20 Malaysian workers were found sleeping outside Kranji MRT station, most of whom were still waiting for accommodation to be arranged. Many Malaysian workers are employed in essential service industries, including cleaning and manufacturing, and work long hours. The MOM has said that their objective in providing accommodation for Malaysians is to ‘minimise any impact on the delivery of services for our people.’ Under these difficult and unusual conditions, It is crucial that the MOM and the Singapore government recognize the equal rights of Malaysians to social security and an adequate standard of living.
These are exceptional circumstances whereby the Malaysian and Singapore governments were pressed for time to make crucial decisions. Two days is little time to arrange subsidised accommodation for 150,000. Nonetheless, it is encouraged that decisions of transnational consequence be approached with greater sensitivity and concern for affected individuals and communities. As the world continues to fight the coronavirus pandemic, cross-border social and economic issues will multiply, requiring more similar decisions to be made. Whilst governments should act with intelligence and foresight, they must also demonstrate especial solidarity with those most likely to be vulnerable, overlooked or marginalized in this period of uncertainty.