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Repatriation Challenge Puts Malaysia-Singapore Relations Amid COVID-19 into Focus

There has been a heightened focus on the issue of the return of Malaysian workers back home as both countries confront the coronavirus challenge.

Prashanth Parameswaran
Repatriation Challenge Puts Malaysia-Singapore Relations Amid COVID-19 into Focus
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Over the past week, there has been a heightened focus on the issue of the state of the return of Malaysian workers currently in Singapore as both countries confront the coronavirus. The continued management of the issue has spotlighted the broader matter of the state of Malaysia-Singapore relations amid COVID-19.

While Malaysia and Singapore, two neighboring Southeast Asian states, have had differences in the past and challenges remain, both sides have continued to work at areas of collaboration amid broader domestic, regional, and global changes, with the most recent including a sudden change of government in Malaysia and the coronavirus pandemic which has affected all Southeast Asian states to some degree.

One of the key issues both sides have been working to manage in the COVID-19 context Malaysian workers to Singapore – with the two countries linked by various entry points including two by land – the Causeway and Second Link – and several ferry terminals by water, and an estimated 40,000 Malaysian workers commuting to Singapore daily. With both countries struggling to contain the virus and Singapore instituting a month-long lockdown this week, the return of these workers has been a key subject for both countries to work out.

As of now, while there are reportedly tens of thousands of Malaysian workers – 45,000 by one estimate – who intend to return from Singapore back to their home country, the Malaysian government has insisted that individuals planning on returning must be tested for COVID-19 in Singapore and require a letter to clear them of the virus, in recognition of the fact that the country would not be able to handle a large influx at once. Cross-border movement has otherwise slowed amid the coronavirus, with Malaysia’s home minister disclosing data this week indicating that only 11,698 Malaysians had crossed the border during the first week of April – 10 percent of whom are workers.

On Monday, we saw the spotlight put on this subject with comments made by Malaysia’s defense minister. Defense Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob said that while Malaysians currently had to comply with existing policies in order to return home, following the meeting of a Malaysia-Singapore joint working group on COVID-19 scheduled on Tuesday, there would be new arrangements worked out to facilitate the return of Malaysians back to Singapore. This comes as Singapore has instituted new measures in its own struggle with the coronavirus, including what amounts to a partial lockdown.

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He did not elaborate as to what those arrangements would be or when exactly they would be announced. But there have been previous suggestions about how this might be done, including a gradual return of Malaysians in stages to better facilitate their management. And he suggested that the new measures could be announced after the Malaysia-Singapore talks on the subject, and that after procedures were finalized, there will be changes instituted that may better facilitate the return of Malaysians back to their home country.

How exactly both sides will manage this challenge this week and beyond remains to be seen. On Tuesday, Malaysia’s health ministry director general, Noor Hisham Abdullah, told a press conference that the Malaysian government is still in discussions with Singapore on how to deal with this issue amid the country’s new lockdown, and that Malaysians could possibly remain there for another two weeks if arrangements can be worked out with their employers.

Given the importance of this matter for both sides, how they manage it will be key to watch in the coming days and weeks.