Singapore and Malaysia yesterday agreed to a scheme for compassionate cross-border travel between the two nations. From May 17, citizens of the two countries will be able to travel to the other in the event of deaths and visits to loved ones who are critically ill.
The agreement was announced on Sunday by Singapore’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan and his Malaysian counterpart Hishammuddin Hussein, at the tail end of the latter’s two-day official visit to Singapore.
According to the statement, “the two Ministers agreed on the procedures and entry requirements for death and critically ill emergency visits between Singapore and Malaysia. This agreement provides a framework to facilitate travel between the two countries for compassionate and emergency reasons.”
The compassionate travel arrangement follows widespread criticisms from people who were denied permission to travel from Malaysia to Singapore (or vice-versa) to visit sick relatives, or to attend funerals. It also marks the logical first step toward the planned full resumption of essential travel between the two nations.
In March, the Balakrishnan and Hishamuddin agreed to begin talks into mutual recognition of vaccine certificates, in a bid to revive travel and business ties between the two neighbors.
Balakrishnan told reporters on Sunday said that Singapore and Malaysia were continuing to work on the mutual recognition of vaccination certificates digitally through TraceTogether and MySejahtera, the two countries’ COVID-19 applications.
The agreement speaks to the entwined relationship between Singapore and peninsular Malaya, with which the Lion City was united briefly before its expulsion from the Malaysian Federation in 1965. Today, extended families straddle the border, and the two nations’ economies remain entwined and mutually dependent.
Prior to the pandemic, more than 300,000 Malaysians crossed the Johor-Singapore Causeway each day, making it one of the busiest overland border crossings in Southeast Asia. Like much else, this daily traffic ground to a halt due to COVID-19 lockdowns, preventing people from visiting stricken family members and bringing the daily cross-border labor movement to a halt.
During their meeting, Balakrishnan and Hishammuddin agreed that Singapore and Malaysia would also make efforts to vaccinate Malaysians residing in Singapore, and vice-versa.
“The two Ministers agreed to continue discussions on further border re-opening measures, which should be premised on the COVID-19 situation in both countries, and the health and safety of both peoples,” the statement added.
However, despite the compassionate travel agreement, a full resumption of travel appears some way off. Indeed, the challenge was highlighted by the postponement of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s planned visit to Singapore.
The Malaysian leader was scheduled to fly into the city-state today for talks aimed at the gradual resumption of cross-border travel, but the trip was delayed due to a resurgence of the coronavirus.
As Hishamuddin said on Sunday, “we both felt that it would be much more opportune for the two prime ministers to meet at a slightly later date, at a more appropriate time.”
The Malaysian government reported 3,418 new COVID-19 cases on Sunday, bringing its total number of infections to 415,012 cases, including more than 1,500 deaths. Among these cases were the first involving a highly-infections variant of the virus first identified in India. Singapore, too, has seen a small increase in community transmissions in recent days.
The plans are also undermined by the slow distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Singapore has administered by far the most COVID-19 vaccines of any nation in Southeast Asia – more than 23 percent as of April 18, the latest data point available in the Our World in Data tracker – progress in Malaysia has been much slower, with just 2.7 percent inoculated as of April 29.
Continuing spot-fire outbreaks and sluggish vaccine rollouts are an indication that Singapore and Malaysia’s plan for the full resumption of cross-border travel is unlikely to happen in the short term. And given the streamlined, controlled nature of the border crossing between the two nations, and the relative ease of screening entering workers and travelers, this bodes badly for the resumption of travel in Southeast Asia as a whole.