Johor ramps up vaccination in hopes of reopening border with Singapore

Johor is among Malaysia’s states worst-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, as closed borders and slow vaccinations batter its economy. The Sunday Times speaks to chief minister Hasni Mohammad about the state’s push to ramp up shots in the hope of getting workers commuting again to Singapore.

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Johor's economy has suffered from the closure of its border with Singapore. But a drive to speed up Covid-19 vaccinations is spurring hope that people will soon be able to resume crossing the Tebrau Strait.

JOHOR BARU - The once-hectic Causeway is now devoid of any hustle and bustle, a stark reminder of the fact that hundreds of thousands of Malaysians had either lost their jobs in Singapore or forced to live away from their loved ones since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic 18 months ago.

But hopes remain that life might return eventually to some semblance of normalcy with the state government in Johor launching its own vaccination plan for Malaysians who used to cross into Singapore daily.

When the first of at least 115,000 people registered on the Immuplan programme were jabbed on July 29, only one in nine Johoreans had been fully vaccinated, the second slowest rate in the country. Two months on, everyone on the Immuplan database has been vaccinated and Johor is now sixth from the bottom for vaccinations in the country with more than half of the population in the state inoculated.

"I believe it will continue until October, where we should be able to vaccinate our targeted 80 per cent of the population," Menteri Besar Hasni Mohammad told The Sunday Times in an interview last week.

Menteri Besar Hasni Muhammad is optimistic that Johor's accelerated rate of Covid-19 vaccination will see the Singapore border progressively reopened and result in the southern state's economic recovery next year. PHOTO: SYAHRIL AZRUL HAR

While Singapore officials have also voiced a willingness to reopen the once-busy border link, they have indicated that this could only be done when both sides have managed to bring the still-raging pandemic under control, with proper safety protocols in place.

Johor is eager to move ahead, as the free flow of movement of people between Johor and Singapore is critical to the Malaysian state's economy, especially in the Johor Baru district.

Up to half a million people from both sides were estimated to have crossed overland daily before Covid-19 struck.

Datuk Hasni estimates that more than 100,000 Malaysians are still in Singapore ever since the border was closed 18 months ago.

Although Malaysia's foreign and human resources ministries did not respond with an update to the July 2020 tally of 15,666 who lost their jobs in Singapore due to the pandemic, the chief minister believes the 115,000 logged by Immuplan is indicative of the number who no longer work in the Republic.

The prohibitive cost of quarantine - around $3,000 in all, or as much as two months' wages - on both sides of the border under the Periodic Commuting Arrangement (PCA) discourages many from returning, especially since anyone doing so will have to bear the higher cost of living in Singapore.

Johor had the second slowest vaccination rate among Malaysian states up to last month. Although more than half its population are now immunised from Covid-19, it is still below the national average. PHOTO: SYAHRIL AZRUL HAR

If the reopening is reciprocal, it could also see the return of valuable tourism dollars into Johor's ailing retail and tourism sectors, especially in the devastated downtown of Johor Baru, the state capital.

The state is home to nearly 500 hotels, the most in the country, while Johor Baru district alone accounts for half of the state's 153 business complexes, and 44 per cent of close to 90,000 shop lots.

Dozens of malls have either closed down or are largely devoid of visitors, and shuttered shop lots are not uncommon in street after street.

"The 18-month lockdown has been a major upset for the business community in Johor, especially JB, which one could say is the epicentre of the Malaysian pandemic because of the double whammy from losing Singaporean spend," South Johor Small-Medium-Enterprises Association adviser and founding president Teh Kee Sin told ST. "Almost 90 per cent of SMEs are stagnant."

The once bustling Johor Baru City Square, where millions shopped after crossing over from Singapore, has shuttered after repeated lockdowns deepened the loss of income from the border closure after the Covid-19 pandemic hit. PHOTO: SYAHRIL AZRUL HAR
Downtown Johor Baru has been devoid of the usual crowds after Malaysia's worst coronavirus wave forced a lockdown in May, with Johor being the "epicentre" of the pandemic. PHOTO: SYAHRIL AZRUL HAR

Johor's economy shrank by 4.6 per cent last year instead of the forecast for 5.2 per cent to 5.5 per cent growth. The decline was less than the national contraction of 5.6 per cent but this was largely due to the agriculture sector growing at 3.1 per cent, thanks to strong palm oil prices.

Trade, accommodation and food and beverage sub-sectors, concentrated in Johor Baru, fell 9.1 per cent.

According to ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute's Serina Rahman, the Covid-19 period was "the worst in Johor since the 1987 financial crisis."

"Many retailers were said to have experienced a decrease in income of at least 70 per cent," she wrote in May. "Suffering cash flow problems, 5 to 10 per cent of SMEs in Johor were forced to close."

Even hopes of a quick recovery in Johor this year were dashed as the latest Covid-19 wave this year, led by the highly transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus, turned into one of deadliest around the world. A modest 3 per cent rebound is expected for 2021, less than half the projected 6.6 to 7.6 per cent.

But with hope that at least daily commuters would be allowed across the Singapore border in the coming months, Johor expects its gross domestic product to jump by as much as 7 per cent next year.

"In a very short time, we should be submitting to the federal government the proposal to open up Daily Commuting Arrangement (DCA)," said Mr Hasni, adding that such an initiative would be based on the experience gleaned from the existing Reciprocal Green Lane and PCA programmes.

Johor also wants to propose tourism bubbles for Singaporeans to destinations such as Desaru, given that the domestic pilot project in Langkawi has got off to a flying start, with nearly 10,000 arrivals since its inception on Sept 16.

The Johor Baru train station is now deserted, but it used to be jampacked with commuters before Covid-19 pandemic forced the closures of land crossings with Singapore. PHOTO: SYAHRIL AZRUL HAR

These proposals, however, would have to be agreed to by governments on both sides of the Causeway, subject to ongoing public safety concerns.

But there is a silver lining amid the doom and gloom, according to Datuk Tee Siew Kiong, who advises the chief minister on business issues.

The Covid-19 disruption has been an opportunity for entrepreneurs to modernise their operations, especially as both state and federal governments have allocated resources to encourage adoption of technology and upskilling of labour.

"Businesses should see the pandemic as an impetus to transform and better seize opportunities presented by the opening of overseas markets," said the former state executive councillor.

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