SINGAPORE - Research fellow Lim Sin Mei, 36, used to visit her parents in Melaka once every two weeks.
But since the Covid-19 pandemic worsened in March last year, the Malaysian citizen and Singapore permanent resident has returned home once, after going through a tedious process of applying to do so under the Periodic Commuting Arrangement (PCA).
She returned for about 1 1/2 months in January this year, after both of her parents fell very ill.
"I spent a tremendous amount of effort in convincing my HR to apply for the PCA for me so that I could return (home). During that difficult week, there was so much distress and grief," she said, noting the challenges of searching for information and understanding the various requirements under PCA.
Dr Lim is among those Malaysians working in Singapore who are hoping that border restrictions between the two countries can be eased soon, to allow them to be reunited with their families and to return home without having to be quarantined for a 14-day period.
But discussions between the two countries are still ongoing, with no firm conclusion in sight.
Singapore's Consul-General in Johor, Mr Jeevan Singh, told The Sunday Times that Singapore is reviewing its cross-border travel schemes as it moves towards becoming a Covid-resilient nation.
He said: "Our discussions with the Malaysian government on the mutual recognition of vaccine certificates have been productive and we have made good progress on that front."
"Ultimately, progress on the restoration of cross-border travel will have to take into account the Covid-19 situation and medical resources available in both countries so that we can ensure the public health and safety of our residents," he added.
Currently, cross-border travel with Malaysia is facilitated by the PCA and the framework for emergency visits in case of deaths or critical illness.
Approved travellers under the PCA must have stayed in their country of employment for at least 90 days before returning home for short-term home leave.
After their return to Singapore, they will have to serve a 14-day stay-home notice at a dedicated facility.
Applications for the PCA have to be sponsored by companies.
The Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) said that Malaysia is currently placed under Category IV of a framework to determine border measures for countries based on their risk levels.
Thus travellers arriving from Malaysia, including those under the PCA, are required to serve a 14-day stay-home notice (SHN) at a dedicated facility. The cost of the stay is $2,000 per person.
"Exceptions to this are considered on a case-by-case basis if there are valid reasons," said MTI.
For example, an individual could have a severe medical condition which prevents him from serving SHN in a dedicated facility, MTI added.
MTI did not respond to a query on how many people have applied under the PCA scheme.
Dr Lim, who is planning to return home again in January next year, said the $2,000 SHN cost has deterred many of her Malaysian friends from using the commuting arrangement.
"The majority of them decided to send back money to their family in Malaysia instead of spending it on the SHN," she said. She noted that workers who choose to return through the commuting arrangement will also have to take unpaid leave to serve SHN.
Following her experience in January, Dr Lim set up a Facebook page to help others in the same predicament. She has assisted about 40 people so far.
She said that the biggest issues she has come across so far are employers not supporting their employees' PCA application, and the lack of information to guide applicants in the process.
Dr Lim said morale among Malaysian workers in Singapore had been affected by the enforced separation from their families.
"Since Malaysia is allowing the option for home quarantine, I hope the entry approval can be simplified.
"Immediate response and guidance should be given to rejected applicants so that other options can be explored without further loss of time," she said.
"I hope that Singapore will allow home quarantine for returning Malaysians regardless of the number of occupants in the unit."