'Welcome back': Malaysia greets first VTL arrivals from Singapore; one Covid-19 case detected

SPH Brightcove Video
Passengers on the bus were greeted with a banner welcoming them "back to the homeland", goodie bags from the Johor Menteri Besar's office, and free bubble tea.

JOHOR BARU - The first batch of vaccinated travel lane (VTL) land passengers from Singapore arrived in Johor Baru on Monday morning (Nov 29) amid fanfare, relief and joy.

The first VTL bus, which was filled to capacity, arrived at the Larkin terminal in Johor Baru at 9.15am.

Passengers on the bus were greeted with a banner welcoming them "back to the homeland", goodie bags from the Johor Menteri Besar's office, and free bubble tea.

They were also greeted with cheers from personnel from the Menteri Besar's office.

Some travellers said they intended to surprise their families, who were not aware of their return on Monday morning.

Mr Kavin Raj Gunalan, 24, said the VTL process was relatively smooth and he was confident any kinks would be ironed out in the coming days and as more people made the trip across the Causeway.

"My family doesn't know I'm coming back. I want to surprise my grandmother especially," said the operations manager, who donned a Johor football jersey.

Mr Gunalan also said he was looking forward to having Malaysian food - and that having nasi lemak would be high on his to-do list.

He has not been back home for six months, and will be staying in Malaysia for three months before returning.

SPH Brightcove Video
As the first passengers leave Singapore for Johor Baru via the land vaccinated travel lane, they look ahead to their long-awaited family reunions. Multimedia journalist Cheow Sue-Ann reports from Woodlands Temporary Bus Interchange.

Similarly, Mr Kelvin Teo and his wife Christine Poh were also about to surprise their families after returning for the first time in 20 months.

"The whole process was smooth," said Mr Teo, a biotechnologist.

For Ms Chua Pei Sze, who was returning for the first time in a year, the pandemic has greatly altered her life and she was thankful for the VTL reprieve.

"I used to come back every two weeks from Singapore to visit my family but now, that's down to once a year," said the 43-year-old, who returned on Monday with her two daughters.

Ms Chua will stay in Malaysia for the next three weeks before returning to Singapore. Her elder daughter, 10-year-old Tan Jia Xuan, said she was excited at being able to finally meet family members after more than a year.

Remote video URL

Travellers were asked to take a Covid-19 antigen rapid test upon arrival, and were released in batches once the results were negative.

Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said one positive case was detected at the Johor Causeway entry point.

He said the Johor Baru Health Office was carrying out a risk assessment on those who travelled on the same bus as the affected individual, to ascertain if the rest of the passengers needed to be quarantined or subject to other restrictions.

"This is why pre-departure and on-arrival tests are in place. As we safely reopen our borders, there will be positive cases at points of entry. Risk assessment, isolation and monitoring close contacts will become the norm," he tweeted.

Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry said that based on checks by the bus operators, all passengers who departed from Singapore to Malaysia had tested negative for the pre-departure Covid-19 test.

Passengers will need to undergo an on-arrival Covid-19 test before they are released. ST PHOTO: RAM ANAND

VTL buses from Malaysia heading to Singapore, operated by Causeway Link, started taking on passengers at 8am on Monday.

Traders at the Larkin bus terminal are starting to see a glimpse of revival with the VTL, after 20 months of intermittent lockdowns and drastically reduced capacity at the bus terminal battered their businesses.

Ms Siti Arbiah Abdullah, 68, who has been running a convenience store at the terminal since it started operations in 1996, said she had been saddled with debts and was now hopeful that the VTL would help revive her business.

"Hopefully, we can start to see an improvement," she told The Straits Times.

Mr Sharinizam Mohamad, 50, who has been selling traditional Malay pastry kueh bahulu at the terminal since 1996, said Johor businesses were heavily reliant on Singapore as both regions were "like brothers".

"We do depend a lot on each other. My business has fallen by 90 per cent since the movement control order started," he told ST.

The much-anticipated land VTL will allow up to 1,440 citizens, permanent residents or long-term pass holders quarantine-free entry into each country on designated buses daily.

The Woodlands Causeway was reputed to be one of the world's busiest land border crossings before the pandemic. The Causeway and Tuas Second Link served about 415,000 travellers daily.

In Kuala Lumpur, one of the first few flights from Singapore landed at Kuala Lumpur International Airport at 9.20am.

Singapore Airlines Flight SQ108, with 240 passengers on board, was greeted with a water cannon salute on arrival.

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.