JOHOR BARU - Mr Ridwan Mustafa, 34, was one of thousands of Malaysians who lost their jobs in Singapore by July last year.
Faced with the loss of regular income, the former Rentokil employee decided to go into business. Relying on his savings, he took out loans to set up a restaurant and found himself jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.
The retail sector and eateries especially were hit badly by lockdown restrictions as Malaysia battled its deadliest Covid-19 wave which has claimed 23,000 lives so far this year.
"If not for the pandemic, my business was very good," said Mr Ridwan, referring to the second half of last year before Malaysia returned to a series of lockdowns. "Now, me and my wife always argue because after we buy ingredients, they are all wasted because nobody can dine in."
Before the border closed in March last year, about half a million people crossed by land between Singapore and Johor Baru, many of them just day-trip visitors from Singapore taking advantage of the stronger currency to partake in the cheaper food and shopping available across the Causeway.
Both employees and entrepreneurs in the southern state of Johor, especially the capital Johor Baru which faces the Tebrau Strait, have suffered from the dearth of Singapore dollars. Some have gone without any income for over a year, and a fifth of smaller businesses in southern Johor are in financial distress.
"Without the two major spending groups - visitors from the island and Malaysians who earn Singapore dollars - more than 20 per cent of SMEs are expected to wind up their business," South Johor Small-Medium Enterprises Association adviser and founding president Teh Kee Sin told The Sunday Times.
Estimates by the state government as well as Malaysian-Singapore Workers Task Force president Dayalan Sreebalan show that over 100,000 people have had to forgo wages in Singapore.
Many are unable to meet their commitments such as home loans, said Mr Dayalan, as such expenditure was budgeted by workers taking advantage of the stronger Singapore dollar they were earning.
"Whatever job in Malaysia is not going to be enough," he told ST.
Before Friday, Johor was one of only two states yet to exit the first phase of the Malaysian government's four-stage National Recovery Plan for the pandemic, which allows more movement and economic activity to take place in areas with low hospitalisations and high vaccination rates.
Up to last month, the southern state had the second lowest vaccination rate in the country after Sabah. The rate in Johor remains below the national average although more than half of its population have been fully inoculated.
Mr Teh said entrepreneurs had been scrambling to secure vaccination in recent months, both in the hope of resuming or ramping up operations and to minimise the cost of quarantine or the loss of manpower.
Many eventually decided to opt to pay for the vaccinations, eschewing the free jabs offered by the government.
Mr Ridwan's Dapur 3 Dara restaurant is among those that are still unable to welcome customers to dine in, as its staff are not fully vaccinated.
But the father of three daughters cannot wait for the day when Singaporeans return to Johor.
"Most of my ex-colleagues in Singapore want to come to my restaurant. They are just waiting for the border to reopen."