Coronavirus pandemic

Instahomes in SG

When Malaysia imposed movement controls and closed its borders to curb the spread of the coronavirus, some 150,000 Malaysians who travel to Singapore daily to work had to decide whether to stay home or scramble to find shelter here. Many employers and agencies rushed to help. The Sunday Times tells their stories.

While Singaporeans were rushing to buy necessities for fear that supplies would dry up once Malaysia closed its borders, Mr Raj Joshua Thomas hurried to furniture store Ikea to "stockpile" bed frames and mattresses.

The chief executive of TwinRock Global, a security firm, bought more than 10 bed frames and mattresses so he could house his Malaysian employees for the night in his office building, a black-and-white bungalow.

"Even if it's for one night, we didn't want them to be sleeping on the floor," said Mr Thomas, who employs 18 Malaysians.

Announced last Monday, Malaysia's two-week partial lockdown came into effect at midnight last Wednesday, giving the 300,000 Malaysians who work in Singapore and their employers little more than a day to make arrangements so they could continue to work.

For those who did not have relatives or friends with room to put them up, the scramble was on to find lodging, which ranged from making up beds in offices to hostels, hotels and unused Housing Board flats.

Mr Thomas decided to make the best of it. He said: "It's not a bad thing to have our officers here with us. We can take care of them, and we are also looking to get them meals."

Not all workers were as lucky. Mr Fabian Tan, 20, who was due to start an internship with a Singapore company, had to look for a place to stay after the firm denied his request to start the internship two weeks later.

His sister, who works and lives in Singapore, spoke to her Singaporean boss, who agreed to let Mr Tan sleep in their office building last Tuesday night, he said.

His sister could not take him in as she shares a room with another worker here, and their place is full, he added.

 
 

He slept on a sofa bed in the air-conditioned office at night, and was able to have some snacks from the office pantry. "I'm lucky her boss is very nice and allowed me to stay for a few nights while I look for a rental flat," said Mr Tan.

Others had no choice but to sleep rough, at least for the better part of last Tuesday night.

This spurred volunteers with outreach group Homeless Hearts of Singapore (HHOS) into action.

NOT A BAD THING

Even if it's for one night, we didn't want them to be sleeping on the floor... It's not a bad thing to have our officers here with us. We can take care of them.

MR RAJ JOSHUA THOMAS, chief executive of security firm TwinRock Global, on temporarily housing his Malaysian workers who are affected by the situation.

Learning that some churches were considering opening their premises to stranded workers, HHOS co-founder Abraham Yeo thought: "There are possibly quite a lot of Malaysians who are not connected to the church community, or any other religious community, and I thought I could get the word out to see who is willing to help open their homes."

More than 40 people offered space in their homes, and HHOS was able to match some 10 workers with accommodation by last Thursday.

"We are very touched by the generosity of these people," said Mr Yeo, adding that HHOS prioritised accommodation for families and young, single women.

Outdoor adventure operators FutuReady Asia and InnoTrek also prepared about 200 sleeping kits, consisting of sleeping bags, toiletries and pillows, to distribute to workers who needed them.

Mr Delane Lim, founder of FutuReady Asia, said it was a practical stopgap measure.

Other Singaporeans also stepped up to the plate to offer sundries and necessities to workers.

 
 

Bar-restaurant owner Corrine Chia is running a donation drive for necessities like clothes, soap and dried food, and her two restaurants, Mikkeller Bar and Druggists, are stocked with supplies.

"There's going to be a lot of people who need these items in the short term; they couldn't have carried all 14 days' worth of items with them (from Malaysia)," said Ms Chia, adding that Malaysians and others in need have stopped by the restaurants to pick up the items.

Workers told The Sunday Times they were grateful to their bosses for finding them accommodation at such short notice.

Auxiliary police officer (APO) Regunathan Shanmugam, 45, said his company arranged for his stay in a three-star hotel in Paya Lebar by last Tuesday night.

The night-shift worker, who lives in Johor Baru, caught only two hours of sleep last Tuesday as he rushed to make arrangements for his family in Malaysia before hurrying back to Singapore ahead of the midnight deadline.

The Certis employee works in Changi Prison. "This is my only income... I have to work to support my family," said Sergeant (APO) Regunathan, who has a nine-month-old daughter in Malaysia.

Still, though many were relieved they could continue working, the choice to stay in Singapore came at a price for some.

Malaysian Peggy Goh, 31, an administration executive, will be separated from her three children in Malaysia. She travels to see them every weekend without fail, but has decided to remain in Singapore with her boyfriend for the next two weeks.

"I could have stayed in Malaysia and taken unpaid leave, but what happens if it (the partial lockdown) continues? We need the money to feed ourselves," said Ms Goh.

She is also worried about the safety of her family, with the rising number of coronavirus cases in Malaysia and strict quarantine measures in place.

"If anything happens to them now, we can't be with them."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 22, 2020, with the headline 'Instahomes in SG'. Subscribe