Coronavirus Singapore

Looking forward to see family across Causeway as land VTL kicks off

Tomorrow, technician Tanapal Murugayah will finally be reunited with his wife and two sons - aged five and eight - in Johor Baru.

Last Thursday, when bookings for bus tickets for the land vaccinated travel lane (VTL) between Malaysia and Singapore started at 8am, the Malaysian who has not seen his family since March last year spent more than 15 hours trying to secure tickets for a four-day homecoming.

Close to midnight, Mr Tanapal, 36, finally had his booking wish fulfilled, and his family will be waiting at Larkin Sentral Bus Terminal tomorrow afternoon.

Like him, many Malaysians and Singaporeans are anxious to take their first ride home in almost two years since Covid-19 border restrictions separated families.

The quarantine-free VTL across the Causeway begins tomorrow and trips must be made via designated bus services.

While cross-border travel resumed in August last year under strict conditions, Mr Tanapal, who earns less than $2,000, said this option was not viable for him because of costly Covid-19 tests and the lengthy quarantine.

The land VTL, which was announced on Nov 24, allows up to 1,440 Singapore citizens, permanent residents and long-term pass holders in Malaysia to cross the Causeway into Singapore each day.

Similarly, up to 1,440 Malaysia citizens, permanent residents and long-term pass holders in Singapore will be able to go back home, as part of an initial phase of the land VTL.

For a start, there will be 64 daily bus services between Malaysia and Singapore, 32 in each direction.

The desire to see loved ones saw the booking systems of the two firms operating the services crashing on the first day of ticket sales.

By the second day, tickets from Singapore to Johor Baru for the first 10 days of the land VTL sold out on Transtar Travel's website. On the Causeway Link portal, all tickets for the same route in the first week were also snapped up.

A beautician who wanted to be known as Careyn said she rushed to buy the bus tickets, despite already purchasing an air VTL ticket earlier. The air VTL between Changi Airport and Kuala Lumpur International Airport also starts tomorrow.

"After the air VTL was announced, I immediately bought an air ticket within an hour of them going on sale. But, as someone from Batu Pahat, Johor, it would definitely be more convenient to travel by land," she said.

Batu Pahat is much closer to Johor Baru than the airport in Kuala Lumpur.

The 22-year-old, who has not returned home since August last year, will now find another date to use the air ticket.

Assistant operations manager Chok Chen Kiong, who has not seen his wife and two children - both studying in university - for about two years, plans to travel in January after failing to get through to the booking websites.

While the Periodic Commuting Arrangement (PCA) had been launched to facilitate travel in August last year, the busy nature of his job meant that it had not been practical to take long leave to fulfil PCA requirements, which include a seven-day quarantine.

"I don't think it's worth it; with the hotel quarantine, it will actually cost about $3,000 per return trip," said Mr Chok.

While grateful for the easing of border restrictions, Malaysians and Singaporeans hope that the requirements will be less onerous.

A 26-year-old enforcement officer who wanted to be known as Stephanie said she booked tickets for herself and her one-month baby to visit her family.

But the Malaysian discovered on Friday that her Singaporean son cannot travel because he is not a permanent resident or long-term pass holder in Malaysia.

A Ministry of Trade and Industry spokesman told The Sunday Times that workers who have been impacted by Covid-19 and separated from their families for many months are prioritised during the initial phase.

"This also allows us to open up in a careful and calibrated manner, to test and adjust protocols and prepare for a larger number of travellers in future," she added, noting that the land VTL will progressively include other groups of travellers, taking into account the public health situation.

Meanwhile, businesses welcome the arrangement, which will ease the mental strain faced by Malaysian employees and improve worker retention.

Group director of human resources at Yeo's Willis Phua said it has been hit by the border closures, with 21.7 per cent of the beverage and food manufacturing company's workforce here hailing from Malaysia.

To help Malaysian employees who used to commute daily across the Causeway, it introduced an accommodation allowance to support around 40 per cent of these staff. "It has been mentally tough for them to not see their family for such a long time. Most importantly, we are happy for our employees to finally meet their loved ones," he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 28, 2021, with the headline Looking forward to see family across Causeway as land VTL kicks off. Subscribe