Coronavirus: Mad rush for Malaysian workers to go home to Johor Baru and then return to S'pore

People walk across the Causeway after the Malaysian Checkpoint on March 17, 2020. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
A large crowd at the passenger pick up point of the Woodlands Checkpoint at 1:15am on March 18, 2020. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
A crowd at a passenger pick-up point near the Woodlands Train Checkpoint at around 1.15am on March 18, 2020. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
People arrive in Singapore from Malaysia with luggage near the Woodlands checkpoint on March 17, 2020. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

SINGAPORE - There was a frantic rush on both sides of the Causeway on Tuesday afternoon (March 17) as drivers and pedestrians tried to beat the two-week lockdown set to be imposed by the Malaysian authorities from Wednesday.

News of the tough border controls sparked a mass exodus of Malaysian workers from Singapore to Johor Baru to collect their clothes and then rush back here so they can continue in their jobs.

The roads to the Woodlands Checkpoint were gridlocked, the congestion stretching several hundred metres down the ramp, although traffic had eased by 5.30pm.

Mr Didi Iskandar was relieved that he dodged the chaos.

The 27-year-old Malaysian cleaner was told by his bosses at 8am on Monday to go back home to collect his belongings for a two-week hotel stay in Singapore so he could continue working for his Changi North firm.

He made it back to Singapore by 1.30pm.

"I was lucky not to be caught in a long jam," said Mr Didi, who was taking a break on the roadside under the sweltering sun and had a big haversack and plastic bags of biscuits and snacks tied onto his motorcycle handlebar.

He said his firm will pay for his accommodation and give him an allowance of up to $200 for the two-week stay in Singapore.

"By now, those who are driving towards Johor will be queuing up with other Malaysian workers who have finished the morning shift," he added.

There was a steady flow of riders on Malaysia-registered motorcycles exiting the Woodlands Checkpoint between 1pm and 4pm.

Most carried haversacks, while some balanced large bags and even mini suitcases on their motorcycles.

Motorcyclists near Woodlands checkpoint carry baggage, on March 17, 2020. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Malaysian clerk Eileen Teo, who was standing near a taxi stand, said immigration counters in Johor Baru had already posted notices of the lockdown.

She was caught in a jam for two hours as her bus slowly inched towards Woodlands.

Hordes of people wait to take the bus or walk across the Causeway after clearing the Malaysian checkpoint on March 17, 2020. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

"I have collected belongings for my husband, who works in Singapore too," said Madam Teo. "I'm lucky I have relatives I can stay with in Singapore.

"Other colleagues, who are on holiday in Malaysia, have decided to take 14 days' leave without pay."

There was an endless stream of passengers walking quickly towards the immigration building with bags and luggage in tow. A similar number of people were leaving the checkpoint to board buses.

While some Malaysians can afford not to work for the next two weeks, money is still a major consideration for aerospace technician M. Nirmalan, 31.

Mr Nirmalan was upset that his firm had only told Malaysian staff to go home at about 1.40pm. When The Straits Times spoke to him, it was 3pm and he was waiting to take a train into Johor Baru.

"Nothing is confirmed; we are not sure where we will be staying or if we will be compensated," he said in Malay.

"I know I cannot afford to forgo my $150 a day wage."

More importantly, Mr Nirmalan said he would not be able to see his wife and four-year-old son for more than three weeks as he had sent them back to the family home in Kedah last week.

Vehicles in a gridlock leading to the Malaysian checkpoint from Johor Bahru on March 17, 2020. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

But Malaysians were not the only ones worried about the developments. Singaporean Kevin Tay, 29, who runs a customised clothing and apparel business in Woodlands, has been making fortnightly "business runs to Johor Baru with partners".

"Our production factory is in Malaysia, and because businesses there cannot work (after March 17), they are unable to work on the orders we have on hand," said Mr Tay.

Travellers from Malaysia arriving at Woodlands interchange with their luggage on March 17, 2020. ST PHOTO: KHALID BABA

"I feel the announcement and information given were incomplete and the time given to react was too short."

As traffic eased on Singapore roads in the direction of the Causeway on Tuesday night, the same jams were being replicated on the Malaysian side heading here.

Mr Didi told ST that vehicles in Johor Baru began snaking from Danga City Mall and Stulang Darat areas in the afternoon, with some roads leading to the Malaysian immigration booths cordoned off.

Mr Hayden Lak, the creator of the mobile app Beat The Jam, which monitors traffic at the checkpoints, said vehicles heading into Singapore at both checkpoints increased by two to three times compared with Monday.

He said: "Typically, traffic should be high as it is the school holidays, but since Covid-19 came to our shores, traffic has decreased significantly. Today's congestion was definitely caused by the news of Malaysia's lockdown."

Additional reporting by Lok Jian Wen, Toh Ting Wei

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