SINGAPORE - Singaporeans should not expect to resume day trips to Johor anytime soon, despite talks on the reopening of land borders with Malaysia gaining steam.
Observers expect that the reopening will be likely available to just long-term pass holders at the start, with time needed to smooth out potential operational issues.
This means that the number of people crossing the checkpoints will be a far cry from what it was before the Covid-19 pandemic, when about 415,000 travellers passed through the Woodlands Causeway and the Tuas Second Link daily.
The observers' comments come after Johor Menteri Besar Hasni Mohammad said on Thursday (Nov 18) that the vaccinated travel lane (VTL) for land borders between Singapore and Johor will start on Nov 29.
He had said the scheme will cover only long-term pass holders, such as those working in Singapore or Johor Baru.
The Ministry of Trade and Industry said in response that it hopes to finalise details of the VTL scheme soon. It added that one of its priorities will be to allow workers to reunite with their families.
Mr Steven Ler, president of the National Association of Travel Agents Singapore (Natas), said he expects the reopening to be done in stages at a controlled pace.
He said the authorities will have to work out how to ease the queues at immigration counters that will come with the need to check extra documents related to Covid-19.
"For example, if the travellers commute by bus, it will be more structured in terms of immigration clearance, and that will help to ease the traffic flows across the borders," added Mr Ler.
He suggested that the land VTL could have a requirement for Covid-19 test results to be valid for 48 hours after entering the other country.
This would let travellers go for short round trips between Singapore and Malaysia without having to take multiple tests, he said.
Associate Professor Walter Theseira of the Singapore University of Social Sciences said the expected limit on travellers via the land VTL means the scheme will provide little relief for the Johor Baru tourism industry or Singapore firms facing manpower constraints.
"That scenario would simply be impossible unless the Covid-19 measures involved in crossing the border were as easy as showing vaccination proof through our respective countries' apps," he said.
"There is no indication that this is what is being contemplated at present."
Dr Leong Hoe Nam, an infectious diseases specialist from the Rophi Clinic at Mount Elizabeth Novena, said that logistically, it would be almost impossible to apply the existing VTL requirement of on-arrival Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction tests at the land borders.
This is due to the large number of people wanting to cross the border daily.
"My preference is to do away with the Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction test... The more important matter is that the travellers are vaccinated with mutually agreed vaccines," he said.
"It should be something like a Malaysia-Singapore travel card that both countries recognise."
Meanwhile, Assistant Professor Terence Fan at the Singapore Management University's Lee Kong Chian School of Business, who specialises in transport issues, noted that there are several other operational challenges that will have to be considered with the opening of the land borders.
These include how to transport inbound travellers to a place where they can self-isolate while waiting for their Covid-19 test results, how the cap will be enforced, and who will be allowed to travel first.
Health experts in Malaysia have said that a land VTL between Malaysia and Singapore will not have significantly different protocols than Malaysia's own protocols for interstate travel involving the vaccinated.
Universiti Putra Malaysia epidemiologist Malina Osman told The Straits Times the existing protocols can apply to land VTL travellers.
"I would recommend screening tests be done based on history of exposure as well, on top of weekly screenings," Dr Malina said.
Malaysian Public Health Physicians Association president Zainal Ariffin Omar said the risk for VTL with Singapore is the same as the risk for interstate travel within Malaysia, which was resumed more than a month ago.
Ms Aarathi Arumugam, president of the Malaysian Association in Singapore, said she is looking forward to clearer guidelines surrounding the reopening of the land borders.
She hopes that Malaysian workers who were previously commuting daily but have been staying in Singapore since borders closed last year will be given the opportunity to tap the land VTL first to visit their families.
Employers should also be supportive and give workers time off to return home, she added.
"I hope employers don't make the workers feel like they are replaceable," she said.
"This VTL is like a drink of water to a man in a desert."