A mile-long bridge is all that separates Malaysia and Singapore. But border restrictions have kept many couples from seeing each other for months, and some are now contemplating divorce.
Glen Chee knows it will take him just 60 minutes to walk across the bridge that has separated him and his wife for the last eight months. The only problem is: he can’t.
This bridge is the Johor–Singapore Causeway, a highway over water that separates Singapore from Johor, a southern Malaysian border town across the Singapore Strait. A mere mile-long road, it is slightly shorter than the Brooklyn Bridge.
Before the pandemic, Chee, 50, crossed the causeway every Friday to go home to his Malaysian wife, Candy Cheong, a homemaker in her 30s. After a weekend in Johor, he would travel back over the bridge on Sunday before the next work week began. Now Chee, a Singapore-based lawyer, finds himself occasionally standing at the water’s edge, looking over at the twinkling lights of Johor. A mile away, and so close, but too far to reach — for now.
“I told her once over our daily video calls that I wonder how far I could go if I got a boat and tried to row myself across,” Chee said. “But I think the customs and border patrol will catch me, so I’m not going to do that.”
Chee now lives with his family in Singapore, where pandemic travel restrictions have made it impossible for him to commute to Malaysia the way he did before COVID-19. Singapore closed its border with Malaysia in March 2020, and what seemed to Chee back then like a temporary month-long suspension of travel has stretched on with no clear end in sight.
Across the border, Cheong is stuck, too. Chee told Insider she decided to stay in Johor to care for her ailing mother just before Malaysia imposed its Movement Control Order (MCO), a series of national quarantine and lockdown measures that have been periodically lifted over the last year. As her mother’s primary caregiver, she now finds herself unable to uproot herself to move to Singapore to live with her husband long-term.
Singapore has shut its borders with Malaysia, with limited options for couples looking forward to reunions
Chee’s frustration stems from the fact that though Malaysia is Singapore’s closest neighbor, a travel arrangement for Singaporeans like him still hasn’t been made available.
“Even if the movement controls in Malaysia are lifted, my wife won’t be able to travel over unless she has a work permit or if she’s a permanent resident in Singapore. This means that I’ll have to cross over, but serving a lengthy 28-day quarantine period in total might end with me losing my job,” Chee said.
Chee would have to serve a 14-day quarantine stay in Malaysia before seeing his family, and then an additional 14-day quarantine upon his return to Singapore.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, around 450,000 people made border crossings between Singapore and Johor every day. Now, with COVID-19 pandemic restrictions in place, Singapore has dramatically restricted the ability of people to make it to Johor.
The Reciprocal Green Lane (RGL) arrangement allows essential business travelers sponsored by a government agency or Singapore-based company to make the journey over the causeway and stay there for 14 days. Meanwhile, the Periodic Commuting Arrangement (PCA) allows Singaporean and Malaysian residents to enter either country to work for 90 day stretches at a time.
But the issue with either of these allowances, Chee told Insider, is that he does not travel to Malaysia for business, which rules out the RGL. Separately, his wife does not hold a job in Singapore, which makes the PCA a non-factor.
He said it would be possible for him and Cheong to meet in a third country if more travel restrictions were to ease but added that it “wouldn’t be a logical, long-term solution.”
“I feel like Singaporeans like me who are separated from their immediate family members have been forgotten in light of more pressing business travel arrangements. But there is an immense psychological and emotional strain, not to mention a lot of loneliness, that comes from being apart from your loved ones for so long,” Chee said.
What would be ideal, Chee suggests, is for a two-way family lane to be set up, allowing for fully-vaccinated Singaporeans like himself to see their loved ones from time to time. But despite Chee’s public entreaties to the Singaporean government for this to be considered, he says he hasn’t seen signs of progress on this front.
“I would pay for all the tests and be willing to self-isolate at home. Now that Singapore is moving into a new stage of its fight against COVID-19, with more sectors of our economy opening up, my question is — why isn’t this family lane happening?” Chee told Insider.
The once-busy border crossing has been the cause of failed marriages
For sommelier Jenzen Chow, 31, the lockdown was the killing blow to his nine-year marriage. Chow, a Malaysian, used to cross the border into Singapore every day to work as a restaurant operator, returning in the evening to his now ex-wife and three kids in Johor.
The pandemic forced him into a food and beverage job that paid less and required that he be in Singapore. The financial strain, coupled with the distance, was too much for her to bear, he told Insider.
“It was the final straw for her,” he said.
Chow managed to relocate his family to Singapore earlier this year, but it was too late for the couple. In August, his wife served him divorce papers.
The pair, who met 12 years ago working hourly-wage jobs at a restaurant in Singapore, now live separately while their divorce proceedings continue. Chow sees his kids — two boys, aged 9 and 5, and a two-year-old girl — twice a week on his off-days.
He can’t remember the last time he and his wife had a pleasant conversation; every time they speak, he said, it escalates into yelling.
“She was my first love. My first girlfriend. My first wife. I still love her. I look at her picture every day,” said Chow, unlocking his phone to show the wallpaper of his ex-wife.
“But now she doesn’t want anything to do with me. What can I do?”
Singapore and Malaysia are still in discussions about loosening travel restrictions
Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond in writing to Insider’s request for comment but directed Insider to speeches and parliamentary comments made by the island state’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, over the last year.
Singapore and Malaysia have had vastly different pandemic experiences. Malaysia’s COVID outbreak saw more than 2.25 million cases and more than 26,000 deaths. Malaysia has the highest COVID mortality rate in the region, while Singapore, which maintained extremely tight borders and a COVID-zero approach for much of the pandemic, has recorded fewer than 100 deaths.
Even so, many of the early schemes designed to allow for cross-border travel had to be scrapped when the highly contagious Delta variant emerged.
“We remain in close communication with the Malaysian authorities on various issues of mutual concern, such as on cross-border travel and the reopening of borders,” Balakrishnan said in a written response to a question directed at him by two Singaporean Members of Parliament on September 13.
Balakrishnan added that Singapore is continuing discussions with the Malaysian government on the resumption of cross-border movement, but said that it will require “mutually agreed public health protocols.”
In a separate parliamentary response in February, Balakrishnan said that the Republic’s government had helped to facilitate travel for more than 250 appeal cases from Singapore citizens or permanent residents who wanted to enter Malaysia.
Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to Insider’s request for comment. However, Malaysia’s foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah hinted in statements to the Malaysian press last month that he was having discussions with his Singaporean counterparts on possibly re-opening the border, and that opening up a daily cross-border travel arrangement might be possible now that vaccination rates for both countries were stabilizing.
Anxieties mount for families waiting to be reunited for the big moments in life
Negotiations between the two countries and heaps of red tape required to cross the mile-long causeway are testing some couples’ patience.
Take Vincent Soon, whose wife is just three months away from giving birth to their first child. Soon and his Malaysian wife, who declined to be named, both 34, have lived apart for close to six months. Soon, who works in the logistics industry, was required to relocate back to Singapore for work in April.
Soon was under the impression that this would be a short separation of a couple of months at most. However, later that month, Singapore saw an increase in cases throughout the island and implemented a series of restrictive measures. The couple’s separation turned into a prolonged six-month period of Soon frantically attempting to apply for a travel pass that allows foreign spouses like himself to cross the border.
“I applied for a travel pass with the Malaysian government many times, and kept getting rejected because they said I didn’t have the papers to get approved,” Soon said. “It doesn’t make sense to me, because our marriage was registered in Singapore, and I have those documents on hand.”
Soon now fears that he won’t make it back over the border before his child is born.
“I’m not holding out hope, but if a special travel lane or an expedited process can be made for me to travel, I’d be grateful,” Soon said. “I’m afraid that she’ll have to go through everything alone.”