SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore and Malaysia reopened one of the world’s busiest land borders on Monday, allowing vaccinated travellers to cross after nearly two years of being shut due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although travellers welcomed the chance to reunite with family and friends, there were concerns the border might be closed again due to the new Omicron coronavirus variant.
As many as 300,000 Malaysians commuted daily to Singapore before the pandemic. The sudden closing of the border in March 2020 left tens of thousands stranded on both sides, separated from families and fearing for their jobs.
At the Queen Street bus terminal in Singapore, a few dozen people waiting to board the first buses to Malaysia expressed caution.
“The borders may close soon because of the new variant,” said Eugene Ho, a 31-year-old banker leaving Singapore for the first time in nearly two years. “I am actually very worried about getting stuck.”
Travellers must test negative for COVID-19 before departure, and also take an on-arrival test.
Malaysia’s health minister Khairy Jamaluddin said on Monday one traveller had tested positive to a rapid antigen test, noting some COVID-19 cases were inevitable.
“What’s important is our diagnostic capabilities and requirements, and the risk assessment steps to be taken when something like this happens,” he said.
Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob was welcomed by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at one of the land border crossings on Monday, his first official visit as premier to Singapore.
Both countries were aiming to include general travellers in this reopening plan from mid-December onwards, Lee said during a joint news conference.
Under the latest arrangement, up to 1,440 travellers from either side can cross the land border per day without quarantine, if they hold citizenship, permanent residency or long-term visas in the destination country.
Siva Kumar, a 41-year-old engineer in the semiconductor industry based in Singapore, said he had been inundated with calls from his two teenage sons waiting eagerly for his return to Malaysia.
“All morning they keep calling, ‘Where are you now? Have you taken the bus yet?’,” Kumar said. “(I want to) hug them, kiss them. I’ve really missed them.”
The first flights operating under an air travel lane for vaccinated passengers between the two countries also arrived in both countries on Monday.
Singapore has vaccinated 85% of its entire population, while about 80% of Malaysia’s population has been inoculated.
With an aging population of 5.5 million, Singapore relies heavily on Malaysians living in the southern state of Johor to staff businesses ranging from restaurants to semiconductor manufacturing.
Singapore reported 747 locally acquired COVID-19 cases on Sunday, its lowest tally since mid-September. Malaysia reported 4,239 cases on Sunday, the smallest number since early November.
(Reporting by Joe Brock, Chen Lin; Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by John Geddie, Ed Davies, Karishma Singh and Gerry Doyle)