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VIRUS OUTBREAK: COMMENTARY

Lockdown a wake-up call for firms with workers living in JB

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All the while, the Malaysian government has never seemed to care one way or the other. These workers might be responsible for some economic activity in JB, but their numbers are really too small to matter. And as they have chosen to seek employment in another country, they are really someone else's problem.

WHEN I was growing up, I lived in Johor Baru (JB) but attended school in Singapore. Some people said I had the best of both worlds. In reality, I lived in a world where I belonged to neither Malaysia nor Singapore and where I had to cope with rules constantly being made to suit other people instead of me.

But at least my family was in JB, and I had deep social connections on both sides of the Causeway. Many Malaysians who cross into Singapore to work or attend school actually come from all across Malaysia, even as far away as Sabah and Sarawak. They choose to live in JB despite the long and arduous daily commute because it is cheaper. And their employers are happy to let them do so because it keeps a lid on costs.

All the while, the Malaysian government has never seemed to care one way or the other. These workers might be responsible for some economic activity in JB, but their numbers are really too small to matter. And as they have chosen to seek employment in another country, they are really someone else's problem.

So when Malaysia announced it is banning citizens from travelling abroad and foreigners from visiting the country until March 31, it was not surprising that there was no immediate clarification on whether the rules would apply to the hundreds of thousands of people who travel between Singapore and Malaysia via the Woodlands and Tuas checkpoints.

In contrast, when Singapore announced the new entry rules for people with recent travel history to Asean countries, Japan, Switzerland and the United Kingdom which took effect this week, it immediately clarified that the rules would not apply to Singaporeans and Malaysians using sea and land crossings with Malaysia. Instead, it was stated that separate arrangements were being hammered out by a bilateral joint working group with Malaysia.

The land crossings from Malaysia are not just a means for workers to come in and out. They are also conduits for a range of essential goods from Malaysia, including fresh food. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he had received reassurance from Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin that the flow of goods and cargo between the two countries, including food supplies, would continue.

What about the Malaysian workers? It appears that no exceptions have been made for them, and they will just have to cope with the new rules. Malaysia's Immigration Department director-general Khairul Dzaimee Daud told The Star on Tuesday that Malaysians working in Singapore and Thailand will be prohibited from commuting from Wednesday.

Singapore's Ministry of Manpower (MOM), in a statement on Tuesday, said help will be offered to companies that are trying to house in Singapore workers who regularly commute from Malaysia.

It recommended that the affected workers be encouraged to stay with friends, relatives or colleagues. If this is not possible, the government has lined up a range of short-term housing options that involve hotels and dormitories as well as private and HDB properties. Employers should, however, carefully consider their manpower needs, and whether the affected workers really need to remain in Singapore, MOM said.

"In providing assistance, we will prioritise the needs of firms that provide essential services such as health care, security, cleaning, waste management, facilities management, logistics and transport," MOM added.

Should companies begin to think of a workforce living across the border as a risk that needs to be mitigated? Could these workers even be persuaded to live in Singapore if they were to be paid more? Or will the lure of lower living costs in Malaysia keep drawing them back over the border?

My own observation is that there will always be some workers prepared to put up with the inconveniences of living across the border because of the big difference in costs. Indeed, there are a significant number of Singaporeans who have also chosen to live in JB, attracted by lower housing costs, larger living spaces and a slower pace of life.

The key for businesses is to have an effective business continuity plan and sufficient financial reserves to cope with disruptions like the Covid-19 outbreak. Even if their workers are unsure whether they belong to Malaysia or Singapore, their customers will be expecting nothing less than Singapore standards when it comes to continuing operations.