Malaysia & Singapore : The Re-Opening of Borders

Disclaimer : The images used in the accompanying text are drawn from the social media, unless otherwise stated, and are used only for illustration purposes. No infringement of any copyright laws is purposely intended.

The word on the grapevine is that efforts are currently ongoing to fully reopen the international border between Malaysia and Singapore, with May or June 2021 as being the target date.

Once reopened, it will allow for the free movement between peoples of both countries into each other’s, thus allowing socio-economic activities of both countries to re-energize itself after more than 18 months of restricted, if not none at all, cross-border movements.

The question playing on most people’s lips today is, is that a wise move? Surely, there are many issues that need to be considered BEFORE the borders can be re-opened.

Five amongst them are :-

(1) Current Status of The Pandemic

As of 24 April 2021, data from 221 countries have the number of people tested +ve for Covid-19 is given as slightly over 146 million people, with the resulting number of deaths recorded at slightly above 3 million people. Percentage-wise, that’s about 2.12% of all Covid-19 cases worldwide.

In Malaysia, the number of cases tested +ve is recorded at 387,535 (1.18% of a population of 32.7 million), with the number of deaths attributed to the pandemic recorded at 1,415. This represents 0.36% of all who were tested +ve, and 0.004% of the total population of Malaysia.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Causeway, Singapore’s +ve cases were recorded at 60,943 (1.03% of the total population of Singapore) whereas the number of deaths were recorded at just 30, making the number of deaths 0.05% of the cases tested +ve, and 0.005% of the island republic’s total population of an estimated 5.9 million people.

The numbers for both countries look encouraging and gives the impression that both countries have got the pandemic situation under control.

But if recent announcements on the discovery of several Covid-19 mutations eg the Nigerian strain, the South African variant, making the rounds is not bad enough, the most recent announcement of the double mutation attributed to the spike in cases in India, making an appearance in the US, UK, Germany, Eire, New Zealand, Namibia and Singapore, should send everybody, and not only the health authorities, in a Double Code Red mode, if there is ever a Double Code Red to begin with.

(2) Types of Vaccines

When the various Covid-19 vaccines were finally cleared for delivery, hopes were high that the end of the pandemic was in sight.

At one point, it seemed that a race was on amongst pharmaceutical companies to have their Covid-19 vaccine to be the first to be cleared for use.

After all, the devastation the pandemic wrought globally make for a good and solid argument, socially and economically, for procedures normally applied for the approval on the use and distribution of pharmaceutical products to be loosened somewhat.

After all this is a pandemic of world wide proportions and there is nothing like a pandemic, a pandemic that has proven itself worthy of the title pandemic, to expediate matters.

Some would replace ‘expediating matters’ with the more earthy ‘cutting corners’ or ‘shortcutting’ but with the devastation, both socially and economically, that the pandemic had caused, the voice of a counter argument would be hard pressed to be heard amidst the many voices of panic and concern.

It is a well established fact that the pharmaceutical business is a multi billion industry and maybe even a few trillions worth. Under normal circumstances, having your pharmaceutical product being the first to be approved and/or cleared for distribution and use for the treatment of an ailment, is a sure bet guarantee (you can never stress enough!) for a good return on your investment. A BUMPER day, as most of us would say.

But when the whole world’s population require the vaccines, then we are talking about a VERY sizeable chunk of money, maybe even of stratospheric proportions, to be made for these pharmaceutical companies, regardless of whether your product is the first to be cleared or otherwise. The operative word or rather phrase is CLEARED FOR USE.

Amongst the vaccines that were initially cleared for use were that of Sinovac, Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson amongst others, all of which were presumably evaluated and cleared by the World Health Organization (WHO) and/or the US’ Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and/or the European Medicines Evaluation Agency (EMEA) and/or any other authority large and capable enough to undertake such an exercise.

Vaccine-wise, Singapore’s Health Sciences Authority (HSA) has given approval for the use of the vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Sinovac whilst here across the Causeway in Malaysia, Malaysia’s Drug Control Authority gave clearance for the vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech, AstraZeneca, Sinovac, Can-Sino (China) and Sputnik V (Russia).

All well and fine IF all vaccines are treated equally and there is not a need for an agreed vaccine to apply to both countries.

(3) Rates of Vaccination

As of April 18th 2021, Malaysia recorded a rate of 2.17% of the number of Malaysians that have been vaccinated at least once, whereas Singapore has a better rate of vaccination 23.32%.

Those percentages roughly translates to an estimated 709,000 people on the Malaysian side versus almost 1.4 million across the border. With Malaysia’s population at 32.7 million, there still remains a lot of ground to cover IF the whole country is to be vaccinated by or before the end of 2021, as compared to Singapore’s population of 5.9 million.

Of course, issues of production and logistics feature significantly in the issue of the rate of vaccination, bearing in mind the whole world wants the vaccines and there can be only so much vaccine that can be produced at any one time.

Another issue that the authorities may have overlooked is the people’s consent to be vaccinated. It has to be highlighted that there has appeared on social media an anti vaccination movement, with some playing on religious sentiment whilst some are harping on the ‘cutting corners’ and ‘short cutting’.

What makes some of these anti vaccination arguments credible or even appear credible is that these arguments are put forward by members of the medical profession. To the ordinary man (or woman) on the street, surely these medical practitioners know better, would they not?

Some may scoff at these anti vaxxers and the arguments they put forth but the fact remains, the authorities will have to counter these anti vaxxers’ arguments if they are to convince the people to get vaccinated. Otherwise, the effort to get everyone protected, in Malaysia at least, will prove to be an uphill task. At the very least.

(4) Documentation of Movement

To facilitate travel between Malaysia and Singapore, one would require a valid and legal travel document. However, when news of the impending rollout of the vaccines dominated news worldwide, attention was shifted to making international travel soonest possible.

It is logical that in making international travel a possibility, proof of having being vaccinated is part of the equation. But the trick is making it failsafe, as like in the case of visitors from China who were denied entry into Sarawak reported recently.

When denied entry, it was highlighted that the paperwork were in place, confirming those that were denied entry had being vaccinated but nevertheless were discovered to be tested +ve.

We are now being told that being vaccinated is not a guarantee that we will not get infected with the virus in the future. Instead, we (and our bodies) will be better equipped to deal with the virus, if and when the virus come a calling.

Another issue worth pondering are the SOPs introduced to react to the emergence of new clusters and cases of close contacts. In this day and age of the pandemic, Malaysians register their movements via MySejahtera, a mobile app introduced by the Malaysian federal government.

Despite the similarities to Big Brother, Malaysians accept it as a way of contributing to the efforts to check the spread of the pandemic as well as, more importantly, their own safety and that of their loved ones, especially when a case is discovered at a place we had visited or patronized.

Similarly, it could be safely assumed that Singapore has a similar SOP in place as well, especially when the population density of Singapore is close to 8,000 per sq km, unlike Malaysia’s 92 per sq km.

Of course, if we were to focus on the urban areas eg the Klang Valley and the Iskandar belt, then the density would be much much higher than the official estimate.

The higher the density, the higher the probability of close contact, should a case be discovered in the vicinity.

(5) Boundary of Travel

Even if the borders are opened in May or June 2021 as is said to be planned, would Singaporeans be willing to take a chance and travel to Malaysia? And if they are willing, how far into the country would the Malaysian authorities allow?

Under the current lockdown, Malaysians are not allowed to cross state borders. They were only allowed recently to travel within the state and with the current state of the pandemic, it would not be surprising if Malaysians are very wary of out-of-state travellers, even when they are fellow Malaysians.

Before Covid-19 became THE buzzword, Singaporeans were known to flock to places like Johor Bahru (it is the southern gateway after all) with some even travelling all the way up to Melaka and Kuala Lumpur for the weekend.

Starting from Friday and lasting til late Sunday night, traffic will be choc-a-bloc in areas from the two points of entry for land travel : the Causeway and the Second Link.

At the moment, there are no road blocks on the North South Expressway. Would the re-opening of the southern borders with Singapore necessitate the need to have road blocks at Johor’s borders with the states of Melaka, Pahang, and Negeri Sembilan?

Granted that there are road checks before and after toll gates (depending whether you are coming or going), but surely we would like to avoid a situation where ignorance can be feigned.

Looking at the aforementioned issues alone, the argument to re-open borders under the current climate does not favour the proposal to re-open the borders in May or June as proposed.

For many on both side of the borders, a lot of blood, sweat and tears have been put into the effort to curb the spread of the pandemic. Many sacrifices have been made eg personal freedom, economic well being, and family, with some having paid the ultimate prize of losing their loved ones.

If for whatever reason the authorities do re-open the borders prematurely, the well being of the people will be put at risk. Question is, are we willing to pay the price?

Personally, if it was to be put to a vote, I’d vote NAY. Not UNTIL when all issues with regards to the well being and safety of ALL stakeholders should the border be re-opened, have been addressed, SOPs reviewed and tidied up and precautionary measures have all been put into place.

Realistically, all things considered, that would not happen til the end of 2021.

Realistically.

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