It has been more than eight months since Johor-based Ezatul Hani, 26, has seen her husband Umarul Nazim, 26. He went to Singapore a day before the movement control order (MCO) was imposed in March, and couldn’t return because the borders were closed. Umarul works as a supervisor with a manufacturing company in Singapore and usually commutes to work daily from Johor, but is sometimes based in the island city-state for two weeks at a time.
The couple have a baby girl who was just a month old then. She is now nine months old.
“I was on my 31st day of confinement when my husband went to Singapore. At first, we thought it would only be for two weeks. But now, our baby girl is already nine months old. My husband has missed so many milestones in our baby’s life,” says Ezatul, an internal auditor from Skudai.
They’ve been married for one and a half years.
“We’ve never been apart for so long before. Initially, I felt devastated, mindful that I was still in my confinement and our baby was just a month old and couldn’t even see her father clearly yet. But my family has been my backbone, supporting me through this time,” she says.
On top of caring for their baby on her own, Ezatul is also looking after six-year-old Amanda, whose parents both work with Umarul and are now also stuck in Singapore.
The young girl was with a babysitter but because of the indefinite separation from her parents, Ezatul volunteered to bring the little girl home and look after her too.
Upside down world
The ability to touch and hold a family member or even make routine visits home, go for family outings and celebrate special occasions have all been disrupted by the pandemic. Weeks of separation have turned into months and many families, like Ezatul and Umarul, are waiting, anxiously, to be reunited.
Also in the same unfortunate situation is Johor-based engineer Chin Kian Keong, 37, who went to work at his site office in Singapore just a day before the MCO and he hasn’t been able to return home after that.
Chin hasn’t seen his wife of 12 years, project engineer Too Xie Lian, 36, and their five-year-old daughter since, which has been difficult for all three of them.
“My daughter misses her daddy so much that she even cries in her sleep. She keeps asking when she can see him and hug him. It has been such a long time. No one knows when the pandemic will end and it seems that we’ll be apart until that day comes,” says Too tearfully.
“We missed spending so many sweet moments together - celebrating each other's birthdays, our anniversary as well as every holiday and festival in 2020. For now, we’ve to be content with using technology (video calls) to keep in touch,” she adds.
Ezatul reveals that there are many Malaysians working in Singapore who can’t return to Malaysia despite the fact that both governments have already put in place the Periodic Commuting Arrangement (PCA).
Employers just need to apply to the Ministry of Manpower, but the number of employees who can apply daily is limited and the employees need to bear the cost of the Covid-19 swab test upon entering Malaysia. Also, once they return to Singapore for work, they will have to be quarantined for seven days, the cost of which they also have to bear. It can be very expensive.
“Some employers won’t allow their employees to return to Malaysia for various reasons,” she explains.
Her husband Umarul is glad that his company has at least provided accommodation for him and his colleagues (Amanda’s parents) for six months. Now, however, they are renting rooms in a house together at their own cost.
Singaporean Grab driver and stall operator Muhammad Hairi Ismoun, 42, who has been apart from his Johor Baru-based wife Sharifah Aliza Syed Alwi, 45, says that even though he can apply to come back to Malaysia to see his family, they can’t afford the quarantine costs, which can range to thousands of ringgit.
Furthermore, as a Grab Driver and stall operator, he is a daily wage earner and will have to be off work for about a month or so if he returns home. For his wife Sharifah Aliza to enter Singapore, they also have to submit an application and the cost is SGD2,200 (RM6,700) which is financially out of their reach.
“We are just waiting for the border to fully reopen before we can see each other,” says Shariah Aliza, a human resources executive, adding that family support has helped her and her two sons, aged nine and 10, get used to being without Muhammad Hairi for so long.
She says that it was initially difficult for them to adjust to being apart for such a long time and they missed spending special occasions such as birthdays and festivals together. But eventually, they got used to it.
“We’re both lucky as we’re living with our families, and have them for support,” she says.
An expensive affair
Johor-based Naavinraj Rengasamy, 25, is working in Singapore. The healthcare assistant usually returns to Johor Baru every weekend. His parents Rengasamy Manikam, 54, and Parvathy J Subramaniam, 51, who are attached to a chemical company and an aircraft company respectively, have also been working in Singapore for the past 26 years, but they usually commute daily from their home in Johor Baru. But since March, none of them has been home.
“Staying here is no joke. The expenses are high - from accommodation (rental) to food - but we’re just glad that our jobs are still intact and we’re able to make ends meet,” says Naavinraj.
He reveals that initially, his parents’ employers helped them with accommodation but it was only for a few months. Now, the companies just provide them (the parents) with a housing allowance.
“All of us need to find our own accommodation and it’s very difficult, especially for Malaysians. Property owners prefer long term leases but most Malaysians here prefer short-term rentals because we want to go home when the border reopens. Moreover, we don’t even know how long we’ll be stuck here,” says Naavinraj.
What is worse, his sister Renaa Raai, 22, is in Johor Baru by herself.
“Even though the three of us are here, the family just isn’t complete because my sister is back in Johor Baru by herself,” says Naavinraj.
“Deepavali and my sister’s birthday are both next week and we feel sad because we won’t be able to celebrate together. My parents and I are also not around to help my grandmother with the Deepavali preparations,” he says.
He adds that they also have many commitments in Johor Baru, such as housing, insurance, and other household expenses so they need to return.
One day at a time
For Jayanthy Murthy, 30, and her husband David Kumaran, 30, and their two year old son, even though the past eight months have been difficult, they've learnt to appreciate the little things such as the time they have together (even if it is online) and taking it one day at a time.
“It’s been eight months since we’ve been apart and I don’t know when we can meet again. My husband keeps asking when he can hug his son, and we miss him so much,” says Jayanthy, a housewife based in Johor Baru.
Her husband David works as a lorry driver, and usually commutes daily between Johor Baru and Singapore. But when the border was closed during the MCO, he could not return to Malaysia. Since then, the couple relies on WhatsApp and video calls to keep in touch. In their 10 years of courtship and three years of marriage, they have never been separated for such a long time.
“Fortunately, the company provides him with accommodation, and his boss and colleagues are nice. They understand that he feels homesick and are there to support him. We hope the border reopens soon so that people can return to their families,” she says.
It has been months of “so near, yet so far” for many Malaysians who have family members living and working in Singapore. Despite the close distance, they haven’t been able to venture across the Johor-Singapore causeway and return home due to the MCO restrictions put in place to curb spread of the Covid-19 pandemic and other reasons such as company requirements and financial reasons.
From a distance
But, 20 fortunate families were recently given the opportunity for a “mini reunion” by boarding a yacht that would take them from Johor Baru close to Woodlands Waterfront Park in Singapore. Although they could not land, this was the closest point where they could see and wave at their loved ones from a distance. The “yacht trip” was organised by R&F Princess Cove.
Ezatul and her daughter are one of the fortunate ones who got a spot on this yacht. Amanda also got a spot on the yacht.
Being on the yacht, she says, was like a dream come true.
“It was the best feeling ever. We were waiting at the jetty as early as 9am. There were about 20 families and we were divided into four groups, each taking turns to board the yacht because of social distancing.
“It was our first time on a yacht. When we were close to the nearest point, we started yelling loudly, calling out our loved ones’ names. They could hear us and waved in response. It was cathartic being able to yell and release all our pent-up emotions for the last eight months,” she says.
Being on the yacht was a “super cool new normal” experience for Too and her daughter.
“My daughter was so excited to see her daddy even though it was quite far away. Although we can't be reunited in person, at least we can have this sweet moment during the pandemic,” says Too.