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'The ball is in our court': Johor chief minister on reducing COVID-19 cases and border reopening with Singapore

'The ball is in our court': Johor chief minister on reducing COVID-19 cases and border reopening with Singapore

View of the Woodlands Causeway between Singapore and Malaysia, Mar 17, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su)

JOHOR BAHRU: Johor Chief Minister Hasni Mohammad said the state must focus on reducing the number of COVID-19 cases before discussions on reopening borders with Singapore. 

Speaking to CNA in an exclusive interview on Monday (May 31), Mr Hasni said that both sides are in agreement that talks to reopen cross-border travel have been put on hold given the COVID-19 situation in Malaysia. 

"It is because of the number of cases recorded, which has kept on rising as far as Johor is concerned," he said, adding that further discussions will only happen when the number of cases shows a downward trend.

"The ball is in our court now. We just have to make sure that more effort is being put towards reducing the number of cases in Johor. And I believe once the number is reduced to an acceptable level, Singapore will consider our request to reopen the borders again." 

Johor chief minister Hasni Mohammad speaking during an exclusive interview with CNA. (Photo: Amir Yusof)

Malaysia began its third nationwide lockdown on Tuesday amid a surging third wave of COVID-19 that has hit record levels in recent weeks.

During the first phase of this "total lockdown" from Jun 1 to Jun 14, malls are shut while only 17 essential service sectors will be allowed to operate. These sectors include healthcare, telecommunications and media, food and beverage, utilities as well as banking. 

On Wednesday, Malaysia recorded 7,703 new COVID-19 cases, of which 554 cases were logged in Johor.  There are now more than 580,000 cases nationwide.

READ: Empty streets, shuttered malls as Malaysia begins third nationwide COVID-19 lockdown

Mr Hasni added that one way for the Johor state government to reduce the number of cases was to expedite the vaccination of local residents as soon as possible. 

He said that Johor has always contributed substantially to the national economy and it would be important for Malaysia that "economic activity in Johor is able to resume to its original level". 

He is targeting for 80 per cent of the Johor population to be vaccinated by October. 

FILE PHOTO: Commuters leave the Woodlands Causeway across to Singapore from Johor, hours before Malaysia imposes a lockdown on travel due to the COVID-19 outbreak on Mar 17, 2020. (Reuters/Edgar Su)

Moreover, under the ImmuPlan Johor initiative, the Johor state government plans to prioritise 100,000 residents for vaccination. These residents must first qualify as "economic frontliners" who work in Singapore and are keen on resume commuting between Singapore and Johor. 

Mr Hasni said that so far, around 70,000 people have qualified for the initiative and they will likely receive their vaccinations from July. He added that these economic frontliners will also be given the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which has been approved by Singapore's Health Sciences Authority (HSA). 

READ: Malaysia’s daily COVID-19 cases may hit 13,000 by mid-June if regulations are not followed: Health ministry

COST OF QUARANTINE AN ISSUE FOR THOSE UNDER PCA

During the interview, Mr Hasni also touched on issues affecting Malaysian workers who are currently working in Singapore under the Periodic Commuting Arrangement (PCA). 

Under this scheme, Malaysian workers in Singapore who hold long-term immigration passes are allowed to apply for short-term leave after working in Singapore for at least 90 consecutive days. 

However, some have expressed concern about the cost of serving quarantine when entering Singapore. 

Last month, Singapore announced that those with recent travel history to higher risk countries and regions, including Malaysia, will have to serve a 21-day stay-home notice at dedicated facilities with effect from May 8. 

For those serving their 21-day stay-home notice at dedicated facilities in Singapore, the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority website shows a cost of S$3,000 for accommodation and food for a single adult. This excludes the costs of PCR tests. 

People arriving in Singapore from Johor, Malaysia walking to a chartered bus at Woodlands Checkpoint on Aug 17, 2020. (Photo: Try Sutrisno Foo)

Additionally, these commuters are also required to serve 14 days of quarantine when entering Malaysia, where they would be charged a maximum of RM150 per day. 

Mr Hasni said that he hoped the Singapore government could consider reducing the costs of quarantine for this group. 

"If I may, can I express my request, and hope to the Singapore government ... It would help a lot if the cost of quarantine can be reconsidered to be much lower than what it is now," said Mr Hasni. 

He said these Malaysians are based in Singapore because they are holding on to a job and have obligations with their respective companies in the city state.

"So I believe that it's not that they can't pay, but it will help if they can have extra to spend and ... protect their (finances)," he added. 

JOHOR KEEN ON PROCURING VACCINES FROM SINGAPORE 

Additionally, the chief minister said that the state government is keen to increase Johor's vaccine supply through various channels, including by procuring them from Singapore. 

"I'm happy to inform that we will also be discussing with a few others, including perhaps companies from Singapore, because I was made to understand, from some vaccine suppliers ... about their willingness to supply (to us). But they are tied to the understanding they will have to give priority to the country’s requirement first," said Mr Hasni.

"Once they fulfill this obligation, then only they will be allowed to discuss with other individuals or private parties," he added. 

Mr Hasni also noted how the state government has collaborated with Temasek Foundation previously to distribute face masks, hand sanitizers and ventilators to help in the state's fight against COVID-19. 

Sultan Ibrahim posing with a face mask vending machine alongside leaders of the Johor State Government. (Photo: Johor Royal Press Office)

Temasek Foundation is a Singapore-based non-profit organisation under the philanthropic arm of the state sovereign fund Temasek Holdings. 

He expressed hope that further collaboration can be done to increase the supply of vaccines in Johor. 

"So, maybe from the foundation's perspective, it is more of charitable work. But I suppose if it is on an understanding that can be developed to manage, control or reduce the number of positive COVID-19 patients, then why not?" said Mr Hasni.

"We will explore all possibilities as far as securing our own vaccines."

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Source: CNA/am

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