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In vital jobs fighting COVID-19, Malaysians in Singapore wrestle with heartache of separation

From cleaning jobs to roles supporting the medical profession, Malaysians in essential services grapple with feeling alone, scared and homesick. On the Red Dot talks to some.

In vital jobs fighting COVID-19, Malaysians in Singapore wrestle with heartache of separation

Malaysian mother-of-three Priya Ramadass, 34, who works 10 hours a day as a cleaner, disinfects floors, toilets, door handles and other high-touch areas

SINGAPORE: For 10 hours a day, Priya Ramadass deep cleans floors, toilets, door handles, and sorts of high-touch areas using harsh chemical solvents to disinfect them – a job most Singaporeans shun as “dirty”.

Yet as COVID-19 infection cases continue to climb, the demand for the essential service she provides disinfecting public and private spaces has gone up. Along with the hours the 34-year-old Malaysian has to work.

“Now much work to do, very tired. Sometimes I sit down also, my manager, if he doesn’t know it’s my lunchtime, he asks: ‘Priya, please come and help clean the table.’ I must go, I cannot say no.”

She added: “Sometimes the tissue people use, I want to throw away, I think I will kenna (catch the virus). I’m scared. I think only of my family. I can only pray to God.”

But the mental stress of Priya’s work is not the only weight on her mind.

Priya Ramadass

For the last two months she has not been able to hug her three daughters who are back home in Perling, Johor Bahru – nor her husband, even though he is here in Singapore as well.

He works as a logistics assistant and stays in company-arranged accommodation, while she has been put up at a hotel by her employer. Under Singapore’s circuit-breaker rules, this makes them separate households so they cannot meet, only FaceTime each other.

“My husband now is very lonely. We are in the same country, but we can’t see each other,” said Priya tearfully. “Yesterday, he cried. He said we need the money, must stay (in Singapore) for the kids.”


Priya is one of 58,000 cleaners here, and she is among the many Malaysian workers who made the decision to stay in Singapore when Malaysia’s Movement Control Order (MCO) took effect on March 18. 

Like her, many of them have also been crucial to keeping essential services for Singaporeans running.

WATCH: Scared and feeling alone in Singapore (3:23)

Johari Tapri, 60, works at a medical technology company which has been scaling up its manufacturing of medical equipment. 

Since COVID-19 hit, our output has gone up by about 20 to 25 per cent because we are supporting doctors, nurses and those working in hospitals around the world,” he told the programme On The Red Dot. (Watch the episode here.)

But while Johari made the decision to leave his family in Tampoi – to be the only source of support for his five children and six grandchildren, all unable to work because of the MCO – some of his compatriots chose to stay home. As a result, the company is running on 20 per cent less manpower.

“The COVID-19 (situation) is getting worse and worse. So I think people like us, we have to sacrifice some things to come back to work,” said Johari. “We have a responsibility to the country and the company.”

Johari had hoped to be home for Ramadan, but now that's impossible with the extended MCO and quarantine period.

As for Vimalam Moorthy, an operations manager for DHL, his healthcare clients rely on his team to ensure that their medical equipment reaches them on time – and these deliveries have now become a matter of life and death.

“One of our biggest challenges is getting these goods, from the moment they are ready to go, to the customers… With COVID-19, we face a lot of flight cancellations,” the 34-year-old said.

He last saw his seven-month-old daughter, Samyukta, seven weeks ago, back home in Danga Bay.

When Vimalan and his wife, who works in a Singapore public hospital, first heard about the impending MCO, they knew they would have to cross the border and leave their baby girl behind in the good hands of her grandmothers.

The alternative was to stay home with no pay. “We thought that it was only going to be 14 days and after (that), we’d be able to see my family, my daughter again,” he said. “But then they extended (the MCO). It was very sad, very depressing.”

Vimalan at work.

Vimalan also has not been able to meet his wife since the circuit breaker measures kicked in; they have been put up in different hotels by their respective employers.


The uncertainty of the indefinite separation has been a heartache to all three families.

It’s been especially hard for Johari during the month of Ramadan, when he had expected to be back home breaking fast and performing evening prayers.

But the MCO was twice extended, most recently until May 12 – and even if he were to return home next week, he would still have to undergo 14 days in quarantine at centres provided by the state government. “I’m very sad that this year, I cannot get together with my family,” he said.

Priya's three daughters back home in JB being looked after by her mother.

Priya recounted how her youngest daughter cried over the phone, asking “when mummy come”.

“I told her I cannot. I come back now also no use. Mummy would have to stay at home, no money, no anything. If I want to buy milk and all that, better to stay here (in Singapore),” said Priya, whose mother is helping to look after the children.

As for Vimalan, he said: “I’m missing out on an important part of (Samyukta’s) life, her growth, and all her changes during this crucial time.”

But he wanted to send her a message as a father: “Why I’m here working hard is to provide a better future for us, for you.”

In the 5-part series Alone.Together, the programme On The Red Dot looks at life under lockdown for various groups. Watch this episode here.

Source: CNA/yv


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