Stuck in Singapore: 24 hours with a Malaysian technician
On Mar 17, as Malaysia prepared to close its borders amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Sumon Nuam and around 100,000 other Malaysian workers chose to rush back to Singapore. What is he trading off to continue working here?
SINGAPORE: Sumon Nuam wakes up at 6am in a daze, his body clock rousing him on automatic. At this time on a usual day, he’d be waiting for the school van with his two daughters, aged nine and 17, at the foot of their apartment block in Johor Bahru, before beginning his two-hour motorcycle ride to work in Singapore.
Instead, this morning, he’s holed up at a budget hotel in Geylang, restless and awake two hours before he has to be anywhere.
Work is now just a five-minute ride away. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s hard to see that as a blessing, when the family he’s missing might as well be on the other side of the planet.
Three nights ago, on Mar 17, the 45-year-old technician joined thousands of fellow Malaysians rushing to cross the Singapore-Malaysia land border before a lockdown took effect the next day, as part of Malaysia’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
READ: Malaysia bars citizens from going overseas, foreigners from entering country for 2 weeks to curb COVID-19 spread: PM Muhyiddin
When news of the movement control order broke, Sumon was faced with a painful choice: Stay home with his family and forgo two weeks of salary (or possibly more, if the shutdown were to be extended) – or be separated from them for an unprecedented length of time.
It really was no choice at all. With the lockdown in effect, his wife’s mamak stall would have to shutter. The family needed his income.
“I haven’t finished paying the instalments on my house. There’s also electricity bills,” he says.
READ: Some Malaysians brace for two weeks of no income as movement control order disrupts daily activities
As 8am finally swings around, Sumon gets ready for work in his hotel room. He nips down for breakfast at a coffee shop. The bread and coffee cost him three times more than the usual beehoon he buys on the way out of Malaysia.
9AM-12PM: STARTING THE DAY’S WORK
Sumon is a senior technician at OTO Wellness, where he has been handling after-sales service – such as fixing and maintaining the company’s massage and sporting products – for the last 20 years. His current team of three attend to an average of five customer requests a day.
He parks his motorbike, and picks up the company van, the day’s order forms and the required equipment, before setting off for his first home visit.
At the client’s place, Sumon works on the faulty machines swiftly. He knows instinctively where problems may lie and wields his tools with the efficient familiarity of someone in the skilled trade for two decades.
It’s no wonder that when the Malaysian lockdown was announced, company service manager Ng Kok Keong got anxious. “I was worried for (Sumon) but also for our work. If he went back, we would not have enough people to keep our operations running,” the 58-year-old said.
Sumon is among four of their Malaysian staff who chose to stay in Singapore following the travel restrictions (a fifth had to return home to care for an ailing father). The others quickly found relatives or friends to put them up – but Sumon had no one.
So Kok Keong drove around to look for a nearby hotel, and found him a room at Hotel 81 at S$80 a night, which the company is paying for. “We want our staff to be well-rested so that it does not affect their work,” said Kok Keong.
“After all, they have left their family behind, so this is one worry we can take off their minds.”
What wasn't clear then was whether Malaysia might extend its lockdown, and for how long, given the country’s growing number of infections. On Mar 25, it was announced that the movement control order would be extended to Apr 14.
12PM-6PM: LUNCH & NEXT ROUND OF SERVICING
Back in the office after the morning round, Sumon sneaks in a quick video call on his Oppo phone with his youngest daughter, Cherry.
She turns nine today – and not being there for her birthday wrings an emotional moment from the normally phlegmatic Malaysian.
Tears welling in his eyes, he says: “I feel sad thinking about her. We’re very close.”
Indeed, on Mar 17 even as he was rushing home from work in order to pack his things and get back to Singapore before the deadline, the first thing Sumon did when he entered JB was to stop and buy a birthday cake for Cherry.
“My daughter told me, ‘You cannot leave’. But I know she understands,” says the doting father.
“They waited until today to cut the cake.”
Soon after their lunch break, work beckons again and Sumon and his partner set off for several more home visits. While he has never been this long away from his wife and two daughters, he considers himself lucky that he still has an income stream.
From Mar 24, Singapore barred all short-term visitors from entering, save for work-pass holders providing essential services such as healthcare or transport.
6PM-10PM: DINNER AND WINDING DOWN
On days he didn’t have to work overtime, Sumon would start his journey back to JB at around 6pm, making it home by 7.30pm for dinner if there was little traffic at the checkpoint.
This evening, he gets back to his empty hotel room in no time at all, and with no meal waiting for him. He winds down as he waits for one of his few friends here to finish work, so that they can have dinner together.
Sumon makes another video call home to his wife and daughters. It’s a Friday, and if he were back in JB, he’d be watching TikTok videos with the girls. On an ordinary weekend, he’d take them out shopping, or watch as Christina helped Cherry with homework.
For now, though, watching them on a 6-inch screen will have to do.
8pm comes around and his friend, who packs powder at a factory in Jurong Island, can finally meet him. Mohd Fadli Tarzan, 27, stays just two streets away at another budget hotel arranged by his company.
Fadli’s family lives seven hours away in Terengganu, so unlike Sumon he’s used to having been away from them for a long time.
The two Malaysians talk until 10pm – after all, they have nowhere else to be. Finally, when tiredness creeps in, Sumon returns to his room and counts down the days yet again - to when he might, hopefully, finally, go home to his family.