KUALA LUMPUR: It has been a month since Christina Lye, 28, saw her three-month-old baby.
While the beautician and her husband stay in a small rented room in Singapore, they have also rented a house in Johor Bahru so that her mother-in-law can relocate from Sabah to care for their baby.
Lye has not been able to travel to Johor Bahru with Malaysia enforcing the movement control order (MCO) on Mar 18, shortly after daily new COVID-19 cases saw a three-digit spike.
The MCO, originally scheduled for 14 days, has been extended twice. Meanwhile, Singapore also entered the “circuit breaker” period from Apr 7 to May 4.
With movement restrictions imposed by both sides, Lye’s weekly trip across the Causeway has been made impossible. She cannot carry frozen breast milk back to her baby, who was born with a lung infection and was prescribed antibiotics for five days after his birth.
“His condition caused me great heartache. To boost his immune system, I decided to feed him breast milk.
“With the lockdown, there was no way for me to send my breast milk back. And my mother-in-law told me that my baby spits up more when he is fed formula, compared to breast milk. I was really worried. I was on the verge of tears,” Lye told CNA.
She can only see her baby via video call these days. “It seems that he cannot recognise me ... He keeps crying, but there’s nothing we can do.”
As it turned out, her predicament is shared by more than 350 Malaysian mothers who had to leave behind their children to earn a living in Singapore. They are sharing their experiences in a Facebook group.
Many have been gripped by worry, as the breast milk stock in their freezers back home depleted fast.
At a time when people pay extra attention to nutrition and hygiene, they hoped to continue providing their babies with breast milk, which is touted as the healthiest choice.
“I was so down and I cried every day because I missed my son,” another mother, who wanted to be known as Mrs Tee, said.
The preschool teacher was serving a leave of absence having returned to Singapore from Malaysia on Mar 14, as required by the Singaporean government.
She joined every logistics and carpooling Facebook group she could find and called some 15 freight forwarders in frantic search of a way to send her breast milk back to her six-month-old baby in Selangor.
Some quoted costly fees, while some declined to handle breast milk. One agreed at first but had to abort the mission after Singapore was said to have tightened its border control.
At her wits’ end, Mrs Tee, 29, started a Facebook group for all the mothers she encountered during the process to pool their ideas and possible resources together.
ALMOST A MISSION IMPOSSIBLE, A RACE AGAINST TIME
When both countries announced movement restrictions to contain the pandemic, Mrs Tee had thought of applying for annual leave to be with her baby back home in Selangor, but her employer said she should resign if she wanted to be absent from work on short notice.
With the circuit breaker, teachers at her preschool are required to take turns to be at the premises to look after children of essential workers. “I can’t lose my job, especially when the economy is not doing too well,” she said.
Although she misses her baby dearly, Mrs Tee knew sitting around would not help. Managing the Facebook group of about 350 mummies has given her a sense of responsibility and a mission to complete.
Just as the women exhausted all possible channels and nearly lost hope in late March, a Malaysia-based forwarder agreed to help them, first with 20 boxes of frozen breast milk from Singapore to Johor at a small fee of S$10 on Mar 29, and then another 20 boxes to states farther away two days later. The maximum weight for each box is 20kg.
The mums were elated, and at the same time anxious about when their turn would come. Luck was on their side when one of them approached Johor’s Stulang assemblyman Andrew Chen Kah Eng for help.
Never in history has a large quantity of frozen breast milk been brought over the Causeway in such a manner, the Democratic Action Party politician claimed. Usually, mothers just bring their own breast milk across the border as part of their personal luggage.
“It was a daunting task to arrange everything,” he told CNA, adding that he pulled some strings and mobilised volunteers and people in the logistic industry to make this possible.
On Apr 8, 30 boxes of breast milk, weighing 600kg, arrived at his office and were quickly delivered to babies in JB.
For the second shipment, Chen and his contacts arranged for a cold room in Singapore for the mums to drop their frozen breast milk in batches, adhering to safe distancing measures.
From there, the 118 boxes containing 2,300kg of breast milk were sent back to a cold room in JB with a refrigerator truck. They were then dispatched to babies in various states, as far as Perak, Penang and Kedah.
Delivery fees ranged between RM30 (S$9.80) and RM200, depending on distance.
The freight forwarding companies involved had submitted the relevant documentation to the Malaysian customs prior to the mission, Chen added.
“This is not my effort alone as many people were involved. It’s almost a mission impossible,” Chen said. It was also a race against time as the breast milk cannot be completely thawed.
“I was nervous, but the mums were even more so. I could finally heave a sigh of relief after the boxes arrived,” he added.
The whole operation was carried out based on trust in this unusual time, said Novan Hing, the president of Johor Lorry Operators Association.
Breast milk is not a commercial product, so there is no such channel for commercial vehicles to bring it from Singapore into Malaysia, he noted.
He said he was enlisted by Chen to get involved in the first shipment, but did not have any direct interaction with the mums and families.
“I felt happy when I read their comments on Facebook, thanking the transport company and the association,” he said.
HOPE TO SEE THEIR BABIES SOON
The mission has created a strong bond among the 300-odd mothers, who are constantly encouraging each other.
Some graciously let others whose needs were more urgent to take the earlier slots.
“We said if you have any problems, share with us, don’t hide them in your hearts,” an account administrator who only wanted to be known as Mrs Choong, 32, said. Her six-month-old baby is with a babysitter in Johor Bahru.
Lye, the beautician, said she continued to pump her breast milk and store it in the freezer. With the milk piling up, she has excess to donate to a Singaporean hospital’s human milk bank in aid of premature and sick babies.
Meanwhile, there are still mothers who are waiting to send their breast milk back, such as Eunice Teo, whose four-month-old baby girl is currently under the care of a babysitter in Kuching, Sarawak.
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The 31-year-old’s plan of commuting between Kuching and Singapore once a week has been thwarted by the MCO and circuit breaker.
Now that commercial flights between Kuala Lumpur and several destinations in East Malaysia have just been resumed at the frequency of once a week, Teo hopes she can find a way to send back her breast milk.
“I took care of my baby myself in the first three months. It is torturous when suddenly my baby is not next to me.
“Any small chance (that will allow me to send back breast milk), I want to try,” she said.
Even if the MCO and circuit breaker could soon be over, the mothers are unsure if it is feasible to return to Malaysia. This is because both countries currently mandate a 14-day quarantine for people returning from overseas, which could mean nearly a month spent in quarantine.
“I am going to apply for one week’s leave when this is over to see my baby in Johor Bahru,” Mrs Choong said, adding that many mothers hope the rules will be relaxed for Malaysians based in Singapore.