Singapore, Malaysia want 'more open borders' even if Omicron variant disrupts VTL expansion: PM Lee
SINGAPORE: Singapore and Malaysia want "more open borders" even if the new Omicron coronavirus variant disrupts plans to expand the vaccinated travel lane (VTL) between both countries, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday (Nov 29).
Mr Lee and his Malaysian counterpart Ismail Sabri Yaakob were giving speeches at the Istana on the first day of the land and air VTL between Singapore and Malaysia. Mr Ismail Sabri is on his first official visit to Singapore.
Mr Lee said the aim is to expand the land VTL to include general travellers from the middle of December, taking into account the public health situation. Currently, travellers must be citizens, permanent residents or long-term pass holders of the country they are entering.
Mr Ismail Sabri said they also spoke about expanding the land VTL to include bus services on the Tuas Second Link, trains operated by Keretapi Tanah Melayu, and "gradually" personal vehicles such as cars and motorcycles.
The leaders also discussed launching a sea VTL, possibly between Tanah Merah ferry terminal in Singapore and Desaru in Johor, and expanding the air VTL to include destinations such as Penang, Langkawi, Kuching and Kota Kinabalu.
"Of course all this is COVID-19 permitting, because we are all watching anxiously the new Omicron variant, to see how it will behave," Mr Lee said.
"But even if Omicron disrupts these plans, our goal will still be to have more open borders between Singapore and Malaysia. And I'm quite confident that after some time, we will be able to make further progress."
Countries have raced to contain the new Omicron variant amid reports it is potentially more contagious than the current dominant Delta variant. Some have closed borders to foreign travellers or tightened restrictions on them.
Malaysia's Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said on Monday that authorities detected a COVID-19 case through an on-arrival antigen rapid test conducted at the Johor entry point of the Causeway.
Authorities are confirming the positive result using a polymerase chain reaction test, and assessing if passengers who travelled on the same bus need to be quarantined or subjected to other restrictions, Mr Khairy said.
Nevertheless, Mr Lee said at the Istana that the VTLs will help people working in either country reunite with their loved ones back home, and strengthen economic and business linkages.
"We will start the VTLs with modest numbers and it will take us some time before we can get anywhere near to pre-COVID levels of travelling," he added.
"But we will progress step-by-step and get it working first. As the situation increases, we will raise the travel volumes."
Mr Ismail Sabri also said that reopening borders between Singapore and Malaysia was important to restart economic and social activities that will benefit the people of both countries.
Mr Lee said he looked forward to continue strengthening bilateral ties and cooperation with Malaysia, and building strong relations with Mr Ismail Sabri.
"Singapore and Malaysia are close neighbours with a shared history. Our economies are extensively intertwined. Our peoples share strong bonds of kinship, friendship and memories," he added.
"So, the closing of borders was very tough on both sides."
Mr Ismail Sabri earlier received a ceremonial welcome at the Istana and had a spray of orchids named in his honour.
During their meeting, the two leaders affirmed the "longstanding bilateral relations and close people-to-people ties that Singapore and Malaysia have forged over decades of mutual trust and cooperation", said Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in a press statement.
They discussed opportunities for collaboration, including the Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link project.
The prime ministers also noted that Singapore and Malaysia have worked closely to ensure that supply chains were unaffected throughout the pandemic.
Mr Ismail Sabri also accepted Mr Lee's invitation to visit Singapore again for an in-person Leaders’ Retreat in the first quarter of 2022, said MFA.