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Workers from Malaysia, China resigned to spending Chinese New Year in Singapore amid COVID-19 travel restrictions

Workers from Malaysia, China resigned to spending Chinese New Year in Singapore amid COVID-19 travel restrictions

(From left to right) Ms Guo Xue Mei, Ms Chai Siow Yun and Mr Eric Yong are hairdressers at SES Studio. This year, none of the three Malaysians will be able to see their children and spend time with their family over Chinese New Year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. (Photo: Rachel Phua)

SINGAPORE: Chinese New Year is usually a time for Ms Chai Siow Yun to enjoy a good week with her children and take them for a short vacation in Genting Highlands.

But there’s no chance of doing that this year. 

The 32-year-old Malaysian who works in Singapore as a hairdresser is stuck here amid COVID-19 travel restrictions. The last time she went back to Johor Bahru was in August last year to give birth. She returned to Singapore in November, leaving her newborn in her mother's care. 

Her husband Eric Yong, also a hairdresser in Singapore, has not seen his baby girl. He has not gone home since border restrictions were tightened on Mar 18 last year.

“We are hoping it will open soon so we can see the baby, otherwise she won’t recognise her dad and mum,” Ms Chai said in Mandarin. Before the pandemic, she and Mr Yong would go home every weekend. 

Their two older children in Malaysia - aged one-and-a-half and nine - are always asking them over WhatsApp calls whether they can return home soon, and when that will be. 

READ: Away from their families, Malaysians in Singapore brace themselves for a quiet Chinese New Year

“Very sian," Ms Chai said of this lacklustre festive period, using a Hokkien term which means feeling weary. 

"It’s just one bridge but it’s so hard to get home.”

Usually, she and her husband would look forward to spending quality time with their family, playing mahjong and visiting close friends. 

This year, it will just be the two of them and their Malaysian housemate Guo Xue Mei, 32, who works with them at SES Studio, a hair salon in Bedok. They said they will probably go out to have dinner together with some friends.

Ms Guo is in Singapore alone while her son and husband are in Johor Bahru. 

“My child will ask me when I can go back, and I tell him only when the virus disappears,” she said in Mandarin.

The trio are among the nearly one million Malaysians living and working in Singapore, according to 2019 data from the United Nations. Chinese New Year is usually a time when many of them would return to their home country, where more than a fifth of the population are ethnic Chinese. 

This year, many of them would have to miss out on festivities back home. 

Malaysian citizens who are long-term pass holders or Singapore permanent residents can apply to travel home under the Periodic Commuting Arrangement scheme, but they would have to serve a 14-day stay-home notice when they arrive in either country - a major deterrent to going back, those CNA spoke to said. They said they are disheartened by the situation, but know that there is no choice given the current circumstances.

READ: COVID-19: Malaysian business owners and trade groups urge against another full lockdown

The high number of COVID-19 cases in Malaysia - with four-digit daily increases since Dec 10 - is another reason why driver Tang Cheong Sow and his family think it is best he stays in Singapore for Chinese New Year, which falls on Feb 12 and 13 this year. 

Mr Tang usually travels to and from Johor Bahru daily, but since March, he has been living with his colleagues in a rented flat in Singapore.

“At least in Singapore I can find a friend, and we can go out and eat,” said Mr Tan, a 63-year-old Singapore permanent resident. Usually, during Chinese New Year, he would return to his hometown in Perak state for 10 days, where most of his relatives live. 

“In Malaysia right now we can only get takeaway and eat at home,” he told CNA in Mandarin.

Mr Tang Cheong Sow usually returns to his home state of Perak during Chinese New Year but will not be able to do so this year. (Photo: Rachel Phua)

Malaysia is currently under a movement control order, which bars social gatherings and dine-ins at restaurants. Up to two people per household are allowed to leave their home, and they can only travel within a 10km radius of their house. 

READ: MCO extended in all Malaysian states except Sarawak until Feb 18: Senior minister Ismail Sabri

Ms Emmerie Wong, a research coordinator who has lived in Singapore for almost seven years and is married to a Singaporean, said she usually flies back to Kuala Lumpur on the third or fourth day of Chinese New Year to visit her relatives. 

This year, she will have to offer her well-wishes virtually. She said she will probably invite some Malaysians who are living alone in Singapore over to her place so that they can have some festive activity to look forward to.

“It’s been a bit too long,” the 34-year-old said about not having seen her family since the beginning of last year. This Chinese New Year was also meant to be a special one, as she had just given birth to her son - her first child - in November. She wanted all her relatives to meet him. He is the first grandchild on the maternal side of the family, she said. 

As the number of cases remains high in Malaysia, Ms Wong said she is also worried for her parents, who are both in their 60s. “You’re just not there if anything happens,” she added.

Chinese nationals in Singapore are also feeling down about missing out on family time this February. But with long quarantine periods - at least 14 days in China - and the Chinese government discouraging citizens from travelling home, all those who CNA spoke to said flying back is not worth the risk. 

READ: China to test Chinese New Year travellers for COVID-19; Shanghai reports new cases

“Singapore still feels the safest. And at least we can work,” said Mr Sheng Chun Gang, 37. He is a packer for Foresight Metal Engineering, a construction materials supplier.

The company’s marketing manager Vivien Ngo said they might send some daily necessities and mini-hot pot machines to the flat that Mr Sheng shared with five others. The company usually celebrates by holding a buffet lunch at a hotel, but the plan has been scrapped.

WATCH: 6,000 migrant workers to get free rides on Singapore Flyer | Video

“Of course there is a sense of loss. But we have no choice,” said construction worker Yan Tinghui. The 42-year-old has been in Singapore for seven years. He used to go back to his hometown in Jiangsu province every Chinese New Year for a month to spend time with his wife, two children and his parents.

“This is going to be the most boring Chinese New Year ever,” Mr Yan said in Mandarin, adding that he will likely just have a meal with his dormitory mates.

Mr Yan's colleague Weng Shiquan said even if he went home to China, there would not be much of a celebratory atmosphere. 

Last year, the 47-year-old construction worker was mostly stuck at home in Anhui province for two months when he returned. The COVID-19 outbreak was worsening in China at the time and he avoided meeting family and friends.

“I’m okay,” Mr Weng said. “My company is trying its best to take care of us.”

Their company Chian Teck is running some programmes over the Chinese New Year period for its 700-odd workers, which include more than 300 Chinese nationals, said senior engineer Wu Yu Sheng. He is part of a six-member team at Chian Teck planning the company’s Chinese New Year programme. 

On the eve of Chinese New Year, for example, they will get KFC meals and goodie bags containing either snacks from China or Indian sweets - depending on their nationality - delivered to the workers’ dormitories and rented flats, Mr Wu said. 

Some of the snacks that will be part of the goodie bags Chian Teck construction firm sends to its Chinese workers. (Photo: Wu Yu Sheng)

The firm has also made arrangements with several restaurants so that the workers can have their meals there over the long weekend. Those living in dormitories will have their meals catered. 

“We want to let them feel like they aren’t alone. We are a family. We will take care of them,” Mr Wu said. 

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Source: CNA/rp(gs)

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