The wildest Covid-19 border story I’ve heard involves a Malaysian speeding in her car towards Singapore, only to find a huge jam at the border crossing. Arriving at six in the evening, this friend of a friend had given herself plenty of time to make the midnight cut-off, after which foreigners would no longer be easily allowed into Singapore and the complications of modern travel would kick in: quarantines, swabs and stay-at-home notices. With her family and job waiting in Singapore, she had to make it back.
To be sure, there is always some traffic on the two bridges that connect the Malay peninsula to the island of Singapore. Memang jam gao gao, surely there will be a heavy jam, a Malaysian might quip, combining three languages in the most delightful creole phrase. Memang is Malay for surely. Gao is Hokkien for thick or heavy. And jam is, well, not the strawberry kind. Memang jam gao gao, but nobody expected it to be like this.
When she could finally see the drive-through immigration complex, I imagine the same questions would have circled endlessly in her head: Why aren’t all the gantries open? Which lane has the fewest family vans with oversized families with too many passports? Why is that guy’s back seat filled with rambutans and keropok (it’s going to hold up the security line)? Should I signal before I switch lanes, or will the blinking light trigger the driver behind, causing him to jolt forward and prevent me from moving in?
Am I going to make it?
At 11.30pm she decided that her car would not be able to clear the gao gao in thirty minutes. So she gathered her essentials, stepped out of her car for the very last time, and ran.
She made it. Her car didn’t. We don’t know what happened to it.
For her, for me, for all of us ‘Malayans’ who have long traipsed gleefully between the two, Covid-19 has brought home a truth about sovereignty: Malaysia and Singapore are different countries. Get used to your post-Covid life—in one or the other.
In some ways this is a deepening of a process that began on 9 August 1965, when Singapore separated from Malaysia. On that day, my nineteen-year-old father, his parents and his siblings were given a new national identity, one that formally distinguished them from the wider family in Malaysia. His grandfather (my great-grandfather) had migrated from Kerala to Malaysia in the 1920s, part of a wave of south Indians to have gone in search of opportunity across the British Empire. Over the subsequent decades his relatives and descendants spread across Malaya, numbering more than 200 today.
I remember travelling to Malaysia as a little boy in the 1980s. It never felt like we were going to a different country, more like just the next district. Packing was a breeze. Papa would put some Malaysian ringgit in his wallet; Mummy would get the special blue passports that allowed us entry into Malaysia and nowhere else. I would pack an Archie comic book and a Western Bar handheld video game for those moments in the coming days when I would want to be antisocial; my sister would dream up new ways to irritate me during the six-hour car ride; and we’d be off.
Soon we’d be in Klang, surrounded by relatives. After they had stopped teasing me for forgetting their names and I had stopped feeling guilty, I sank graciously into the tribe, the kampung, which offered comfort in numbers, a necessary reprieve from the navel gazing that nuclear families engage in.
They’d serve fabulous Kerala curries—made with younger coconuts, fresher fish, more intoxicating spices and more patient hands than we could get in urban Singapore—and once I turned thirteen, the older cousins would let me linger on the fringes of drinking circles, from where I’d eagerly top up scotch-and-sodas, stealing sips and snatches of dirty jokes, chuckling even when I didn’t get it.
In the morning they’d take us for bak kut teh, literally pork rib tea, a herbal tonic that most of Muslim-majority Malaysia doesn’t eat, or roti canai, a chewy flatbread that everybody does.
We would trade in the stereotypes of our national identities. You Singaporeans are entitled and kiasu, scared to lose; you Malaysians are provincial and lazy. It was banter that dissolved quickly in a melange of English, Malay and Malayalam, to be replaced by a much quieter mutual admiration for the flipsides of stereotypes.
Singapore is uber-developed because Singaporeans are go-getting, with kiasu as the motivator. Malaysians perceive their own relative economic sluggishness through the exchange rate, the source of much angst. In those days, I’m often told, one ringgit used to get them one Singapore dollar (today just thirty cents). They’d see progress playing out in my child’s hands: this year Western Bar, the next Nintendo Game Boy.
Yet ‘modernity’ at what cost? Singaporeans who spend time in Malaysia pine for the locals’ connection to the earth, to family, to non-material things (the flipside of ‘provincial’), and for their joie de vivre, their ability to live life, to let things go, tidak apa lah, it doesn’t matter (‘lazy’).
There was a reflexiveness in our experiences, born of the vagaries of postcolonial decision making, that allowed us to make sense of this world. We would live vicariously through each other.
All that is now gone. When the border first closed, causing the friend of a friend to lose her car, we all thought it might be temporary, as if the neighbour next door had boarded up for a quick paint job. With each passing month, we have come to realise that every city is beating to the sound of its own coronavirus drum. Just when you are coming out of lockdown, family or friends far away are going in.
Before the pandemic, I had worried about a Thunbergian world in which I could no longer easily hop on a plane to visit loved ones far away. But I never once imagined not being able to visit Malaysia, which I can walk to in half a day. To fully appreciate this emotional, social and economic dislocation, remember geography. Malaysia-Singapore is not quite like India-Pakistan or the two Koreas. Singapore may be a sovereign state, but it’s actually just a city. Imagine if New York City was closed off from the rest of New York state. Or London from the rest of England.
There are Malaysians who live in Singapore, and Singaporeans who live in Malaysia. Every day Malaysians cross the border to work; and Singaporeans cross the border to eat, shop, visit relatives (including the elderly in their homes) and relak in hookah bars, banned in our nanny state.
Before the pandemic, some 300,000 Malaysians travelled every day through the throbbing arteries between Malaysia and Singapore, boosting our daytime population by more than 5 per cent. Though trade has long resumed—some Singaporeans might starve without their sage bundles from Cameron Highlands and durians from Raub—the flow of people has slowed to a trickle. Our universe has shrunk dramatically. People on either side have been left in limbo. Malaysia is—or was—our Jersey and our Upstate, imagined backwater and hinterland, rolled into one.
In the middle of last year, a Malaysian friend who used to live in Malaysia and commute thirty minutes to Singapore every day for work found out that his wife was expecting their first child. Cause for celebration! And heightened anxiety about work-life balance. Today he lives in Singapore, separated from his wife and newborn a few kilometres away. Every few months he travels back to see them, which now (at the time of writing) is at the cost of four weeks in quarantine: two in Malaysia, two back in Singapore. Cari makan, look for food, our phrase for the hustle.
As I have sifted through stories of the Malayan traveller’s pandemic woes—such as Malaysian Chinese in Singapore missing Chinese New Year reunions with ailing relatives for the first time in their lives—one common thread is a strange feeling of guilt. In the pandemic’s hierarchy of suffering, not being able to see ah kong and ah ma this year doesn’t even rank. Just be thankful you’re alive.
Though there have been government blunders in both countries, pandemic life in Singapore is, by any objective measure, better than in Malaysia. Incredibly, for much of the past year, Singaporeans have had a wider locus of travel—our entire forty-two-by-twenty-six-kilometre island—than most Malaysians, restricted to a ten-kilometre radius.
Objectively better, but subjectively? Have the pandemic’s stressors, including lost income, work-from-home requirements and home-based learning, psychologically and emotionally affected Singaporeans more than Malaysians?
Perhaps my lazy, provincial cousins are actually feeling happier right now than kiasu me. But I can’t really tell from WhatsApp and Zoom. The only way would be to look into their eyes.
Thanks to Annmarie Chandy and Charmaine Poh for reading. This essay was first published in August 2021 in The Mekong Review.