Some Malaysians who lost their jobs in Singapore left stranded and cash-strapped

Amir Yusof

SINGAPORE (CNA) – A Malaysian construction worker who wished to be known only as Muhd Hassan, was left in the lurch after he received a termination letter from his company late last month.

The 31-year-old Johor resident had been working for a Singapore-based company over the last three years, but suddenly found himself out of a job.

“It all happened so quickly. My supervisor called me over the phone to tell me that the company was not doing well and I had to be let go,” said Muhd Hassan.

Muhd Hassan is among some Malaysian workers left stranded in Singapore after losing their jobs, and are struggling to make ends meet.

The work permit holder has chosen to live in Singapore since Malaysia’s movement control order (MCO) was imposed on March 17 and cross-border travel restricted between both countries.

File photos show people at Woodlands Checkpoint waiting for private transport after crossing the Causeway ahead of Malaysia’s travel restrictions; and commuters board a public bus outside Singapore’s Woodlands Checkpoint. PHOTOS: CNA

Up until the MCO took effect, Muhd Hassan shuttled across the Causeway daily. He has not seen his wife and two daughters, who live in Pasir Gudang, for more than 75 days.

“I decided not to go home before the MCO because my work situation was uncertain. I did not want to be stuck in Johor if there was work to do in Singapore. I needed to keep earning,” he told CNA.

Unfortunately for Muhd Hassan, construction projects were halted when Singapore entered the “circuit breaker” period on April 7.

He was placed on unpaid leave and later sacked on May 29.

What troubled him the most is his financial situation. He has less than SGD200 in savings, having transferred a large chunk of his money to his family back in Johor for household expenses.

“I know Ramadhan has ended but in order to save money, I just continued fasting. I eat one meal a day to save money. It’s enough,” said Muhd Hassan.

He rented a room with his friend in a flat in Yishun, so that he can find another job in another construction firm while he is there.

Muhd Hassan considered heading back home but with his savings depleted, he decided that he could not afford it.

“I hope to get another job and hopefully when we can travel back and forth again without the need for quarantine, life will be back to normal,” he said.

COVID-19’s impact on the economy and labour market has affected the thousands of Malaysians who work in Singapore, many of whom, like Muhd Hassan, commute across the Woodlands Causeway and Tuas Second Link daily.

In a Facebook post on June 3, Singapore Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said due to “sheer uncertainty” as to how long COVID-19 will last, the Singapore economy “will have far fewer new job openings than jobs being lost” over the next year, and possibly beyond that.

Like Muhd Hassan, another fellow Johor resident who wanted to be known only as Roy, also lost his job in Singapore recently.

Roy worked in a factory in Tuas until May 1 when his employer asked him to resign.

“My boss said he could not afford to pay for my salary anymore, so he asked me to resign by mutual consent. He said he will consider rehiring me when the situation improves,” the 36-year-old told CNA.

“I was not the only person getting sacked, two other Malaysians were also let go,” he added.

He said his supervisor explained that the company was losing money as the factory had halted production during the circuit breaker period.

“Yes, I read that the Singapore government is trying to help companies pay their foreign workers but my boss said this was simply not enough,” said Roy.

To help companies alleviate costs, the Singapore government introduced a foreign worker levy waiver and rebate for businesses in the construction, marine and offshore and process sectors.

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat announced on April 6 that, as part of the Solidarity Budget, he will waive the levy due in April and give employers a rebate of SGD750 for each work permit or S pass holder, based on previous levies paid in 2020.

On May 26, Heng announced that the waiver will be extended to 100 per cent in June and 50 per cent in July, while the rebate will be extended to SGD750 in June and SGD375 in July.

However, Roy noted that some subsidies to help companies pay their local employees did not extend to foreigners.

For instance, as measures to help firms cope with the impact of Singapore’s circuit breaker, Heng announced as part of the Jobs Support Scheme that firms in all sectors will receive a 75 per cent wage subsidy for Singapore citizens and permanent residents. However, this scheme does not cover foreigners, including Malaysian work permit holders.

In spite of this, Roy is determined to stay in Singapore to find another job. He is currently staying with his cousin’s family in their Woodlands HDB flat.

“I think another opportunity will come and I want to grab it. Going home now could mean that I would never be able to come back to Singapore this year, especially if the COVID-19 (border) restrictions continue,” said Roy.

Roy has not seen his wife, who lives in Johor Bahru, since March. However, he said he talks to her regularly through online video calls.

“I have not told her that I got sacked, I think she would worry a lot. When I do get to go home, I want to do so with a job in hand so that I can support her and my parents,” said Roy.

Besides Roy, another Malaysian citizen who lost her job recently also shared how she misses her family.

Chee Li Ya, who worked for a tourism agency, told CNA she has not seen her father for more than four months.

The permanent resident was sacked in late February, eight months after she joined the company as a digital marketing and communications manager.

“They told me, ‘We can’t keep you around anymore.’ I didn’t see it coming, but I knew there was a danger of me losing my role with COVID-19 affecting travel,” said Chee.

She presently lives with her partner, a Malaysian citizen who works in healthcare. She said she is lucky because her partner is able to pay rent, so she can get by financially. However, she maintained that being away from her father since Chinese New Year has been “really hard” on her.

“When the Malaysian government announced the lockdown, I did consider going back. But it was hard because I was looking for another job. I didn’t know if I could come back to Singapore and if I had to be quarantined and so I decided to stay,” said the 30-year-old.

Moreover, Chee, Roy and Muhd Hassan expressed hope that both the Singapore and Malaysia governments could come up with a solution soon to allow work permit holders to cross the border and commute between their families and work.

Chee said, “There are so many Malaysians who commute back and forth, I wish they would allow this but provided they have doctor letters to ensure that they are well.”

At the end of May, Singapore’s National Development Minister Lawrence Wong said during a Ministry Task Force press conference that Singapore was in discussion with Malaysia on issues related to workers who want to commute daily through both land crossings.

He added that although both countries have stricter travel measures to curb the spread of COVID-19, eventually both sides will have to see how best they can accommodate the workers.

Meanwhile, in a Facebook post on June 4, Johor Chief Minister Hasni Mohammad said that he held discussions with Malaysian Senior Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob to work towards allowing Johor residents commute to Singapore for work.

“God willing, we are working to expedite this. Many issues need to be considered and various implementation methods are being refined to ensure the safety and health of all residents.”

On this, Roy said he hoped something would be announced soon to facilitate movement of workers. However, his priority now was to find another job as soon as possible. “I hope that when the spread of COVID-19 slows, my old company would rehire me,” said Roy. “Then I can go home to my wife knowing that we are financially secure.”