Singaporeans with Malaysian homes in limbo due to border restrictions

Wong Pei Ting

SINGAPORE (TODAY) — For six months now, Singaporean couple K and S have been paying monthly expenses of MYR4,300 (SGD1,407) to rent a bungalow that they cannot live in, MYR1,900 for a car that they cannot drive, and MYR2,500 to ensure that their dog is cared for at a pet-boarding facility.

They do not have a choice. Since Malaysia’s movement control order (MCO) kicked in on March 18 to rein in the spread of COVID-19, the Johor residents of five years, who declined to reveal their full names, had been stuck in Singapore, where K works.

They are unable to end their Malaysian lease without returning to pack their belongings and sell their car. They also find trouble getting past the red tape to re-house their four-legged family member, a golden retriever, in their three-room flat in Singapore.

K, a manager at a multinational firm, used to travel back and forth the Causeway for work, while their 16-year-old son stayed put in Johor to attend an international school. The MCO scuppered that routine.

To add to their woes, their Malaysian home, located at Horizon Hills, a gated development in Iskandar Puteri, was burgled about two months ago.

K, 53, said his camera equipment, a few watches and his son’s collection of basketball shoes were stolen, according to a friend who checks on the property from time to time. He is unable to lodge a police report, however, as he is not in the country.

As the MCO drags on beyond the six-month mark, Singaporeans with a stake on both sides of the Causeway are appealing to the Malaysian authorities to grant them some leeway to return and resolve some personal matters.

TODAY spoke to 10 of these Singaporeans and found that the most heavily impacted bunch are those who treated their Malaysian homes as their primary residence and had committed to monthly payments on services that they now cannot use.

Among them is Randy Lee, a 34-year-old in the investment business, who was attending a wedding reception in Singapore with his wife and two-year-old son when he found out about the border closure. They could not find a flight to take them back to Penang, where they had lived for the past two years, before the borders shut, and he ended up having to pay “two sets of costs”, he pointed out.

Lee said he is paying for two maids – one for MYR1,500 a month in Penang, and the other for SGD800 a month in Singapore – who were hired to help his pregnant wife, who has since given birth to their second son four months ago, with chores.

And up till September, he was paying for services from two infant care centres in both countries.

Lee continued to pay the Malaysian school a monthly fee of MYR1,200 for five months despite not being able to utilise its services as it is a popular school and it might be difficult for him to enrol his son there again if he were to pull out. He also thought that his family stood a “good chance” of returning home soon as he believed that the MCO was a temporary measure.

Over the past six months, a 48-year-old private tutor who wanted to be known only as Hu paid more than MYR5,000 in rent for his weekend home, a condominium in Johor Baru.

But he “gave up” after Malaysia announced in late August that borders will continue to be closed until the end of the year, and is in the midst of moving out of the unit with the help of a Singaporean friend in Johor, he told TODAY.

It was not an easy decision to make as he has an emotional connection with the house, where he had spent two to three nights weekly for the past two-and-a-half years. “We are losing our homes without even having the chance to let them go at our own terms,” he said.

K and his wife had planned in June to move from their bungalow to a smaller house that would cost MYR2,700 to rent. This was to lower costs in anticipation of the MCO being lifted by August or September.

They had even paid a deposit of a month’s rent to prepare for that contingency. But the extension of the border closure has forced them to rethink their plans.

Now all they are hoping for is to be able to pack all their personal items and bring them back, provided they can bring the dog back as well, once the MCO measures are lifted.

“It is not to say that we are printing money down here. We are not. We are trying to make ends meet, but every time we try to do something and think positive, something changes,” K said.

People who invest in Malaysian property are impacted as well.

A finance professional who rents out a terrace unit to a Malaysian Chinese family in Johor said his tenant had fallen behind on rental payments for more than a year, but he only found out about it earlier this year, when travel restrictions were already in force.

The 40-year-old who declined to be named then wanted to commence legal proceedings remotely to get a court order to evict the family and repossess the property, but he said it had been “impossible to kickstart the legal process”.

Malaysian lawyers told him they cannot do affidavits over video conferencing tool Zoom, and that such documents must be signed in person in Malaysia. However, only businessmen, diplomats and workers with long-term immigration work passes could apply for cross-border travel via the Reciprocal Green Lane and Periodic Commuting Arrangement schemes at the moment.

“I am in a little bit of a Catch-22 situation. I need to get the ball rolling on the legal side (before making known the intention to evict them),” he said.

Retiree SK Quek leases five of his six properties in Malaysia and used to put up two of the houses for short-term rental on Airbnb.

And while he has no issues with collecting rent from his long-term tenants, the 64-year-old who is now driving for Grab in Singapore said he loses about MYR8,000 a month – his usual earnings from Airbnb – for not being able to list his properties.

Looking at the issue from the other side of the Causeway is a senior compliance officer working at a Singapore bank who wanted to be known only as Leung.

The 51-year-old Singaporean who remained at Leisure Farm, a gated development situated in Iskandar Malaysia, as he could work remotely said three of his immediate neighbours are Singaporeans who had not been back since the MCO.

To his right is a neighbour whose grass surrounding his property had grown so tall that it was at his chest level.

To his left is a neighbour whose car tyres became deflated from being left dormant.

A neighbour who lives behind him had asked another neighbour to help release some 30 to 40 Koi fish from the water feature surrounding his semi-detached home.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, Khaja Maideen, 47, who is self-employed, wonders how much dust and lizard droppings had been accumulated in his Johor property. He could only monitor it through a surveillance camera.

Gregory Low, a Singaporean property manager in Johor, suggests that both governments consider setting a quota specially for these travellers to return to their properties overseas.

The 39-year-old said, “Instead of blocking requests, you can consider opening up 15,000 or 20,000 spaces, it is still a controllable number, and these individuals can resolve many of their problems.”