Singapore, Malaysia want ‘more open borders’ despite COVID-19 variant threat

SINGAPORE (CNA) – 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 yesterday.

Lee and Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob were giving speeches at the Istana on the first day of the land and air VTL between Singapore and Malaysia. Sabri is on his first official visit to Singapore.

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.

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,” 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 yesterday 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, Khairy said.

Nevertheless, 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.”

Sabri also said that re-opening borders between Singapore and Malaysia was important to restart economic and social activities that will benefit the people of both countries.

Lee said he looked forward to continue strengthening bilateral ties and cooperation with Malaysia.