Stuck on Opposite Sides of a Border, Families Separated by COVID Reunite After 2 Years

As restrictions eased between Malaysia and Singapore, jubilant scenes at the border showed people racing to reunite with their families.

Apr 5 2022, 10:44am

Muhamad Faiz Bin Roseman remembers waiting at the end of a jetty on the northern tip of Singapore one day in October 2020. On the opposite shore stood his wife and kids in Malaysia—blurry waving figures to Faiz, who was only able to identify the color of their clothes. 

They were only about a kilometer apart across the narrow Johor Strait that separates the two countries, but a world away from one another—divided by national borders and a raging global pandemic.

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“Some people would say, ‘Why do you need to do that? You can also video call.’ But that feeling of seeing each other with our eyes is different from the phone,” Faiz told VICE World News, adding that his children came to associate the waters of Johor Strait with their father.

“Every time they pass by [the Strait], they will wave to me, even if I'm not there.”

(L) Faiz spots his family in the distance across the Johor Strait. (R) The view from the opposite shore, where Faiz’s wife and kids were standing. Collage: VICE / Photos: Courtesy of Muhamad Faiz Bin Roseman

Just before borders closed in March 2020, he had packed his things and moved to Singapore, where he tows cars for a living, while his family stayed just across the Strait in Malaysia. He didn’t know it then, but this temporary arrangement would last for two years, and these shore meetings would be as close as Faiz would get to a family reunion. 

But late last week, all this changed. Faiz’s family became one of the many finally reunited as border restrictions between the two intimately connected Southeast Asian countries were drastically relaxed, allowing the return of pre-pandemic levels of movement. At midnight on April 1, hundreds raced across the border towards Malaysia making long-awaited journeys home, with videos posted online showing people charging toward immigration counters and literally running along the causeway towards Malaysia in jubilant scenes.

“The immigration process was smooth, but I couldn’t believe it. It was like I was dreaming,” said Faiz, who arrived home around 1 a.m., his now four and six-year-olds awake long past their bedtime to greet him. “For more than two years, every moment was hard for me and my family.”

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“[My wife] also wanted to cry. We can’t believe that what we have prayed for over two years has become reality.”

Faiz and his family dining out in Johor on Monday after being reunited. Photo: Courtesy of Muhamad Faiz Bin Roseman

The lives of Singaporeans and Malaysians, especially those living in the border state of Johor like Faiz’s family, have long been closely intertwined. As part of a short-lived merger in 1963, Singapore was at one point a state in the newly-independent country of Malaysia, until political and economic differences saw it expelled from the federation in 1965. 

Singapore, now one of Asia’s wealthiest countries, is located at the southern tip of peninsular Malaysia, separated only by the narrow Johor Strait. Due to the countries’ close geography—with immigration checkpoints only about 2.4 kilometers apart—historically many Malaysians have traveled across the causeway daily for the higher wages on offer in Singapore.

But since March 2020, connecting roads between the two countries have been largely shut, including the Johor-Singapore Causeway, one of the busiest border crossings in the world. The kilometer-long road spanning the water stood eerily empty as both countries grappled with the pandemic. This meant that the over 300,000 people who used to commute daily along the causeway, many low-wage workers among them, have been stuck on either side for months—even years—on end.

Travel arrangements allowing people to travel between the two countries came at a price, including hefty quarantine expenses and having to take leave from work for longer visits home due to the time and cost involved. For Faiz, these traveling costs are stacked on top of having to rent his own place in Singapore, an additional expense that he previously didn’t have while commuting daily from Johor.

In addition to the new logistical hurdles that accompanied travel between the countries, the sudden disruption also put a strain on family relationships for those who once relied on these daily commutes. 

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Aishah binti Badruzzaman, a 34-year-old university lecturer in Johor Bahru, conceived via in-vitro fertilization during the pandemic and has been raising her child alone as her husband has been forced to live and work permanently in Singapore. After delivering her baby last year, Aishah struggled to manage both her new baby and her job without her spouse. 

“There was one time with my baby, I didn’t know why he was crying. I was looking at my baby and I didn't want to do anything. I just looked at him crying,” she told VICE World News, recalling one of her lowest postpartum moments. 

Now, the toughest part appears to be over. Aishah’s family enjoyed a momentary reunion in January when her husband visited Johor amid easing restrictions on cross-border travel. That was the first time her son, now 11 months old, met his father.

“He was staring at my husband. It's like, ‘I have seen this face,’ because we always video call,” Aishah said of that first meeting. “Yet he didn't cry.”

Aishah’s 11-month-old son meets his grand-uncle and grand-aunt for the first time in Singapore. Photo: Courtesy of Aishah binti Badruzzaman

Then, on Sunday, the young family reunited—hopefully for good—when Aishah brought her son into Singapore to visit relatives for the first time. Aishah says that she’s thrilled her husband will be able to commute daily in and out of Malaysia, so they can finally raise their child together. After going through the ups and downs of early motherhood mostly alone, she also has learned valuable lessons about herself and her family.

“I realized that I'm stronger than I thought,” she said. “And family support is very important.”

Aishah and her child reunited with her husband when she arrived in Singapore on Sunday. Photo: Courtesy of Aishah binti Badruzzaman

The reunions that have been taking place all weekend after the reopening of the Singapore-Malaysia border have made waves among people in both countries. Images of tearful hugs between loved ones have been flooding social media—garnering heartfelt congratulations from commenters.

Among them is a TikTok video by Paandiyeraj Nadumaran, who recently reunited with his two golden retrievers, Simba and Nala, after almost 500 days apart. The 29-year-old Malaysian has been staying at a hostel provided by his employer in Singapore after the borders closed, while his dogs were cared for at his friend’s house in Johor. Before the weekend, he had only managed to visit Simba and Nala once, in November 2020.

“I told Simba, ‘You just wait for me. Daddy will come home soon. Don’t worry,’” Paandiyeraj told VICE World News, recalling saying goodbye to his beloved pets, then just puppies, near the beginning of the pandemic.

When he returned to visit his dogs last week, they immediately recognized him, crying out with uncontainable joy and pouncing on him with excitement—a moving reunion that was captured in a video that Paandiyeraj later posted to TikTok. 

Even when borders opened to limited traveling across the causeway, Paandiyeraj said that he had chosen to remain in Singapore to save both money and his leave days. But now, fully-vaccinated travelers from Singapore and Malaysia will be able to travel by land between both countries without undergoing quarantine or COVID tests. For Paandiyeraj, this was the green light that he had been waiting for. 

“I miss everything about Malaysia,” he said. “Our food, my babies, my family, everything.”

He rode into Malaysia on the morning of April 1, filled with relief at finally being able to return home and a sense of comfort that he has sorely missed.

“When I rode my motorbike through the customs, I said to myself, ‘This is my country,’” said Paandiyeraj. “The air also smells different.” 

Follow Koh Ewe on Twitter and Instagram.

Tagged:

Singapore, malaysia, Coronavirus, worldnews

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