world politics

Two Countries Just Had a Bilateral Meeting at What Was One of the World’s Busiest Border Crossing

Before the pandemic, a photo op on the Johor-Singapore Causeway would've been “unthinkable,” but politicians from Singapore and Malaysia managed to hold a very important bilateral meeting on a closed-off stretch of the empty border.
27 July 2020, 9:32am
Malaysia and Singapore's foreign ministers meet at their country's border crossing on the Johor-Singapore Causeway. Photo courtesy of Minister Hishammuddin Hussein

While most Singaporeans and Malaysians slept the morning away, important negotiations were taking place on Sunday between delegates from both countries who met at a closed-off zone on a stretch of the empty border.

Behind the scenes photos from Sunday’s bilateral meeting showed eerily empty stretches of road. “It’s unthinkable to imagine the Causeway being so deserted that it could be closed during the day for a photo op in the middle of the road,” observed Singapore-based public policy researcher and local history buff Dhevarajan Devadas on Twitter. 

The Johor-Singapore Causeway used to see at least 300,000 travellers cross it daily, earning it the title of one of the world’s busiest border crossing. The 1,065-metre-long bridge not only serves as a road and rail link as well as a water pipeline between both cities, it is seen as a lifeline to many. 

Malaysian workers, businessmen and their families would make the daily journey across to get to schools, businesses and offices in neighboring Singapore, and Johor Bahru would serve as a quick easy weekend drive away for many Singaporeans to escape the hassles and stress that came with living in Singapore. Before the pandemic, the Causeway was at its busiest on Friday and Sunday evenings, drawing epic traffic jams that would last for hours and snaking immigration queues on the eve of public holidays. 

But all that changed when the coronavirus hit, bringing traffic and lives to a standstill, upending the daily commuting routines of tens of thousands in Singapore and Johor. 

For the thousands of Malaysians currently stranded away from their families and loved ones and trying to make daily ends meet in Singapore, Sunday’s meeting between foreign delegations from Singapore and Malaysia was a long awaited one and was a reason to rejoice because it signalled the long-awaited reopening of the border.

Malaysian Foreign Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussien confirmed official plans with his Singaporean counterpart Vivian Balakrishnan to kickstart cross-border travel in August. 

“Both our countries have agreed to implement cross-border movement between Singapore and Malaysia,” Hishammuddin said in an official Facebook post in Malay. “This will not be an easy task given that we will be re-opening our borders to thousands of commuters and there’s a lot to refine [in terms of] performing screening tests and medical health checks. It is important for us to prioritize safety since the crisis is still ongoing so I hope everyone will be patient, we will do our best.”

Speaking to reporters at the Woodlands train checkpoint after his border meeting, Singapore’s Balakrishnan addressed the human emotions at stake. “There are Malaysians and Singaporeans related by blood and in the last few months I’ve received so many desperate pleas. This is the other category, much smaller scale of course, which I have great sympathy for and we are trying our best to work out arrangements,” he said.  

Throughout the high stakes meeting, both politicians leading teams greeted each other with fist bumps and donned customary face masks while posing for pictures at a safe social distance.

There will be a lot at stake for those deemed eligible to travel across the border when it reopens officially in August. Travellers will have to abide by strict health regulations on both sides on the Causeway which will include taking mandatory COVID-19 swab tests. They are also expected to submit controlled itineraries to authorities and be subjected to mandatory 14-day quarantines at designated government facilities upon arrival.