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Covid-19: Told to go on unpaid leave, Malaysians in Singapore find themselves in limbo

SINGAPORE — When the Malaysian Movement Control Order (MCO) took effect on March 18, Cannie Leo scrambled here to secure a S$800 room in Woodlands with a friend, so that she could continue working for a construction firm here.

Malaysians returning home from Singapore on March 17, 2020. A number of Malaysians have remained in Singapore, but some have found themselves out of work.

Malaysians returning home from Singapore on March 17, 2020. A number of Malaysians have remained in Singapore, but some have found themselves out of work.

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SINGAPORE — When the Malaysian Movement Control Order (MCO) took effect on March 18, Cannie Leo scrambled here to secure a S$800 room in Woodlands with a friend, so that she could continue working for a construction firm here.

Weeks later, Singapore announced that it was implementing its circuit breaker on April 7, which required all “non-essential” businesses to cease operations for a month.

Ms Leo’s employers asked her to take a month of unpaid leave, and the 27-year-old administrative assistant found herself in a fix.

“I have less than S$200 in savings to live in Singapore for the rest of the month. The money I saved in my Malaysian bank account is not even enough to cover my bills for next month, which is more than RM3,000 (S$980),” she said.

Up until the MCO took effect, the Johor resident used to shuttle across the Causeway daily.

Ms Leo earns about S$1,400 a month from her current job.

“My friends are also on unpaid leave, so I’m not sure who I can borrow money from,” she added.

Like Ms Leo, many Malaysians who have chosen to remain in Singapore to work during the MCO have found themselves caught in a quandary. Most have been asked to take unpaid leave during the circuit breaker and are unable to take on part-time jobs by law.

Many are waiting for the Government to announce its plans after the circuit breaker ends on May 4 before deciding on their next steps.

These work permit holders are hesitant to return to Malaysia at the moment for fear that they will be unable to return to Singapore. Moreover, the Malaysian government has also mandated a swab test to be performed before any of its citizens can return to the country from Singapore. This does not apply to Malaysian citizens returning from elsewhere.

Senior sales executive Sue Foong, 32, who lives in Johor and had just delivered her baby in February, shortened her maternity leave and rushed back to Singapore on the eve of the Malaysian lockdown. Her child is currently under the care of her parents in Perak.

Ms Foong, who works for a furniture trading company here, finds it expensive to live here without drawing a salary.

“I do feel sad being separated from my baby boy but if I go back to Malaysia now, the earliest I can return to Singapore is probably in July. This is also subjected to the (Ministry of Manpower’s) approval,” she said.

Mr Chaston Tan, 32, who works as an assistant manager for a western food chain here, said he was asked to take unpaid leave after his boss decided to close all outlets during the circuit breaker.

The Johor resident and father-of-one had rented a room in Sembawang right before Malaysia’s MCO.

“I don’t know what to do this month. I cannot work, I cannot go back. I’m worried about money and my family, since my wife had also lost her job a month back,” said Mr Tan.

From March 12, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) made it mandatory for companies to inform the ministry of cost-saving measures, especially if their employees’ monthly salaries are affected. 

In response to TODAY’s queries, MOM said the Government is supporting employers of foreign workers during the circuit breaker. For instance, it is waiving the March foreign worker levy, due in April, to help firms cut costs and improve cash flow.

The ministry acknowledged that in some cases, employers are unable to continue keeping as many workers — local or foreign — as doing so may further harm the business and imperil the employment of the remaining workers. “MOM monitors such actions to ensure that employers have exercised care and fairness when implementing cost-saving measures that impact both local and foreign workers."  

There are also various schemes to move laid-off work permit holders into other jobs, MOM said. “Ultimately, if the foreign worker is still unable to find a job, we will facilitate their repatriation to their home country," it added. 

On April 6, Malaysian senior minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced that Malaysians working in Singapore can only return to the country after being certified to be free of Covid-19 by Singaporean health authorities.

When contacted by TODAY, Singapore's Ministry of Health (MOH) referred to its earlier statement from April 6 and maintained that swab tests are only performed “when clinically indicated”, for patients and their close contacts.

Right now, there is still no requirement in place by the Government of Singapore for foreigners exiting the Republic to be swabbed on non-clinical grounds.


TODAY also spoke to some businesses that had to ask their staff to go on unpaid leave.

The owner of beverage chain TIGATIGA, 39, who wants to be known only as Mr Tan, said he had to put one of two Malaysian staff on unpaid leave in order to sustain his businesses.

Two out of his three restaurants located at Orchard and Science Park are temporarily closed in this period due to poor business.

“I had to ask one of my workers to exhaust his annual leave and take no pay leave. He did not mind since he is staying with a relative and does not have to pay rent. I will keep his work permit for now, but we have to compromise,” said Mr Tan.

“For (a small- and medium-sized enterprise) to survive, we need to keep the cost low. I’m trying my best to keep all employees with whatever resources I have. Cash flow is very important,” he added.

His local staff continues to be paid partially, with the help of the Jobs Support Scheme.

Similarly, the owner of Le Noir Bar and Lounge, Mark Brimblecombe, 53, said that since most of his Malaysian workers live in Johor, he decided to send them home on the eve of the lockdown and put them on unpaid leave.

“I’m keeping their work permits open, but I cannot guarantee what would happen next,” he said.

When the F&B industry rebounds, he reckons that he would give job priority to Singaporeans since many locals would likely be looking for jobs.

“With the foreign worker levy, the costs of hiring Singaporeans and Malaysians are not too different,” he said.

However, while some companies are cutting costs to stay afloat, others such as e-commerce and grocery firm Lazada and logistics company Ninja Van said they have been increasing manpower to cope with greater demand during the circuit breaker as more people are shopping online.

Mr James Chang, Lazada’s chief executive, said 500 staff were recently hired to bolster RedMart’s (the grocery arm of Lazada) warehouse and delivery operations. Among these new workers, 150 of them are Malaysians who were retrenched by their previous employers.

“With the increasing reliance on online groceries, we will continue to find ways to meet the demand, and welcome any company willing to partner with us to reach out,” added Mr Chang.

Similarly, Mr Ray Chou, who is the Country Head for Ninja Van Singapore, said that the company is looking to hire more staff.

“We have also been working with government agencies to reach out to and hire some Malaysian staff who have been laid off during this period and are stuck in Singapore due to the movement restrictions between Singapore and Malaysia,” said Mr Chou.

According to him, companies from different sectors such as ride-hailing, catering and tourism-related sectors have been approaching Ninja Van to provide temporary job placements for their staff during this period.

Related topics

Covid-19 coronavirus Malaysia lockdown workers circuit breaker

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