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My day in JB: Getting across the Causeway and back home — harder than it looks on Day 1 of border reopening

SINGAPORE — When my editor asked on Monday if I could head to Johor Baru on Friday (April 1) to report on the reopening of the Singapore-Malaysia land border, I immediately said yes.

TODAY journalist Loraine Lee (left) interviewing a driver at a petrol kiosk near JB Sentral and TODAY photographer Ili Nadhirah Mansor working at a waiting area in JB Sentral.

TODAY journalist Loraine Lee (left) interviewing a driver at a petrol kiosk near JB Sentral and TODAY photographer Ili Nadhirah Mansor working at a waiting area in JB Sentral.

SINGAPORE/ JOHOR BARU — When my editor asked on Monday (March 28) if I could head to Johor Baru on Friday to report on the reopening of the Singapore-Malaysia land border, I immediately said yes.

Admittedly, I was blinded by the excitement of finally travelling out of Singapore for the first time in two years. I couldn't wait to finally dust off my passport and start filling its empty pages with immigration stamps.

After all, travel restrictions had been eased, so it should all be smooth-sailing, right?

Boy, was I wrong.

In the days leading up to Friday, I found myself ensnared in a nightmare of red tape and confusing app design.

For starters, registering myself on the MySejahtera application — the Malaysian version of TraceTogether and a requirement for anyone entering Malaysia — posed a hurdle as it requires a Malaysian residential address.

As I was only there for the day and was not booking a hotel stay, I did not have a Malaysian address to provide. Luckily, TODAY photographer Ili Nadhirah Mansor — who was also on the same assignment — had a family friend in Johor, so we registered our accounts with his address. 

As it turned out, we may not have needed to worry about this after all, but more on that later.

After registration, we were then confused by the app's interface, where instructions about how to verify our vaccination certificates were different from that provided on MySafeTravel, the Malaysian website which outlines what foreigners have to do before entering Malaysia.

We had declared our vaccinations using the app's Overseas Vaccination Details button, which later informed us it would take up to five working days to be verified. We had two days until our trip.

This was separate from the MySafeTravel vaccination declaration link, which took us about two days to get a verified confirmation — just in time for the trip. However, it takes an additional two days for vaccination details to appear on our MySejahtera app.

Being the kiasu Singaporeans we were, we registered through both methods.

We faced another stumble when filling out the Malaysian travel declaration form, which aside from requiring a Malaysian residential location, also asks for a Malaysian contact person, which Ili and I did not have.

We did find some helpful information on the MySafeTravel website, which provided step-by-step instructions on what travellers should do before entering the country. But it did not address concerns such as whether our fully vaccinated status would be reflected on the MySejahtera app in time for our departure, and why our profiles indicated us as Malaysian.

We sent a message to the MySejahtera helpdesk on Wednesday and waited. And waited. By Friday morning, the day we had to embark on our assignment, we still had not received a response. 

As we made our way to the Causeway and through immigration, I was fretting about how I would explain to my editors why I got turned away at immigration.

But as it turned out, my anxiety was for nothing. We breezed through Malaysian immigration, and the customs official did not even ask us to open the MySejahtera app.

Was that plain luck or were our traveller declarations and verified vaccination status available to immigration staff on their computer systems? It's hard to tell.

In any case, within 20 minutes, Ili and I were in Malaysia.

The process of checking into buildings and shops in Johor Baru was similar to Singapore's, and we had no problems with entering any premises despite the MySejahtera application still displaying our vaccination status as "unvaccinated".

On assignment: (Left) TODAY journalist Loraine Lee interviewing a baker in Johor Baru; TODAY photographer Ili Nadhirah Mansor and Ms Lee in Johor Baru.

We spent the next seven hours in Johor Baru, speaking to shopkeepers and day trippers and by the end of it we were satisfied that we had put in a good day's work. We were ready for a smooth return home.

But there was another surprise at the Singapore immigration checkpoint. 

Ili, our driver Darius, and I had contracted Covid-19 within the last 90 days — and are fully recovered, of course — and we had declared this in our Singapore Arrival Card, which we had to fill out two days before our trip.

This had, for some reason, triggered an alert in the immigration system and we had to wait around 10 minutes in the car while the Immigration & Checkpoints Authority (ICA) officer conducted some checks before letting us through.

TODAY has asked ICA about what occurred but understands that since April 1, the Singapore Arrival Card no longer requires users to declare if they have contracted Covid-19 in the last 90 days.

I was also surprised that the immigration officer asked us for our HealthHub vaccination certificate. I had printed out my vaccination certificate from notarise.gov.sg, thinking that would have sufficed for any official checks, but it was declined.

Thankfully, Ili and I had the HealthHub app on our mobile phones and could retrieve our vaccination certificates quickly. 

Looking back, while all these kinks in the immigration process — on both sides of the land border — were stressful, I suppose they should come as no surprise as we are all in the early days of a 'new normal'.
TODAY journalist Loraine Lee

Looking back, while all these kinks in the immigration process — on both sides of the land border — were stressful, I suppose they should come as no surprise as we are all in the early days of a "new normal".

And they were worth the experience of being able to leave the country for a bit and cross over into Johor Baru, even for a day.

In fact, I think I'll head back to Johor Bahru for a quick getaway soon — and not for work.

Related topics

Causeway Malaysia immigration Johor Baru

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