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VTL freeze: Some Malaysians surprised and annoyed as travel plans stall, uncertain of resumption after Jan 20

SINGAPORE — When the vaccinated travel lane (VTL) arrangement with Malaysia was launched last month, Mr Jamaludin Abdul Ghani thought that he and his wife would finally be able to meet his four children and 15 grandchildren living in Singapore — two of whom he has not met since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

A bus operated by Causeway Link travel agency under the vaccinated travel lane scheme, leaving Woodlands Checkpoint in Singapore.

A bus operated by Causeway Link travel agency under the vaccinated travel lane scheme, leaving Woodlands Checkpoint in Singapore.

  • Several Malaysians were disappointed at the move to freeze ticket sales for the vaccinated travel lane scheme
  • The decision was announced on Dec 22 morning by the Singapore Government in response to the Omicron situation worldwide
  • Some people rushed to book bus, flight tickets at the eleventh hour before the suspension begins
  • The restriction will remain until Jan 20, 2022
  • Still, some people fear that they will not get to book quarantine-free trips after that since quotas will be halved 

SINGAPORE — When the vaccinated travel lane (VTL) arrangement with Malaysia was launched last month, Mr Jamaludin Abdul Ghani thought that he and his wife would finally be able to meet his four children and 15 grandchildren living in Singapore — two of whom he has not met since the Covid-19 pandemic began.

Now the 58-year-old’s hopes of holding grandchildren “number 14 and 15” in his arms for the first time are dashed, after Singapore and Malaysia announced on Wednesday (Dec 22) that they are suspending the quarantine-free travel scheme — less than a month after it started for the land border between the two sides, and just two days after the scheme was extended to citizens of both countries. 

The freeze on new bus and flight ticket sales will start from Dec 23 until Jan 20 next year, though those who already have tickets are still allowed to travel, Singapore’s Covid-19 task force said in the morning.

Mr Jamaludin, a retiree who lives in Kuala Lumpur, said: “Yes, I am disappointed, but what can I say, when both governments are trying to control the Omicron (virus strain causing Covid-19) from doing more damage like what the Delta (variant) did.”

He now plans to make the crossing to Singapore by bus on Jan 28, but that, too, is shrouded in uncertainty.

The quota for land crossings between Singapore and Malaysia under the travel lane will be halved from the present 48 to 24 buses a day after the restrictions are lifted on Jan 21.

Mr Jamaludin was one of many people who, until Covid-19 struck, shuttled frequently between the two countries due to family ties or work. 

When news of the freeze on the travel lane broke, several people took to online forums and social media to voice their disappointment and surprise over the move, with some rushing to book bus journeys and flights before the cut-off time at 11.59pm on Wednesday, when the suspension on new tickets will begin.

Some told TODAY that their plans to meet family and friends across the border have to be put on hold, having missed out on securing a trip during the 27-day window when bus tickets are sold. Bookings during this time have been in extremely high demand, they said.

Ms Nafisah Alahu, 30, a Malaysian who works in Singapore as a hairstylist, said that she was saddened by the news of the suspension.

Although she went home recently to Malaysia on Nov 29 and returned to Singapore on Dec 4, she was planning to return to Malaysia for her wedding during the Chinese New Year period in February next year, but has been unsuccessful in securing a seat.

“Can’t say I expected the suspension, but I know anything can happen (due to Covid-19). I’ll have to postpone the wedding if I can’t get tickets back,” she added.

Mr Thamil Muthu, 35, a Singapore permanent resident from Malaysia who works as a senior process technician here, said that the Omicron variant is beginning to rage in several countries around the world, and he fears that the travel lane may not resume even after Jan 20.

“Separation with family is painful and all of us are hoping that the VTL scheme can resume so workers like me can meet our family members in Johor Baru or other parts of the world.”

Mr Muthu used to travel daily across the Causeway because he lived in Johor with his family. He is now residing in Singapore in order to work during the pandemic, though his family remains in Malaysia.

“There is always hope,” he added wistfully.

For those who managed to secure trips before the deadline, there was a mixture of relief as well as sympathy for others who would not be able to travel.

On the other hand, some Malaysians questioned the need to freeze the scheme between the two countries in the first place, especially since the two neighbours share similar vaccination rates in their populations.

Mr Vincent Oh, 26, from Malacca, as well as Mr James Lim, 42, who lives in Singapore, said that they did not see the news coming especially since the leaders of both countries had given assurances that the borders would not be affected as both sides learn to live with the coronavirus.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in November during a joint press conference with his Malaysia counterpart Ismail Sabri that even if Omicron disrupts these plans, the goal “will still be to have more open borders between Singapore and Malaysia”.

Mr Oh, a purchasing executive who used to travel to Singapore frequently for work, said that he is less confident about the future of this quarantine-free scheme now: “I felt like the governments didn’t do what they promised… They shouldn’t (have suspended it) because they already said loudly that they wanted to keep borders open.”

Mr Lim, who works in the biomedical sector here, said: “Are we going to live like this for the next 30 years? With all the experience gained in these two years, we are well-equipped for a spike in cases and we can’t keep backtracking.”

ANTICIPATED THE SUSPENSION  

Besides travellers, some tour agencies have had to make changes and cope with regulatory backpedalling owing to the spread of Omicron worldwide.

Madam Kay Swee Pin, managing director of SA Tours, said that her travel agency had already anticipated that flights under the scheme would eventually be suspended due to Omicron, and had advised vaccinated customers not to travel in December and January. 

“We had stopped selling any tours on all VTL destinations since the announcement of the Omicron virus and its easy transmissibility. As a result, the decision to suspend the VTL flights had no impact on us,” she added.

Chan Brothers Travel said that Wednesday’s announcement likely has a limited impact on holidaymakers, since most tours that are scheduled to depart during the year-end peak season have already secured tickets or have departed.

Its spokesperson stressed the importance of booking with travel agencies that have flexible policies to ensure peace of mind, and said that the agency has continued to advise customers of the evolving situation around the globe during this period.

Related topics

Covid-19 coronavirus Omicron travel vaccination Malaysia Causeway

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