In Singapore, travel is on and masks are off

Roughly nine months after the Singapore government made a commitment to living with Covid-19, travel is reopening, social distancing restrictions are being lifted and life is starting to look more and more like the rest of the world. In a major milestone, one of the busiest land border crossings – between Singapore and Malaysia – reopened on April 1st.

Rachel Rosenthal, editor of Bloomberg Opinion, is joined by columnist Daniel Moss, who was at the forefront of the reopening of the border in Johor, to discuss the easing of restrictions and what it means for other parts of Asia. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Rachel Rosenthal: Can you tell us a little bit about why this boundary is so important and what it looks like on the ground?

Daniel Moss: My very strong impression is that this is a recovery in wait. South Malaysia and Singapore are effectively one economy and business has been boosted by the opening of the bridge border. It wasn’t a huge boost, however. Many of the people who poured over at midnight on April 1st were Malaysians working in Singapore and stuck there during Covid. They reunited with their families. In some cases, people who hadn’t seen children since birth – and couldn’t take Friday off work – wanted to come over in the early hours of Friday while Singapore was sleeping and just go back to work the next day to take care of their spouse and to hold her newborn. Pretty expensive stuff.

Rosenthal: Is there a global comparison for this Malaysia-Singapore crossing and how was it pre-Covid?

Moss: Think of the pre-Covid Singapore-Malaysia commute as something akin to the New York-New Jersey commute. Another analogy is border crossings in southern California or southern Texas where people commute. Singapore imports water, electricity, labor and more from Malaysia. In Singapore’s northern districts, as you gaze across the waterfront, you’ll see high-rise condominiums cluttering the shoreline of South Malaysia. Many of these are owned by Singaporeans who work in Singapore who would get in their car and drive across the bridge. In peacetime, in no scenario, people have considered that the land border, which is a bridge border of about 700 meters, will be closed. So the closure was a big deal. Reopening is also a pretty big deal.

Rosenthal: Why would Malaysia recover slowly after this reopening instead of changing immediately?

Moss: Social media – certainly from what we were able to see in Singapore – was awash with images of what this bridge looked like in the minutes past midnight. TikTok memes were flying around during the final countdown and thousands of motorbikes poured across the bridge towards checkpoints on the Malaysian side.

Arriving from Singapore on Monday, I was expecting to see Johor as a boomtown, like the gold rush was suddenly back. I didn’t find that. Part of that might be that it was a Monday. The other part is that a lot of the people who came over in those early hours and on Friday and Saturday were Malaysians so they weren’t spending much. You weren’t here to spend money. You were here to see friends. They were here to see their family, to hold their loved ones.

Moss: Rachel, you’ve been traveling internationally recently. What did that look like?

Rosenthal: It was nice to see that the otherwise busy Changi Airport looks like it used to. My family and I went to Sri Lanka for holidays when the kids had school holidays. Even before some of the recent announcements, travel within the region was starting to open up. Countries relaxed their requirements for what needed to be done to get in and out. Sri Lanka, for example, did not even have a mandatory test for entry. This is a big, big development compared to what it was just a few months ago when there was tons of paperwork and all kinds of testing. A lot of those things are now starting to fall by the wayside. So we’re getting to a point where travel is starting to look more normal. This is a main reason why people live in Singapore. It’s a tiny little island. People don’t just live here to travel, but also to work. They have regional roles and hop to Thailand or Vietnam or it used to be Hong Kong and all of those things were within a short flight. This aspect of life looks like it’s just starting to pick up again.

Moss: How much has work-from-home become an existential threat to global cities that have built much of their business proposition around being regional hubs? If you can get a job done from your living room, why do you need to be in a regional hub?

Rosenthal: Part of the appeal of being an expat used to be that on Thursday you could decide to go to Bangkok, catch a cheap flight and go for the weekend. Dan, you wrote a great column about it, arguing that there’s no reason to be sitting here in Singapore 10,000 miles from your family if you couldn’t travel. Now I see two different phenomena: First, the struggle to return to the office because some companies have to justify their enormous rents and office space. The other is travel. As eager as people are to travel – both for business and pleasure – I still sense that there is a great deal of reluctance to go back to the office. Singaporeans in particular – and managers I spoke to – were very keen on working from home, which is not unlike other people around the world. I think you’ll get a pickup truck on trips a lot quicker than you’ll get people back to the office.

Moss: One thing that’s been mentioned to me is that not only can you wear anything while working from home, you don’t have to wear a mask. Now you’re still required to wear masks indoors in Singapore, but things have changed quite a bit in that department.

Rosenthal: Can you describe what you observed with the relaxed Covid regime in Singapore?

Moss: As of Tuesday, March 29, you were no longer required to wear a mask outside and social groups of 10 were allowed. That’s from five upwards. You could have a drink in a public place after 10:30 p.m. I went to a bar downtown around 10:25 that night and thought I might grab a drink. They hardly let me in. At 10:35 p.m. there were last orders. Still, it was great, and it started cautiously. On Saturday night you could really see a change. Bars and restaurants were busy after 10:30 p.m. I’ve talked to a few people and I confess I was among those who felt a little worse on Sunday morning thanks to the relaxation. Many dining establishments had made the 10:30pm closure and social distancing work. Since the relaxation was announced, many people said, “You know what, we will stop serving food at 10:30 p.m., but you can still have a drink.” The kitchen staff has gotten used to it, ready at 10:30 p.m and go home to maybe see some family members while they are still awake. Wearing masks outdoors is still required in Malaysia. Singapore has relaxed ahead of Malaysia on this front.

Rosenthal: One of the things I noticed this weekend was that the music was back on. We stayed at Raffles and I was able to listen to music and chat in the legendary Long Bar. It’s one of those things that you don’t fully notice when it’s gone. Suddenly those signs of life and seeing photos of people on Instagram or social media with their faces huddled in groups of 10 is a big change. It will be a real psychological boost for many people visiting Singapore. With the resumption of travel, not only are people getting off, but people are coming back for the first time in what feels like an eternity. I’ve seen people who weren’t from Singapore or didn’t live here – from South Africa, Australia, Spain and Italy. It was really refreshing to see new life.

Rosenthal: Hong Kong is often compared to Singapore. What do you think of how these two cities have grown apart?

Moss: Singapore is in a pretty good place. With the reopening, progress has been cautious but consistent in the past few months. The news from Hong Kong has been grim, grim, grim for the most part. Hong Kong stuffs people in the equivalent of hollowed-out shipping containers, often without Wi-Fi for up to a month, for the sin of daring to venture out of a regionally connected hub. Singapore, to its enormous credit, has not done so. Will Singapore replace Hong Kong as a financial center tomorrow? no

Rosenthal: I think Singapore and Hong Kong have always had a certain regional rivalry. Singapore is definitely reopening – it’s making progress and heading in the right direction. The exceedingly low bar set by Hong Kong is probably doing Singapore a favour. There are many families who have the choice of living between the two places and they choose Singapore.

Still, Singapore will struggle to catch up with Hong Kong. From the size of Hong Kong’s capital markets to IPOs, trading turnover to basic deals – I think a lot of it – the epicenter is China and Hong Kong remains the gateway. My conclusion is that Hong Kong and Singapore will always be complementary. Once Covid is behind us I hope Hong Kong gets back to where it was.

This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Rachel Rosenthal is a contributing editor at Bloomberg Opinion. She was previously a market reporter and editor at the Wall Street Journal in Hong Kong.

Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. Previously, he was Editor-in-Chief for Global Economics at Bloomberg News and has led teams in Asia, Europe and North America.

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