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Malaysia travel ban compounds Singapore virus woes

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Singapore (AFP)

A ban on Malaysians leaving the country, imposed to halt the spread of the coronavirus, will deal a heavy blow to neighbouring Singapore, which relies on huge numbers of workers who commute from next door.

Around 300,000 people usually cross the border every day to wealthier Singapore -- about eight percent of the tiny city-state's labour force -- to work in areas ranging from public transport to electronics manufacturing.

But that flow ground to a halt Wednesday as Malaysia began enforcing a two-week ban on its citizens travelling abroad -- and on foreigners entering the country.

Malaysia has so far reported 790 virus cases and two deaths, the highest number of any Southeast Asian country. Singapore has reported 266 cases.

The city-state had already been heading for a recession this year due to the virus outbreak, and the travel ban has only added to the negative outlook, said Rajiv Biswas, Asia Pacific chief economist at IHS Markit.

"If Malaysia's COVID-19 cases escalate further, there is a risk that Malaysia may need to extend its lockdown period," he told AFP.

This could create "a further negative impact on the near-term economic outlook" for Singapore, he said.

Singapore, heavily reliant on trade and tourism, is always badly hit by any major shock to the global economy.

There were chaotic scenes on the one-kilometre (half-mile) causeway that forms the main crossing between the neighbours on Tuesday, as Malaysians queued for hours to get over the border before the restrictions kicked in at midnight.

A long line of cars snaked over the causeway late into the night, with the noise of horns filling the air, while huge numbers of pedestrians crossed by foot, some carrying large suitcases.

Singapore has scrambled to limit the damage, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong saying the government is "working out arrangements" with companies to help Malaysian workers stay in the city-state while the ban is in place.

Authorities are helping to find accommodation for Malaysian employees during the travel ban, and have pledged to provide Sg$50 ($35) a night to firms for each affected worker.

- 'Many cannot leave families' -

Bus company SBS Transit said it had secured accommodation at several hotels for Malaysian drivers, ensuring its services would not be affected -- denying reports staff would be forced to sleep on reclining chairs in depots.

Bus companies have, however, cut some services between the countries.

SingPost, the city's postal service which also provides e-commerce and logistics services, said it has arranged for more than 400 of its Malaysian staff to stay in three hotels.

Malaysian bus driver Rammesh Nair said while he had taken up the offer of accommodation not everyone affected could do the same.

Many people "cannot leave their family, their children and come and stay here for two weeks, you need to understand their situation," he told AFP.

One firm put a dozen Malaysian cleaners on paid leave, as it was more expensive to temporarily house all of them in Singapore.

The announcement of the travel ban initially sparked panic buying in the city of 5.7 million amid concerns about supplies drying up, but Malaysia quickly offered assurances that food and other vital goods can still cross the border.

Governments from the US to Europe are now introducing tough restrictions to stem the spread of the virus, which has infected nearly 200,000 people and killed 7,900.

Colin Heng, a Malaysian aviation engineer who usually works in Singapore, is stuck at home as he was not able to get to Singapore before the ban kicked in.

He will work remotely, but said communicating with colleagues via email rather than having face-to-face meetings was not the same.

"Business needs to get back to normal, as soon as possible I hope," he told AFP.

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