Singapore celebrates our 55th National Day on 9 August 2020. This year, we commemorate this occasion against a backdrop of an unprecedented global pandemic and economic crisis.
Millions of people have been infected by COVID-19 around the world, and the number of infections and deaths continue to increase daily. Borders have closed, families and friends separated, and businesses shuttered. Singapore and Malaysia have not been spared. The once-bustling and world’s busiest land border crossings, and air routes between Singapore and Malaysia have reduced to a trickle. Our companies and workers have been affected by the measures implemented to curb COVID-19 and protect our people.
The pandemic also layered itself onto the tectonic shifts taking place in the global economy and geopolitics. The US-China relationship has been further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and this will have wide-ranging implications for all countries. Disruptions to trade and supply chain connectivity and the slowdown in the global economy will affect the growth trajectories of the region. The next few years will be a disruptive and challenging time for all of us.
Nevertheless, I am hopeful that with goodwill, strategic trust and cooperation, Singapore and our neighbours will continue to thrive. I am also confident that Singapore and Malaysia will continue to work closely to overcome our shared challenges. If anything, COVID-19 has shown just how interdependent we are, and how we were able to build upon five and a half decades of mutually beneficial cooperation to work together to face our common challenges.
First, we moved quickly to tackle the immediate impact of the pandemic. Singapore and Malaysia helped repatriate each other’s nationals stranded overseas. The Temasek Foundation provided swab test kits and other medical supplies to frontline medical facilities across Peninsular and East Malaysia. Both countries kept our supply chains open to ensure the movement of essential goods.
Second, we cooperated on broader policy issues arising from the pandemic. We formed the Singapore-Malaysia Special Working Committee on COVID-19, co-chaired by Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security Teo Chee Hean and Senior Minister and Minister of Defence Dato’ Sri Ismail Sabri Yaakob, to ensure the safe movement of essential people, goods and services. The Johor State Government, led by Menteri Besar Datuk Hasni Mohammad, played a critical role in facilitating this and resolving any issues on the ground. Our Health Ministries led a Joint Working Group that met regularly to share updates and discuss protocols.
Third, we have begun to re-open our borders safely in a phased manner. Foreign Ministers Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan and Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein have worked closely to settle on the arrangements for different groups of travellers. The Reciprocal Green Lane (RGL) and Periodic Commuting Arrangement (PCA) will be launched, and begin accepting applications from 10 August onwards. The RGL will enable cross-border travel for essential business and official purposes, while the PCA allows Singaporean and Malaysian residents with long-term immigration passes for business and work purposes in the other country to enter that country for work. We are discussing the implementation of other safe cross-border commuting proposals for urgent compassionate visits and daily work. With the necessary health safeguards, these efforts will allow both sides to progressively restore our people-to-people interactions and economic exchanges.
Fourth, we kept up our broader bilateral cooperation. The Singapore-Malaysia relationship is deep and multi-faceted, extending across many areas. Our leaders and officials have taken to video-conferencing and phone calls to continue discussions on other bilateral projects like the Johor Bahru-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) Link. I am glad that the discussions to resume work on the RTS Link were completed in a timely manner, marked by a historic ceremony on the Causeway on 30 July. Once completed, the RTS Link will leverage our proximity to bring our peoples and economies even closer.
COVID-19 is not the first test, nor will it be the last, for our two countries. Our collective responses demonstrated the positive spirit of bilateral cooperation and how we can achieve much more by working together. This will serve us well in the coming years.
An old song by Mr Zubir Said, who composed the Singapore National Anthem, has been making its rounds online to keep people’s spirits up. The song is called “Semoga Bahagia” (May You Achieve Happiness). The first line of the song says, “Sama-sama maju ke hadapan” (Together we progress onward). I think this statement remains fitting for our times.
Given the circumstances, the celebrations for Singapore’s upcoming 55th National Day will be quite different. It will be a time to pay tribute to our frontline and essential workers who are the heroes of this unprecedented crisis. We would also like to take the opportunity to thank our friends in Malaysia and beyond who have worked with us in meeting these challenges together.
Vanu Gopala Menon is Singapore's High Commissioner to Malaysia