The pandemic separated our family from much-loved extended family members, friends and food in Kuala Lumpur.
Though KL is just 350km away from Singapore, it has been more difficult to get there than to distant cities such as Munich, San Francisco and New York, where I have travelled to for work since the onset of the pandemic.
KL has never been so near yet so far.
The easy six-hour door-to-door drive from our home in Singapore to our usual haunts in KL during pre-pandemic times came to a complete halt with the Causeway and Tuas Link shutting operations to leisure traffic early in the pandemic.
When we took our last drive up north during the March school holidays in 2020, we never expected that the next trip would be more than 1½ years later.
During the hiatus, I would think wistfully about how much we would take for granted, and reminisce about the easy access to our neighbours.
Since Malaysia and Singapore separated on Aug 9, 1965, the two countries have never experienced a break like this.
During our pandemic-induced separation, we kept in touch with our extended family in the north via WhatsApp calls and Zoom meetings.
In the interim, when vaccines were still in short supply, a close family member died in early 2021. We were unable to attend the last rites in KL because of the prevailing border restrictions.
In that bleak scenario, news of the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) schemes by air and land in late November was much welcomed by our family.
I booked flights for my family the day after the announcement was made. At the time, the VTL flights were not fully known yet, but I decided to take the risk anyway, booking the tickets with unused air miles, hoping to spend the final week of 2021 in Malaysia.
When the VTL flights were eventually announced, Singapore Airlines was nice enough to shift my family and me to the VTL flights without any fuss.
KLIA lounge area where passengers wait for their on-arrival PCR test results.
But what used to be a simple act of grabbing the passports and starting our drive has since become a massive administrative and logistics planning exercise of travel insurance that covers Covid-19 risks, testing, form filling and management of contact-tracing apps in both countries.
The travel insurance was perhaps the easiest item to organise. We bought it online from a local insurance company to cover the trip and it was relatively inexpensive at $110.
The family policy covered potential trip cancellation, emergency evacuation and Covid-19-related expenses up to $450,000 should we have needed it.
On the day of our departure, we left home at 6am to get to the airport in time for our 8.30am flight.
When we checked in with our negative pre-departure polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test results at Changi Airport, the gate agent also checked our booking for the on-arrival PCR test in Malaysia and whether we had completed the Malaysian health declaration and downloaded the Malaysian version of TraceTogether, MySejahtera.
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Being somewhat seasoned in pandemic travel preparation, I had all the printouts of the necessary documents with me and was able to get our family checked in smoothly.
But an elderly couple beside us struggled to show that they had everything in good order to check in for their flight.
We landed in KL ahead of schedule at 9.15am and were promptly ushered to an arrival lounge area to take our on-arrival PCR tests.
Passengers were greeted with a row of check-in terminals to register for swabbing. Then we went to a swabbing room where a swab was taken from the back of the throat and only one nostril. Once completed, passengers were guided to a waiting area where we awaited the results of the tests.
Check-in terminal for on-arrival PCR testing in KL.
Passengers have a choice between the fast test, which promises results in 1½ hours (RM470, or S$151, for non-Malaysians), and an alternative test with results in three hours (RM350). Overseas passengers are highly recommended to take the fast test when they make their on-arrival test reservations.
Once we received our negative results via WhatsApp, we were able to proceed through Malaysian Immigration and enter the country without having to serve quarantine.
Our family arrived at our hotel at 1pm, in time for lunch, only seven hours after we left home in Singapore.
We were pleasantly surprised by how smoothly everything had gone. With the heightened checks and the wait for testing at the KL airport, we had expected to arrive at our hotel much later in the day.
Besides spending time with our family and friends in KL, we made a quick trip to Ipoh to visit the grave of the close family member who had passed away.
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On the road there, we found many Malaysians similarly on the move at the end of December. While that busy period coincided with the Malaysian school holidays, we also found that the Malaysians themselves had not travelled within their own country due to the Movement Control Orders (MCO) put into place to slow down the spread of the virus.
There were traffic jams as people were enthused about long-overdue reunions and face-to-face catch-ups.
Overall, our family felt safe in KL and Ipoh, with widespread mask-wearing compliance everywhere.
We were also comforted by how disciplined the Malaysians were at checking into places with the MySejahtera app.
Checking in using the Mysejahtera app (left) and temperature scanning and checking in at a neighbourhood coffeeshop.
The Malaysians also continue to do widespread temperature screening at coffee shops, malls and hotels - a measure that Singapore abandoned some months ago.
Aside for the privacy-compromising permissions requested when the app is downloaded on your smartphone, I found MySejahtera to be a well-developed contact-tracing app.
It even allows for location check-ins when it is offline. This feature was especially useful for my younger son, who did not switch on the mobile data on his cellphone during the trip.
As a family, we quickly adapted to the daily antigen rapid test (ART) regimen, which is a requirement for this VTL trip by air.
It was a real treat to be able to use less intrusive oral saliva samples for the antigen tests. The saliva kits were widely available at Malaysian pharmacies and cost between RM4.50 and RM20.
An array of Antigen Rapid Test Kits and prices at a pharmacy in Malaysia.
Also, it was eye-opening to see how Malaysians have embraced virtual medical consultations. Our family was able to do our required supervised ART testing on the third and fifth days via tele-consultation with the Clea Doc app.
This simple app allows you to video the ART test being done and issues a professional report on the test result within a few hours, after it has been reviewed by a doctor.
The results can be seamlessly uploaded into MySejahtera once they are available. Each virtual consultation costs only RM15 each supervised test, but you have to procure your own Malaysian-approved kit before you start the virtual consultation for the test.
Supervised ART testing instructions from CLEA doc app in Malaysia.
What is particularly convenient is that the supervised test report can be used to meet the pre-departure ART test requirement, should you fly back to Singapore within two days after taking the supervised test.
I do expect that the halting of VTL ticket sales to Malaysia, in the light of the Omicron variant, will be short-lived. VTL travel between the two countries will resume in due course.
Unfortunately, with the VTL rules in place, a spur-of-the-moment family driving trip to KL is no longer possible.
The additional $2,000 of testing costs for a family of four travelling back to Malaysia induces a gulp and an additional moment of consideration before travel bookings are made.
But in the end, how do you put a price on bridging the short distance between Singapore and Malaysia?
Abel Ang, chief executive of a medical device company, has been travelling for business throughout the pandemic. Required Covid-19 tests for VTL (Air) Pre-departure test in Singapore and on-location testing in Kuala Lumpur
Departing to Malaysia:
- Up to two days before the departure flight: Pre-departure PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test in Singapore.
- Day 1: On-arrival PCR test in KL. Travellers wait in a holding area in KL airport while the PCR results are processed. They can clear immigration when the negative PCR results are available.
- From Day 2: Daily ART tests, with test results submitted to MySejahtera, the local equivalent to TraceTogether.
- Days 3 and 5: Supervised ART tests in Malaysia, which can be done via tele-consultation.
Returning to Singapore:
- Up to two days before the flight: Pre-departure PCR or supervised ART in Malaysia.
- Day 1: On-arrival PCR test in Singapore. After being swabbed, travellers have to serve stay-at-home (SHN) notice at their residence until the PCR negative test results come back.
- From Day 2: Daily ART tests with results to be submitted into the VTL (Air) portal.
- Days 3 and 7: Supervised ART tests at any of the more than 120 test centres round Singapore.
- Cost of testing (per person, indicative) for a seven-day stay in Malaysia via VTL (air)
- Pre-departure testing in Singapore: $138
- On-arrival testing in Malaysia: $157
- Supervised ART testing in Malaysia via tele-consultation: $10
- ART test kits for days 2 to 7: $12
- On-arrival testing in Singapore: $125
- Supervised ART testing in Singapore on days 3 and 7: $30
- ART test kits for days 2, 4, 5 and 6: $20
The writer is chief executive of a medical technology company and an adjunct associate professor at Nanyang Business School.Source: The Straits Times