S'pore-JB Causeway before & after lockdown is chaos before the calm

Portrait Mode: At the stroke of midnight on Mar. 18, travellers scrambled across the Causeway on foot.

Nigel Chua | Andrew Koay | March 18, 2020, 12:11 PM

Dawn broke over a serene and peaceful Woodlands Checkpoint on March 18.

Image by Andrew Koay

The bus stop nearest to the border crossing — normally bustling with travellers going into and coming from Malaysia — was empty barring a few journalists and commuters who worked at the checkpoint itself.

Nearby residents were out and about their day as per normal, some fulfilling their morning exercise routines amidst the tranquillity of birds chirping away and fresh morning dew.

Image by Andrew Koay

It was by all definitions the complete opposite of what the exact same location looked like less than six hours prior.

The Causeway at 6:45am on Mar. 18. Image by Andrew Koay

The Causeway at 12am on Mar. 18. Image by Nigel Chua

As midnight came and went, and Malaysia's lockdown came into force, travellers were still making the desperate scramble across the border.

Unsurprisingly, the Mar. 16 announcement by Malaysia's Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin of the emergency border closures sent cross-border commuters into a frenzy with decisions to make over whether one stays in Singapore for work or joins their family at home in lockdown.

Speaking to Mothership, Mrs. Lim, who is among 300,000 individuals who live in Malaysia but work in Singapore, said that the sudden announcement had created some anxiety.

After hearing about the impending border closure on Mar. 16, Lim said that discussions with colleagues and her bosses over what to do lasted late into the night, with no conclusion reached as late as the morning of Mar. 17.

Eventually, it was decided that the 35-year-old who works in food production would come and stay in Singapore for the duration of the lockdown.

Like many of the other people we talked to, Lim walked over the gridlocked causeway.

Image by Nigel Chua

Image by Nigel Chua

She said that despite showing up at the Malaysian side of the border at around 4pm, she had yet to clear Malaysian customs at 11pm, one hour before the lockdown.

Fearing she would not make it, she decided to walk instead.

"I walking from all the way JB EDL (Eastern Dispersal Link) then all the way to JB customs, then walk to Singapore customs."

Once across, Lim was greeted by crowds of weary travellers congregated around the bus stop and taxi stands.

Police were on hand to help direct the steady stream of buses, taxis, and private hire vehicles which inched up the road towards the pickup area. They did their best to urge people to use the pedestrian crossings and to avoid walking on the road, using torchlights to get people’s attention

Image by Nigel Chua

Image by Nigel Chua

Those who had just crossed the Causeway jostled for space at the front of the bus stop while a marshal directed buses to only stop within the bus bay.

Private hire drivers were seen parking their cars at an adjacent road 100m from the pickup point and walking out to try and find their passengers.

It was quite frankly overwhelming.

The bus stop nearest to the Checkpoint at 1am on Mar. 18. Image by Nigel Chua

The bus stop nearest to the Checkpoint at 7:45am on Mar. 18. Image by Andrew Koay

"Faster than take car — jialat," said Hafiz, a 25-year-old who also made the mad dash by foot across the border.

A Malaysian working in a Singapore hotel, Hafiz would have preferred to stay in his country — even on unpaid leave — but was asked by his boss to stay in Singapore.

Fortunately, he had been renting a place in Bugis to stay at during the week, so accommodation was not a concern.

On the morning of Mar. 18, Hafiz, like the rest of the travellers, will be heading to work.

While the night before might have been madness, the morning after will be life as usual.

Image by Andrew Koay

Image by Andrew Koay

Portrait Mode is a photo essay series documenting the lives and experiences of people and things in Singapore, seen through the lenses of our young photographers at Mothership.

Top image by Andrew Koay and Nigel Chua