On Life

More Gain, More Pain? Malaysians Tell The Struggles Of Working In Singapore

At 4.30am, Yong Yeik would have already left his home and began his daily commute to work, even though his work starts at 8am. 

Every day, he spends more than six hours on the road, shuttling from his home in Johor to work at Tuas, and back home again after work. It would be 8.30pm by the time he reaches home, which leaves him with barely enough time for dinner and quality time with his family before he has to head to bed at 10pm. 

If there’s any consolation, it’s in the company benefit he has of a direct bus service from Kranji station to his (previous) workplace at Gul Lane, which significantly reduces his travel time. Though, not everyone is as lucky as Yong Yeik, who told me about how many of his compatriots have had to endure even longer travel times. 

For example, he knew of workers who would wake up as early as 2am to travel to work because they stay near the centre of Johor. Although, this is less common these days. 

Nonetheless, there are many Malaysians like him who continue to sacrifice their time and energy in order to make a living in Singapore. 

Unspoken Struggles Of Malaysian Workers

Singapore has always been a popular choice for our friends from across the causeway, and for as long as I know, there’s this long-running joke about Malaysians (or ‘FTs’ in general) coming here to ‘steal’ our jobs. 

We are accustomed to teasing our Malaysian friends. We envy how rich they will be when they return home with their salary due to the exchange rate. And for the most part, it is true that Malaysians enjoy the advantage of earning three times more of what they would otherwise earn in their hometown.

However, what we don’t see is that this often comes with a price.

For Yong Yeik and several other Malaysians I spoke with, coming to Singapore to work is a matter of being practical, and those who choose the daily shuttle do so because it is simply more cost-efficient.

Possibly a daily sight for Malaysian workers shuttling in and out of Singapore for work
Image Credit: Yong Yeik

After sacrificing ten years worth of time on the road to save around S$500 (around RM$1500) every month, Yong Yeik has finally relocated to Singapore. This came after he got married to his long-time girlfriend, who is a Singaporean.

But for 27-year-old Louisa, who has been shuttling to and fro for four years, her daily commute is still a long and arduous one across the causeway. 

Fatigue is a familiar feeling and while it may be something that she has gotten used to, there are other pain points, especially when traffic jams are becoming increasingly common these days. 

“It does make me feel a bit dispirited, because we still have to endure hunger. It’s even worse when you need to pee.”

Besides the sacrifices in time and energy, it’s also a sacrifice on one’s social life because there is simply no time (or energy) for social activities at all. “If you’re lucky, maybe you can meet friends on Saturdays or Sundays,” but for Yong Yeik, those are precious days to sleep in and to pay off the sleep debt from work days. 

Then, there’s also the unpredictability of the traffic and at the customs. 

For example, in the 10 years that Yong Yeik had shuttled to and fro, he’s had several interesting encounters. In 2014, a strike by Malaysian bus drivers left Yong Yeik and many other Malaysian workers stranded at the Johor checkpoint, forcing them to continue the rest of the journey to Singapore customs on foot. 

5.30am on 1 August 2014: A strike by bus drivers forced Yong Yeik and many Malaysian workers to cross the causeway on foot
Image Credit: Yong Yeik

Yong Yeik was even once mugged by someone at the old Malaysian immigration complex, who threatened him with what looked like a used needle. He was lucky to have only lost S$10, because he has witnessed pedestrians having their bags stolen by snatch thieves on motorcycles. 

Thankfully, security has improved since the new immigration complex opened. 

Persevering For Better Days

While Yong Yeik’s reason for choosing the daily shuttle includes wanting to be around his family, both Yong Yeik and Louisa shared the same sentiments that ultimately, the main reason is still because it is a great deal of savings.

Louisa: “There is a big difference because the price of staying in Singapore includes having to pay for rent, meals, transport, and entertainment. You will unconsciously end up not saving money at all, although it also depends on your personal discipline as well.” 

Of course, besides the higher income, there are many other factors that have enticed Malaysians over, in search of better opportunities. These perks include our nation’s safety, efficiency, and a better transportation system.  

It is also for these reasons that another 24-year-old, Charles, relocated to Singapore. Fresh out of university, he recently started his first full-time job in Singapore as a video editor. 

“Work, places of interest, and food are all accessible via bus or MRT, whereas in Malaysia, it is a necessity to have a car, which adds up significantly to daily spendings.”

Unlike Louisa, Charles rented a room in Singapore. It checks out for him as his girlfriend, who is also a Malaysian, would soon be relocating here and sharing the room. 

However, for many of us who have spent all our lives in the comfort of our parents’ home, being in a foreign land alone can be overwhelming. For Charles, it’s especially tough knowing that he “would not be coming home to home-cooked food by my grandmother.”

Nonetheless, such feelings of separation is something everyone goes through if we were to study or work abroad. 

Likewise for those who have chosen the daily shuttle between Johor and Singapore, it is all a matter of getting used to the exhaustion. 

Yong Yeik explains, “Family plays a very big part in the decision. At my age, most of the Malaysians have a family in Malaysia so they will still go back. If I didn’t meet my wife here, I will probably still be travelling to and fro. It’ll just become a way of life.”

Much like any foreign worker, all of these struggles are familiar to our Malaysians friends, who have no choice but to persevere in order to make a living.

“The only thing that is really pushing me to persevere is still the 3 times salary,” Louisa admits. 

“It’s definitely because of the exchange rate. Especially for the JB people, the prices for local food and products have increased so much because Singaporeans visit often. So, it’s becoming more and more unsustainable for our generation of Malaysians. If we don’t come to Singapore to work, it is going to be very difficult to survive.”

Also read: Work Till We Die? – Why The New Retirement Age Isn’t Just Important For Retirees.

(Header Image Credit: The Star Online)

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