With no place to stay, some Malaysian workers sleeping rough near Singapore MRT station

At least 20 Malaysian workers were seen sleeping behind the gates of Kranji MRT Station on March 18, 2020. — TODAY pic
At least 20 Malaysian workers were seen sleeping behind the gates of Kranji MRT Station on March 18, 2020. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, March 19 — Past midnight, Armel Sharil waited until the metal gates of Kranji MRT Station were pulled shut at 1am before he carefully laid a cardboard on the floor to lie down and rest his eyes.

He has just four hours to sleep. “I’ll wake up at about 5am, around the time the station opens,” the 31-year-old warehouse storekeeper said in Malay.

Armel is one of about 20 Malaysian workers spending the night near the station on Thursday (March 19). The father-of-two said that his employer is still finding accommodation for him.

Kranji MRT Station is normally bustling around 10pm, with commuters waiting for cross-border bus services to Johor Baru in Malaysia, but it was devoid of any activity and quiet when TODAY arrived at that time.

Behind the station, Mr Armel and some others started settling on the cold, hard floor. They opened up umbrellas to partially shield themselves as they lie down, while a few were already snoring, using their bags, jackets and caps as makeshift pillows.

All that Armel had with him was his wallet, a phone with no internet access, a portable charger, a small tub of hair wax and mouthwash that he just bought. He did not have time to pack his belongings before the lockdown.

Just the night before, thousands of Malaysians endured long queues and traffic jams to make their way to Singapore before midnight — when the lockdown in Malaysia took effect.

On Monday, Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced the nationwide lockdown until the end of March to try and control the spread of Covid-19. Malaysians cannot get out of the country and foreigners cannot enter. Malaysia has reported two deaths from the coronavirus so far.

At about 10.30pm at Kranji MRT Station, a pair of officers from the Public Transport Security Command (TransCom) — a unit under the Singapore Police Force — woke the workers up one by one to ask for details.

Two groups of Singaporeans were seen handing out sleeping bags, water and snacks.

One group, led by political activist Gilbert Goh, spoke to the workers and offered options for lodgings while handing out bottles of water.

At about 1am, four policemen were seen patrolling the area and doing random checks.

On Tuesday, Manpower Minister Josephine Teo announced at a multi-ministry Covid-19 taskforce briefing that the Singapore Government will be supporting employers who have to find accommodation for their Malaysian workers, by giving them S$50 for each worker a day.

As of Tuesday, about 10,000 Malaysian workers who have chosen to stay in Singapore to work have been matched to temporary accommodations here, Teo also said.

A check by TODAY on Wednesday with 20 hostels and budget hotels found that most are fully booked until the end of the month, after getting calls from Malaysian workers or their Singapore employers seeking temporary accommodation.

For the workers sleeping near Kranji MRT Station though, it appears that their employers have not promised them accommodation, they told TODAY.

They work in the cleaning and manufacturing industries, and said that they have no choice but to sleep outdoors.

One of them, who works as a dishwasher and wanted to be known only as Ms Sarala, 36, said that she chose to sleep there because she is familiar with the faces of the people who commute daily from Johor Baru to Singapore. 

“The station is quiet at night so it’s peaceful to sleep here. The other Malaysians who sleep here are also people I’ve seen before,” she said, having done it the night before.

Snacking on a slice of bread while talking, she said that the toilet at the station was very crowded when she went to wash up for work in the morning.

Recounting the same experience, another worker who identified herself as just Chandra, 49, said: “We have no choice but to sleep here until we find ourselves a place to stay. The other MRT stations don't feel as safe as the Kranji one.”

The mother-of-four, who works as a cleaner, had to shower in the morning at her workplace — an office located in Pioneer near Tuas.

Putting up with these inconveniences is not a big issue for them, as they are thankful to still have their jobs.

However, this was not the case for 25-year-old Mohana Ambigai Dewi.

The school cleaner was terminated on Wednesday when she failed to turn up for work at noon on Tuesday.

“The jam at the Causeway was too long. My phone battery died so I could not call my boss to tell him that I could not go to work.

“When I turned up this morning (on Wednesday) to explain my situation, he just told me that the company has cancelled my work permit,” she said, visibly angered.

Listening to Mohana, Armel pointed out that she was not the only one who got laid off, adding that he heard of many others who lost their job despite braving the jam at the Causeway checkpoints. However, he refused to elaborate.

As the light at the station dims, Armel said: “I’m going to continue working here even if the lockdown is extended because I need to feed my family back home.

“I’m so tired but I can’t sleep because I really miss them.” — TODAY

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