SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The flow of food and other goods from Malaysia to Singapore will go on as normal, Singapore’s prime minister said on Tuesday, calming fears of shortages after Malaysia announced a border closure in its fight against the coronavirus.
But Singapore’s economy is likely to be hit by the close of the border, which will block the tens of thousands of Malaysians who commute daily into wealthy Singapore to work in businesses from restaurants to semiconductor factories.
Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced on Monday the closure of borders to travellers, restrictions on internal movements and the closure of schools and most businesses after its tally of coronavirus cases climbed to 553, the highest in Southeast Asia.
Muhyiddin had reassured Singapore that the flow of cargo would continue, Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said.
“I was happy to hear his reassurance that the flow of goods and cargo between Singapore and Malaysia, including food supplies, would continue,” Lee said in a Facebook post.
Malaysia is a major source of staples for Singapore, which imports more than 90% of its food.
About 300,000 people a day move through two land checkpoints between the two countries, which are separated by a strait.
Singaporeans had earlier rushed to stock up on food over fears of a disruption in supplies, though Singapore’s government had said there would be no shortages.
Singapore has had 243 cases of the coronavirus with no deaths.
Lee said Malaysians working in Singapore would have to comply with their government’s lockdown, preventing them from commuting daily for the time being.
“We are therefore working out arrangements with our companies to help these Malaysian workers stay in Singapore temporarily, if they would like to do so,” Lee said.
Song Seng Wun, an economist at CIMB Private Banking, said the blocking of Malaysian workers would hurt Singapore’s economy.
“Food supply is the least of the problems compared to the economic destruction from the stopping of Malaysian workers who commute daily to Singapore,” Song said.
“This is another added layer of drag to the economy just because of the supply shock.”
Singapore has previously signalled a chance of a recession this year and has cut its growth forecasts.
Some businesses in Singapore were drawing up plans to keep Malaysian staff in the city-state for the duration of the border closure.
Singapore told companies to encourage commuting workers to stay with relatives or friends. The government is also looking to help companies that need to accommodate workers.
“I guess some will be staying in Singapore for two weeks,” said Zuwainah Hashim, a Malaysian engineer at a listed semiconductor company, who commutes into Singapore every day.
“I saw people going with luggage bags this morning.”
Malaysian Lin Chee Ming, who works at a Singapore coffee shop, brought extra clothes and bedding when he arrived in Singapore, aiming to stay with his girlfriend.
“I have to work so I need to move here for the time being,” Lin said.
Additional reporting by Edgar Su and Florence Tan in Singapore; Writing by Aradhana Aravindan; Editing by Robert Birsel