A sign marking the medical screening area at the Penang International Airport.
A FLIGHT FROM Singapore to Malaysia is, by any and all accounts, a short one. You barely have the chance to recline your chair and put on your headphones before the flight attendant is asking you to stow your tray table and raise your window shade.
It’s not that different amid Covid-19.
No doubt, making a trip from Singapore to Malaysia in the middle of the global pandemic takes a little more than buying a plane ticket the week before arrival. For me, it started two months earlier.
Before even thinking of how I am to get from the airport to your quarantine place I must first apply to travel to Malaysia. This I do through the website of the Malaysian High Commission in Singapore. I am asking for a short-term social visit pass.
Once the application is made, I have to pick a Scoot flight – from among the one plane leaving Singapore for Penang every day at 8am.
Changi Airport's safe distancing notice on the benches.
Once I have that nailed down, the next step is to take the predeparture Covid-19 test. While not a necessity, it negates needing to take the test upon arrival in Malaysia, and drops three days off an otherwise 10-day quarantine. That’s the rule, in mid-January.
The test isn’t as bad as people say it is. That doesn’t mean it’s not rough: a thin plastic rod with a cotton bud at the end is inserted far deeper into my nose than anyone can be comfortable with, down to the point where I feel a tickle in the back of my throat where it is wiggled around, and then removed.
Now I am ready to fly.
For someone who has not visited Changi Airport since Covid-19 became a serious affair, travelling through that complex of buildings now is a delight. Yes, the lack of people and the inaccurate signage are confusing; many of the passages alluded are cordoned off. But when I realise that the strange amalgam of fences and railings is simply an unmanned safe-entry counter, finding my way to the check-in desk is a breeze. No queue. No waiting.
With everything caringly dumped on the conveyor belt, I say some teary farewells to the friends who come to see me off. I wave widely to them once past Immigration. No queue. No waiting.
Once I accept the need for obsessive hand-sanitiser slathering after I happen to touch anything, and avoid the wary eyes of anyone I give even a hint of walking towards, which makes appropriate social distancing something I do want to keep, the long walk from check-in to the gate is a pleasant one. All has gone faster than normal. I’m in so good a mood after that saunter that I stop and chat with the guy setting up the security check at my gate. He comments on me wearing my hefty boots (“I suppose you had to cut check-in weight”) and I comment on the vacancy of the airport.
The Luxury of Space
I’m early at my gate. The two pilots passing by to board my plane give each other a safe-distancing-approved fist-bump. I pick a seat in the empty waiting area – far enough away from where I assume people will soon sit, just to be safe; but not so far away that I can’t borrow a pen in lieu of the one I just realised I have left in the car.
The area closest to the gate which would usually be hastily occupied by kiasu travellers has been cordoned off for the use of anyone exhibiting symptoms of sickness.
Waiting area for medical screening at the Penang International Airport.
On realising this, I shift a couple of rows further away. Fellow passengers start arriving, looking appropriately sullen for the early hour. We are finally called aboard. It’s 7.45am. Again I bask in the luxury that is mid-pandemic travel. I have not only the full row to myself, but also a buffer row on either side of me. I stow my bag below the seats next to me and settle in for an easy flight.
But as always on this popular route, I have hardly begun to relax before the plane begins to descend and I reluctantly relinquish the sweet reclination of my seat, retract all my limbs, and return to the reality of economy-class travel. The plane lands at 9.15am, Malaysian time. Slightly ahead of schedule. We passengers are herded off the plane one by one, row by row, no doubt with order but definitely with impatience, and arrive at our next hurdle: the Malaysian Medical Screening.
For the next two hours we sit on the edge of our airport chairs, waiting eagerly to be called to one of the carelessly arranged and unmarked counters for each in the series of papers we have prepared for this ordeal to be affirmed one by one. Having done my Covid-19 test in Singapore I am omitted from doing the test here. I had to wait for the rest though. After all my papers have been approved and stamped I am tagged with a pink wristband. Dire warnings accompany this band: “If you break this or take it off before the end of your quarantine you will be sentenced to 6 months in jail or a RM1,000 fine.”
The highly visible quarantine wristband.
With the man’s counsel ringing in our ears we move on to our penultimate task in the airport. We place all our bags in a heap on the floor, where they are sprayed down by a man in full hazmat attire. Then it’s our turn. We are sprayed down, front and back, before moving on to Immigration.
With passports newly chopped and luggage now in hand, we board the coach that will deliver us to our quarantining hotel. The time is 12.20pm. The decontamination man is not far behind, spraying the ground we walked on to exterminate the virus – if it’s there – that is at the forefront of all our minds.
We are not told to keep apart, but everyone does. And everyone continues wearing their masks. It’s a long drive, and I thought that most of us would simply sleep, given the tough morning we’ve had. We were being given VIP treatment though and were being escorted; the incessant wailing of the accompanying police car and ambulance did not allow for that.
At 1.20pm sharp, we arrive in the basement of the Rainbow Paradise Beach Resort. We disembark, and come face-to-face with another waiting episode, this time to go through our quarantine paperwork, and to pay up for those who had not done so online. We are briefed on the rules of the hotel, which boil down to “Never leave your room” and “Heed everything we tell you”. Each of us is given a lunch meal, and escorted up to an assigned room.
No key cards are needed; the doors are left unlocked anyway. Outside the door is a small table and a rubbish bin, these act as intermediaries between us and the clean outer world where our meals are left and our trash collected.
Finally in Quarantine
After I drop my bags I survey my home for the week. It is far from lacking. Free wifi of acceptable standard, a bathtub, a balcony, a TV, a fridge, and 30 half-litre bottles of water.
My hours are used up calling friends and family, watching the kinds of shows that you watch only because you have nothing but time, and playing games on my Nintendo Switch, the kinds I similarly would never play outside of quarantine. My family living in Malaysia come by the beach under my balcony every evening for us to wave to each other, and to phone-chat in tiny view of each other.
A corridor in the quarantine hotel, where food comes in and trash goes out.
On the fifth day, a day that comes much quicker than I anticipated, I am woken by rapid knocking at my door. It is test-time, I am to grab my passport and wallet and follow the man: “Don’t let the door close fully and lock itself ”.
I put away my valuables first, and then grab the required items. I pull the bolt across before the door is shut, keeping it ajar. I hurry after him in my pajamas and fireboots, for some reason not expecting to meet anyone else.
I am grossly mistaken. We are now in the basement where we handed in our paperwork. Not only am I queued up with all those I arrived with but also with a batch I don’t recognise, probably newcomers. I at once feel underdressed and underprepared, for absent are shoes and N95 mask.
The queue moves quickly, and it is soon my turn. The Malaysian doctor, while no less professional than his Singaporean counterpart, gives me an advance warning:
“I’m going to take a sample from the back of your nose... so it will be quite painful... If there is blood I will have to do it again...”
Thankfully there is no blood, and after a simple swab up each nostril, I shuffle hurriedly upstairs.
On the seventh day, I check out at noon, like any hotel stay. My father picks me up and we buy some packets of takeaway char koay teow on the way home.
I sit now in the comfort of my home, and reflect on how smoothly my travel and my quarantine have gone. The food has not been unsatisfactory, and with my parents happy to deliver much-needed fruits and snacks, my compulsory retreat at the Rainbow Paradise Beach Resort has been a memorable one.
The looming shadow of Covid-19 is enough to dissuade me from recommending this as a pastime for the bored, but when travel is necessary in these dark times, I can wholeheartedly endorse my experience of the expedition from Singapore to Penang, quarantine included.
Cian Sacker Ooi is a reservist fireman who loves observing the daily and the mundane because they make reality remarkable.