“Sorry Singapore cannot. You go back M’laysia,” said the smiling customs officer, a slightly chubby chappie. A quick scan of his nametag disclosed that we were dealing with (and I kid you not) Mr. Wee. The obvious question arose… was he taking the piss? This morning was fast unraveling into a right nightmare at what was proving to be the most horrific border crossing yet in accessing over sixty countries around the globe. In principal the formalities for entering Singapore are the same for anywhere else; you get your passport stamped ‘in’ for immigration and then proceed to customs where the ‘Carnet de Passage’ gets stamped, to permit access for the bikes. Some countries require vehicle insurance and sometimes vehicle permits with everything more or less procurable at the border. Normally we try to arrive early to fill in the necessary forms and allow for possible delays but generally the business can be conducted in anything from thirty minutes to a couple of hours, but not Singapore, oh no, this was going to take a couple of days.
We were up with the birdies and outside the hotel in Johor Bahru (JB in local parlance), Malaysia, loading the bikes by the dawn’s early light. Panniers on, bags strapped secure across seat and tank, water bottles full, check out of the hotel and a final farewell wave to the charming Malaysian staff. Ten-minute ride to the Woodlands border crossing, an exit stamp in the passport from Malaysian immigration where we explained we also needed to process our carnets. The guy vaguely waved us on to customs somewhere up ahead. 8am; so far, so good… The air was buzzing with the sound of small motorcycles whizzing through on the daily commute from JB, where living is cheap and easy, to Singapore where it’s… well… not. We filtered into a steady stream of 2-wheelers, missed the pull-in for customs (it wasn’t marked) and, before we knew it, were out on the causeway over the Johor Straits headed for Singapore ‘unstamped’. We joined hundreds of little bikes all headed one way using the filter lane especially for ‘Motosikal’ and it was impossible to turn back. The road widened on the approach to the imposing Singaporean frontier post that looked like the control tower of a beached aircraft carrier and then split, offering the choice of one of four marshaling yards, each stuffed to capacity with little bikes seeking access to the island. Thousands upon thousands of bikes were backed up and slowly edging forward, feet down, towards some invisible portal way in the distance.
This was one of nature’s great migrations… Forget your David Attenborough ‘Wildebeest hordes on the plains of Africa’; forget the bison herds of bygone days or the great salmon runs in the Americas. We learned later that anything from seventy to one hundred thousand small bikes cross the border every day! It was the one occasion when arriving early at a border crossing was actually a very bad idea. On a day that was pre-destined to go down the pan, we followed one of the streams into yard No.2 and were immediately packed into the crush. Suddenly a customs guy appeared from god knows where and informed us of our error. “You have to turn back! Yard No.3! This one for locals with autopass.” Like Moses parting the Red Sea, he cleared the way for us to make a somewhat precarious U-turn amidst thousands of turned heads watching the two idiots on the monster bikes wobble our way out and on to Yard No.3, where we were immediately encased in a similar throng to the one we just left. This was the immigrant yard, mostly Philippinos, Indonesians, Tamils and many from Myanmar, they make this crossing every single day to perform all manner of tasks in Singapore. In the momentary silence, dust motes twirled in the sunlight above the herd. I have never seen such a collection of patient folk, everyone calmly waiting their turn. Thankfully the sun was still low in the sky and we were afforded some shade from its equatorial heat. No horns parped (can you imagine if this was in India?), indeed engines were switched off and folk were calmly catching up with events on their mobile phones or sitting with hands draped across handlebars in silent contemplation of the day ahead. Here and there a newspaper was sprawled across a bike and every now and again there would be a spasm of movement as we all lurched forward.
We contemplated Singapore up ahead. It was reputedly a mega-clean, no-nonsense, hi-tech metropolis; modern success story and jewel of SE Asia. It had history too from the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819, who recognised the strategic significance of its harbour as the essential trade hub for this part of the world, through to the infamous WW2 surrender – the biggest single defeat in the history of British arms when 120,000 British and Commonwealth troops surrendered to an Japanese force of only 30,000. We had also contacted a fabulous ‘Workaway,’ corresponding with a lovely lady called Azra, who needed help with a free food charity, providing food for those in need through forthcoming charity events that would happen while we were there. We had been in two minds as to whether to bring the bikes at all having been warned that accessing Singapore could be complex and expensive but we planned to stay for a month and had also been warned that JB, the Malaysian mega-city on the other side of the straits, was a hotbed of crime (including bike thefts) so we decided to bring them anyway.
Finally we arrived at a small customs booth where we explained that we needed to go back to Malaysia to have our carnets stamped. Our passports were confiscated and we were told to move on through into a yet another holding area. Here another officer snapped at us to move the bikes across the yard to the offices. We started the bikes to ride across and he went ballistic, yelling at us to turn them off immediately and insisting that we must push them across. He then demanded the keys to both bikes; I have no idea what he thought we might attempt, as any further progress was obviously impossible. With keys and passports now confiscated we were marched into the office where we explained our predicament.
We sat around for nearly two hours while dozens of customs officer milled about doing bugger all. Outside the mass exodus of morning rush hour had subsided, the flow of little bikes had stopped, the big yards were closed and silence reigned over the post. Mags asked for the nearest toilet. “Are you sure?” is not a terribly reassuring reply… The toilet was a portakabin affair, the portakabin no more than a dust cover over a place of filth and excrement instantly dispelling one of the myths that Singapore was some ultra-clean haven. Eventually the necessary paperwork was dispensed and we were escorted through a gate by some armed officers and returned back over the causeway to Malaysia, where we quickly found the correct office, aided by the ever so helpful customs people and had the carnets stamped all correctly to show the bikes had now left the country. Back across the causeway, back to Singapore. Now, rush-hour over, we filtered to a small customs booth where we where our passports were stamped for a 90-day stay; great stuff… Now for the Carnets and our encounter with Mr. Wee. We were directed to the LTA office (Land Transport Agency) and explained we needed to process our Carnets. Two middle-aged ladies manning the desk were ever so friendly and explained they had to call in someone from Customs. Oh! and if we didn’t have the right documents they would send us back. “Polish couple tried same-same last week… No have insurance, no have ICP. Send’em straightback M’laysia.”
By now we were grown accustomed to listening to the corruptions known as Minglish (Malay English and now Singlish; the Singapore variant). Sometimes it just sounds like bad ‘Benny Hill’ Chinese that raises a smirk, but it also has a way of simplifying entire sentences into one of two words… ‘Can’ and ‘Cannot’. In the UK we are terribly polite. The answer to the question “Could I possibly borrow your newspaper” will invariably be something like “of course you can, no problem at all. Just let me tidy it up a little for you and there you are. I’ve finished with it anyway so just bin it when you’re done.” In Minglish this response would simply be abbreviated to one-word, one-syllable; ‘Can.’ It is a staggering application of brevity, the more so devastating for us when Mr. Wee arrived and looked at our carnets, shook his head and said another word; ‘Cannot’.
“Sorry?” we gasped “why not”.
“You need Insurance and ICP (Internal Circulation Permit) from Singapore AA”.
“Yes we understand that but can we get these here?”
“No. You must go AA Singapore. Get documents!”
“OK then can we can leave the bikes, get a taxi to the AA and get sorted? We’ll only be an hour or two at the most…”
“Leave bikes here one hour, bikes get clamped. Very serious problem” he frowned.
“Sorry Singapore, cannot. You go back M’laysia.”
“What, are you crazy? Why do we need to go back there? We just left the place. We just need insurance and ICP. We’re not trying to take our bikes in without the correct documents.”
“Cannot. You go back!”
By now I was close to totally losing it. Mr. Wee really was taking the piss and was sending us back. I threatened him that if we went back we would strike Singapore off our list of countries to visit on our ‘World Tour’ and just stay in Malaysia. Singapore didn’t know what it would be missing if it dared turn us away… OK, a rather pathetic threat, I’ll give you, but all I could come up with in that moment of rage, short of stamping my feet, shaking my fists and throwing a paddy. “You go. Come Singapore by taxi, get correct documents, go back M’laysia, get bikes. Then we let you in.” We were dismissed. A typed ‘rejection note’ was raised for the Malay authorities, our passports were stamped out of Singapore and a posse of armed contract security police arrived to escort us off sovereign territory.
“Push bikes all-way back,” the unsmiling, slightly plump, lady sergeant in charge said.
“Maybe 1km, maybe 2. No ride bikes. Cannot.”
Now Mags lost it and point blank refused. When they looked at the loaded bikes they realised what they were asking us to do. A compromise was reached…
“Wait here…” Half an hour later a trio of expensive looking mountain bikes in customs livery appeared and they saddled up to escort us back once more. It was a fair way but certainly not one or two kilometers. A section of barrier was removed and we once more exited Singapore and went back to Malaysia. Beaten.
We were both hopping mad at the intransigence and ludicrous stance taken by Singapore customs. It was all exacerbated by the fact that most of the staff had been overly officious, impolite and downright rude in the transactions. We were being sent back for not having two documents we could only obtain once we were in Singapore! In the time we had been messed around, we could easily have collected the damned documents and returned to gain lawful entry. We decided that if Malaysia granted us new 90-day visas we would forget about Singapore forever. We would be devastated at missing the Workaway for sure, but if we couldn’t even get into the country…?
It was now well into the afternoon but the nightmare continued. On reviewing the Singapore reject note, Malaysian customs decided we could only stay until our previous 90-day visa expired… the next day!!! Then we had to fly home or to another country for a month before we could return. “But what about the bikes?” They didn’t know. We had one day. We spent over seven hours up to our necks in bullshit border shenanigans today and were mentally and emotionally exhausted. A sleepless night followed as we contemplated our position. In the end we decided that the only sane option was to go back to Singapore.
4am alarm for a 5am taxi pick-up. The taxi whizzed us through customs where we were again granted a 90-day stay and dropped us off at the AA Singapore office just as they opened. We coughed up $225 for 28 day’s insurance per bike and $60 each for the ICP (@1.7 SGP dollars to the pound). Another taxi back to Malaysia (where they forgot about yesterday and now gave us new 90-day visas!!!), pick up the bikes and finally head back to Singapore. Mr. Wee was smiling as he came in to the office to greet us. He surveyed the mighty ensemble of documents arrayed across the table for two little motorcycles. “Everything now good”, he declared. “Singapore… Can go.” It took another grueling twelve hours today but we got the desired result; Singapore was go!
To be continued…