Motorcyclists queuing up to use the MBIKE system. It allows a rider to get through Immigration by only scanning an RFID sticker on their Malaysian passport and their fingerprint. NSTP/ZULKARNAIN AHMAD TAJUDDIN

"Are you ready to ride on a motorcycle to Singapore?" called out Asmadi Abdul Aziz or Adi, as he preferred to be called, as I fumbled with my helmet strap.

It’s been years since I had ridden a motorcycle and my awkwardness was on full display.

Adi, 25, originally from Kota Tinggi, assured me that the commute shouldn’t be too tough as it was a week day.

"It shouldn't take more than an hour. Public holidays or others, now that's a different story."

We were riding his Yamaha 135 LC for the commute to Singapore. We left Adi's rented place in Taman Pelangi, Johor Baru at 6.30am. It was still dark outside and the early morning air was cool.

The city was stirring with sounds of people waiting for buses, and cars and bikes beginning their daily routine to cross the border.

This is one city where peak hour traffic begins much earlier than other places. It is not uncommon to see motorcyclists and factory vans starting their journey as early as 3am to beat the traffic at the Causeway. Roadside stalls along Jalan Tebrau and Jalan Skudai begin selling nasi lemak, kuih and other breakfast fare for these Singapore-bound commuters at this time.

It takes Adi only seven minutes to compete the 5km route from Taman Pelangi to the Sultan Iskandar Building (BSI) Customs, Immigration and Quarantine (CIQ) complex in Bukit Chagar.

He is lucky as he lives close to the checkpoint. As a factory worker in Senoko, northern Singapore, he would usually take between 50 minutes and an hour to get through the morning traffic jams on both the Malaysian and Singapore checkpoints, and another 30 minutes to reach his workplace in the republic.

His shift is from 8am to 5pm, and Adi usually likes to leave his house between 6.20am to 6.30am.

By the time Adi and I arrive at the motorcycle lanes leading into BSI, there is a long queue which was moving smoothly. The lanes for buses and cars are equally full with rush hour in full swing.

The noise of hundreds of motorcycle engines get louder as we approach the 'intersection' that splits up traffic flow into the immigration counters.

I can feel the anxiety as motorcyclists try to get in and out of immigration clearance as fast as they can.

"Tolong gerak ke depan!" (please move to the front) shouts a man dressed in a Rela uniform. He directs traffic in the motorcycle zones and makes sure no one hogs the earlier counters.

An auxiliary policeman makes his rounds near the Rela man. There were green traffic lights shining at almost all immigration counters that morning, which meant that many of them were open.

Unlike Adi, I was not registered for the M-BIKE (Secured Automated Clearance System for Malaysian Citizen Motorcyclists), which allows a rider to get through immigration clearance by only scanning a radio-frequency identification (RFID) sticker on the Malaysian passport and their fingerprint.

We go to the manual counters. I ask Adi if it would delay our journey, but he said it would not.


The writer follows factory worker Asmadi Abdul Aziz (right) as the latter makes his daily trek across the Causeway to work. NSTP/FAIRUZ OTHMAN

The queue at BSI moves quickly and we complete our immigration and custom clearance within 15 minutes.

We ride out of the complex through the 1.06km-long Causeway connecting Malaysia and Singapore. The road is clear right until the end of the stretch, where a sea of motorcycles greet us at the Singapore side.

That was when I was introduced to the nicknames of different zones for motorcycles at the Woodlands Checkpoint.

Terms such as 'kandang lori', 'kandang laut', 'bunga' and GTG (good to go) have become common after they were used by a group of motorcyclists who call themselves Singapore Viaduct Bikers (SVB).

They have a Telegram chat group comprising more than 350 members, who provide live updates on the traffic situation at the Causeway and Second Link.

SVB co-administrator, Sarguneshwara Subramaniam, told me a few days earlier about how members look out for each other. The bikers collect donations whenever a member meets with an accident, and they would also help buy petrol for those who run out of fuel when they are stuck in a traffic jam.

Adi, who is also an SVB member, explains why motorcyclists refer to different zones in the Woodlands Checkpoint as 'kandang' or livestock pens.

"Due to the huge numbers of inbound motorcycles, the riders are divided into at least three or four different zones. More often than not, they are huddled close together when the traffic comes to a standstill in these different zones. And when this happens as it usually does, they look like people trapped in a pen," he said.

'Kandang laut' refers to the zone on the eastern side of the checkpoint closest to the Johor straits, while 'kandang Marsiling' is on the western end.


The Singapore Viaduct Bikers logo.

Adi decides to take the middle zone known as 'kandang lori', which refers to a section that is used by lorries during non-peak hours.

In 'kandang laut', we are surrounded by hundreds of motorcyclists, whom despite being in a standstill, were in good spirit.

"It's normal. People take off their helmets and do their own thing while waiting in line," said Adi.

They while away the time by watching videos or playing mobile games on their smartphones. Several of them chat with each other. A few motorcyclists are seen reading Chinese newspapers.

It is mostly men who ride the bikes, with only a handful of women bikers and pillion riders.

Many pillion riders prefer to get off the motorcycles when they are in the 'kandang'. They will help push the machines from behind when the engines are switched off.

When we reach the motorcycle counters, Adi tells me to take off my helmet. Just like car drivers and bus passengers, immigration officers need to see your face when you go through clearance.

There are almost 20 counters open in the zone we were in, and many Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) staff were on duty.

After 40 minutes, Adi and I completed our immigration and customs clearance and everything is done by 7.35am. He drops me off at the bus stop in Woodlands Centre Road as he proceeds to work in Senoko.


A task force has recommended readjusting the MBIKE algorithm to resolve congestion at the Causeway checkpoint. NSTP/HAIRUL ANUAR RAHIM

JOURNEY HOME

I meet Adi again at the An-Nur Mosque in Marsiling about 10 hours later to join him for the evening commute home.

Once again, I insist on going to the toilet before we embark on our ride. Adi rides towards the viaduct that leads into the motorcycle lanes at the Woodlands Checkpoint at 5.35pm.

A queue forms about 1km or 1.5km away from the checkpoint and the motorcycles are soon at a crawl.

As the viaduct goes uphill and then down, many motorcyclists including Adi turn off their engines at the downhill portion.

I turn around and see plenty of tired and stressed out faces, with many looking like they just want to get home as soon as possible.

Similar to what I saw in the morning, many watch videos or play games on their smartphones. But there is a more casual vibe in the evening and their camaraderie is apparent.

An older motorcyclist gives way to a younger motorcyclists who looks barely out of his teens. Another rider asks the rider next to him for a cigarette and lighter, while many others are engaged in banter and are smoking while waiting in the gridlock.

But the casual setting soon gives way to a stressful, maddening rush.

Motorcyclists, who were comfortably moving along two lanes at the Woodlands viaduct, now need to squeeze into a single lane as they approach the split zone, which is where the lane splits into the four sections designated for motorcycle immigration clearance.

Adi tells me that is the stretch where tempers flare and the stress gets too much sometimes.

As their patience wears thin, many motorcyclists blare their horns at the slightest hesitation among their fellow motorcyclists in front of them.

On this evening, one motorcyclist, dressed in army fatigue pants and a jersey, was the subject of incessant honking from his fellow riders behind him when he remained stationary even when the machine in front of him had moved.

I wasn't sure whether it was because he had dozed off or that he simply let his mind wander.

Being a pillion rider, I was spared from the strategising and sharp manoeuvring needed at the motorcycle lanes. It takes a huge dose of skill to handle motorcyclists who try to overtake your queue as well.

As motorcyclists inch their way in the traffic jam, the rumble of engines get louder. There are occasional blarings of the horn which end whenever there is movement. After 40 or 50 minutes in the congestion, I start noticing the strong smell of exhaust fumes.

I realise at that point what the face masks used by motorcyclists are for as they help to block out the smell of fumes. It cannot be helped, as hundreds of motorcycles are huddled close to each other.

Several ICA staff are seen managing the flow at the split zone by the time we reach it.

When we finally reach the covered area of the immigration zones, the traffic situation was still chock-a-block. On my right, seven counters were open at a section that is meant for cars during non-peak hours. On my left there were close to 20 biometric counters open.

"I usually like to take zone 4, which is on the far left side as it uses the biometric scan system,” says Adi, as he takes the middle lane to zone 3, which has six counters open.

As we approach the lane, he types something into his smartphone. He is updating the situation on the ground in the SVB Telegram group.

"WCP (Woodlands Checkpoint) Z4 (zone 4) moving moderately slow. Z3 six counters open," he wrote.

At the same time, other members on SVB engage in live updates about the traffic snarl at the Causeway and Second Link that day.

It takes us one hour and 10 minutes to clear immigration, and it is a huge relief. We started the journey at 5.35pm and were out of Singapore immigration by 6.45pm.

After that, the ride across the Causeway takes less than 15 minutes and we get through Malaysian immigration and customs very quickly.

Although relieved at returning to Johor Baru before sunset, I was disheartened to find out that the congestion became worse the following day.

The following day, rain caused some delays to the journey for many commuters. Adi would tell me that it took an hour and 35 minutes to get out of the jam and immigration clearance that day.

"But it can't be worse than the time I spent two hours on the Singapore side. That is the longest I have ever been stuck in a jam," he said.