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What is Behind Malaysia’s Hard-Line Attitude Towards Expats?

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This story has been updated (Saturday, June 13).

The New Straits Times reported that the immigration department was creating a task force to handle applications from expatriates who wanted to return to their homes in Malaysia. These are people who had the misfortune to be stuck outside the country and who have been refused entry for close to three months, despite having visas to work here, and in many cases, having their only home here.

According to the report, which was carried in the newspaper, the task force received 634 applications to return to Malaysia up until June 6th and just 371 of them have been approved. It seems most of these were employed in ‘essential services’ – that is, sectors which were not required to close down in the early stages of the Movement Control Orders (MCOs). This week, it was finally decided after much pleading by some foreign business chambers that they would allow other expats with work permits to return. However, it was not made easy and some will still not be allowed back.

There was no explanation offered as to why they are making it so difficult for expats and their dependents to return to their homes. They also did not clarify why it is only now, well over a month since most businesses were encouraged to resume operations, that they are even considering letting some into the country.

The Director General was quoted as saying that “priority will be given to chief executive officers, chief financial officers and managing directors, and those with technical expertise.” The task force will review all applications and approval will be given on a “case by case” basis, which implies some expats with valid visas may not be allowed to return to their homes and businesses.

This seems truly extraordinary as these people already went through a thorough review process to get their employment visa in the first place. Having been given the visa, they are now told they have to be reviewed all over again. In many ways, this is worse because when expats apply the first time, they have usually not set up house here. Now, having made Malaysia their home, they are being treated as potential threats to the country who need to be vetted all over again.

The attitude of the authorities is reflected in an email forwarded to us by an expat. It came from the MYXpats Centre and read “our border is still closed for foreigners to enter our country. If company still insist to bring the expatriate into Malaysia… need approval of DG of Immigration.” The phraseology makes it seem as though the company is being a little unreasonable to support their staff returning to their home, family, and employment.

Even worse, if the expat’s visa happened to expire during the period he was locked out of the country, the rules state they are not permitted to return until they are able to secure a new visa prior to arrival.

The guidelines state that if approval is not given by immigration within seven days, the applicant should assume they are rejected. This seems to suggest they will not even bother sending a decline letter or give a reason. This is quite concerning when you consider these are people just trying to get back to their homes and start work for the benefit of the Malaysian economy.

Even for those who are approved, there are some complicated and frankly onerous procedures to complete to get back into the country. The company where the expat works has to make a formal request to immigration to allow them to come back to Malaysia. However, that is not considered enough and the company is required to request a supporting letter from the body that regulates their industry, like MIDA or MITI. Once they have finally received the support letter, they then have to submit the two letters to immigration for approval and wait until it is reviewed by the immigration committee and permission is granted (or not).


Their problems are not over then because the expat has to obtain a PCR Covid-19 swab test (with negative results) before returning. This is required even though they will be given another Covid-19 test at the airport on arrival, followed by a mandatory, traceable 14-day quarantine period. Making matters even more difficult, the overseas Covid-19 test results have to be dated not more than three days before arrival. Given the long travel times, that is not always easy to orchestrate. Even worse, there are a few countries which will not give the test to people who look healthy and don’t have symptoms, so some expats will not be able to get the test at all and therefore cannot return even though they have permission.

Here at TEG Media, we have tried repeatedly to obtain a reason why the authorities are taking such a hard-line approach with expats, as we wanted to offer an explanation to our many readers. No one has even replied to our various emails, which says a lot in itself.

So far, there are no reported cases of expats with MM2H visas or work permits bringing Covid-19 into the country, and it was reported that less than 2% of returning Malaysians had the disease. So, even in the unlikely event that 2% of the approximately 1,000 expats stranded overseas, returned with the disease, that would only be around 20 people. This would hardly cause a bump on the daily reported cases of Covid-19 in Malaysia. That number is even less likely to be reached as they have all tested negative before entry.

Given all these restrictions, we truly struggle to understand why resident expats are being treated in this way. Some expats have suggested to us that it seems clear the government is sending a message to the expat community that they are no longer appreciated or welcome in Malaysia. Why else make it so very much harder for expats to enter than Malaysians who were given minimal obstacles to enter. Giving Malaysians priority was understandable, but making it so much harder for expats to return to their homes seems like a deliberate shift in policy.

It does seem that, whereas once the Malaysian government eagerly sought foreign investment and even created new enterprises like InvestKL to attract foreign companies to set up operations here, that is a thing of the past. It is hard to believe they would treat expats like this if they wanted to show this is a country which welcomes foreigners to invest and help build the Malaysian economy. Like most Malaysians, we were excited to see the unexpected change of government in the 2018 general election, but were subsequently quite disappointed with their apparent efforts to crack down on expats working here. The latest government seems to be taking things a step further.

We continue to believe that all countries benefit when they allow skilled foreigners to live in their country and support their economy, so this action can hardly be a positive step for Malaysia on its road to recovery.

One example which clearly supports this is in the United Kingdom. The country’s National Health Service (NHS) would probably collapse without the expat doctors and nurses who keep it running. According to UK statistics, some 1,600 Malaysian doctors work in the NHS.

We very much hope the authorities will soon see the value professional expats can bring to Malaysia and its economic growth and change their negative policies towards this small segment of the resident population.

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