Opinion

Writing on the Wall: Is the MM2H Programme Doomed?

Khairul Dzaimee Daud, the Director-General of Immigration Malaysia | Image Credit: Bernama via The Star

It’s hard to tell if the programme, which delivers tangible value to Malaysia, is just going through a bruising transition or if its days are indeed numbered. The signs of late, however, are certainly not encouraging.

A number of recent actions by the Malaysian government have made it evident to many observers that the Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) programme is not seen as having much value for Malaysia, despite bringing in billions in foreign exchange. Some of the actions in recent months seem to suggest the programme likely has no future. This may be because the economic benefit Malaysia derives from the programme is not fully appreciated, or, as others suspect, there is a desire in certain quarters to reduce the number of foreigners living here.

Either way, it looks to some as though the programme is doomed, as it has suffered multiple hits this year. Our continued efforts to get the government to treat MM2H visa holders as legitimate residents of Malaysia, just as they do Malaysian citizens, has consistently fallen on deaf ears.

It is sensible that countries would always be willing to allow their own citizens to enter in time of crises, and this has been the case throughout the pandemic in virtually every country around the world. Malaysia has always kept its doors open for Malaysian citizens, even if they travel from countries with very high Covid-19 case numbers or have even made another country their home. They can always return home. This is understandable. However, most countries also took the position that foreigners who had legally made their permanent or semi-permanent homes in their country should be treated in the same way – as valid residents of the country. In this respect, Malaysia took a very different position. This was a wake-up call for many expats living here who had assumed their presence was appreciated and valued.

Many MM2H visa holders took up the government’s offer to make Malaysia their permanent home. They applied for the renewable, 10-year visa and, and once approved, relocated all their belongings to Malaysia. In fact, our last survey of this group of expats showed that 60% planned to spend the rest of their lives here. Clearly, they understood they would not enjoy the same privileges as citizens of the country, but they never expected that their residential status would be ignored.

The key question now is do all the negative signals the government has sent towards this group mean the end is near?

The First Border Closing: MM2Hers Locked Out

When the borders were initially closed, any MM2H visa holders or expats with work visas who happened to be out of the country at the time found themselves unable to return. For most of them, it was a nasty shock to be treated in the same way as a casual tourist.

Letters to newspapers, news articles in print and on websites highlighting their plight seemed to have little effect. This led some people to assume that this was not an accidental policy, but one which the government had carefully considered and was in full agreement. Tens of thousands of Malaysian citizens were allowed back into Malaysia during this period, so it was hard to understand why a few hundred foreign residents were treated so differently. Eventually, after two months, it was decided they could return to their homes.

Even when they were permitted to come back, however, they had to follow fairly strict rules which were changed on several occasions, resulting in considerable confusion. We spent literally hundreds of hours giving free advice to those expats who desperately wanted to return, but had problems understanding what they had to do get back into Malaysia.

The actions taken in the early stages of the pandemic might have been ignored because all countries were confused in the beginning and many decisions were taken which were later changed or modified. In terms of controlling the spread of the virus in Malaysia, there is no doubt the Ministry of Health has done a good job, but is hard to see how keeping out a few hundred MM2Hers would have made any difference to their success.

By 2018, MM2H had already generated over RM18.3 billion for Malaysia | Infographic Credit: Bernama

The Next Round Of Border Closings: MM2Hers Lose Out Again

Unfortunately, there was more to come. The government decided that they did not want anyone to come to Malaysia from countries with high numbers of Covid-19 cases, except Malaysian citizens, so once again, resident expats were locked out. There was a wave of protests from business chambers and others and eventually, expats with employment passes were told they could return, but had to follow the usual cycle of approvals.

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For some reason, though, MM2H visa holders were not given this exemption, so ironically the foreigners with the longest residence pass, who for the most part had chosen to make Malaysia their permanent home were the ones refused entry. We saw a copy of one mail to 54 MM2Hers who were refused entry based on their nationality. It was very hard for these people to understand why letting such a small number of people return to their homes posed such a large threat, that they were denied. It should also be noted that the Covid-19 test and quarantine would be paid for by the expats, a not insignificant sum.

So, once again, this group of long-term residents received an unwelcome message and started worrying if they will be locked out until next year when the borders are (hopefully) open to everyone. For those unfortunate MM2Hers whose visas expired while they were locked out of the country, they were advised they could not enter to renew them, and would have to wait until the borders were open.

Another group, of just under 300 MM2Hers who had left after the country was locked down in March received a bulk email from immigration saying they also could not return. It is hard to understand the nature of the risk if they were allowed in, compared to the thousands of Malaysians who returned. It is not unreasonable to expect expats to retain close ties with their country of origin and many visit relatives or wish to see ailing parents or simply to help their children settle into new schools or universities. Expats were always free to leave the country, but many did not realise they would not be permitted to return. Malaysians who have their official residence overseas, meanwhile, can leave Malaysia and return without permission. It unclear how they are seen to pose no risk with regard to the virus whereas a person with an MM2H visa, coming from the same country, is seen as such a risk that they are locked out.

For years, Malaysia’s government has been marketing MM2H, encouraging approved applicants to make their home here… now, the message has changed | Image Credit: InvestKL

More Bad News: The Government Rejects Many Applicants and Suspends the Programme

It is not just these restrictions which have caused concerns about the future of the MM2H programme. Other announcements support the theory that the programme may have reached its end, and that some people wish to see it shut down. After being forced to close their businesses during the first MCO, MM2H agents were advised that the last batch of over 2,000 MM2H applications waiting to be processed were nearly all declined, and for the first time it was stated that these results could not be appealed. Agents handle most of the applications for the programme, and because they know the terms and conditions and generally ensure applicants meet the criteria, approvals through agents usually run at around 90%. This time, though, around 90% were rejected. It seemed evident to everyone that different criteria had been applied to this batch, so attempts were made to discover what happened, but the authorities refused to provide any answers.

It was then announced that the MM2H centre run by Tourism would be shutting down and the programme would be administered by Immigration. The last batch of submissions to the MM2H centre was never processed, and agents were asked to collect them. It was unclear if they would be processed when the programme started again or whether they would have to submit fresh documents. Needless to say, this caused a lot of unhappy applicants from all over the world looking for answers which the agents could not provide. It was all very unfortunate and given people’s propensity to share bad news, it was definitely bad for Malaysia’s international image and that of the programme.

Then it was announced that the MM2H programme was being suspended until year end while it was reviewed. No one could explain why it was necessary to suspend the programme, especially given the fact there were many applications which had not been processed.

What is perhaps more surprising is that MM2Hers make a very real contribution to the economy. In a year when tourists are not allowed into Malaysia, we would have expected there to be a desire to keep the programme running. In fact, we believe it would have made sense to allow newly approved applicants entry to the country so they could start contributing to Malaysia’s economic recovery.

Our research shows resident MM2Hers spend an average of RM120,000 a year on living costs, and the majority buy a house and car, all of which would be welcome foreign exchange for the country. Given Malaysia’s great record in controlling the spread of the virus, it would have seemed an excellent opportunity to capitalise on this success. Equally relevant, we understand the incidence of MM2Hers having contracted Covid-19 is negligible, so they hardly represent a danger to the local population. Given the stringent border controls and health checks (at the expats’ expense), it is very unlikely they would spread the disease in Malaysia.

Global expat retirees may start looking at other countries with more welcoming policies, which would represent a real loss for Malaysia | Image Credit: International Citizens

Conclusion

Different people have different theories about the meaning of what has been happening, and the government has decided not to respond to questions about what is behind all these actions. We are therefore forced to listen to the various theories put forward by the expat community. In the absence of full disclosure, it is natural that people speculate and the various actions detailed in this article collectively indicate the programme is in trouble.

It is the first time we have received so many emails from visa holders saying they plan to exit the programme and leave Malaysia. This is certainly unwelcome news for the many Malaysians who can earn income from the resident expat community and also represents a loss of income for Malaysia. The real issue is how damaging have all these action been for the programme.

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One thing is hard to argue, and that is the programme has taken a lot of hits this year from locking out existing visa holders to rejecting applications from people who met the criteria, right though to suspending the programme. The damage that’s been done to the MM2H programme, and Malaysia’s image, is significant.

It is hard to believe that the current government does not see any value in the programme. This leads some people to conclude that these actions are deliberate to send a message that these people are no longer really welcome in Malaysia. If this is the case, and we have no way of knowing whether it is or isn’t, it would have been preferable for them to come out and say it plainly, so everyone could at least understand the motives.

It is expected – though again, unknown – that the new programme, when it is announced in 2021, will have even tougher entry conditions than the current programme. It is already harder to qualify than most competitive retirement visas. The required income for the existing programme is RM10,000 a month which is higher than Thailand’s, at just under RM9000 a month, and that of the Philippines at only RM5,000. In terms of cash in the bank, Thailand expects to see around RM90,000 and the Philippines roughly the same, so this is considerably lower than the RM150,000 fixed deposit people over age 50 have to place for the MM2H programme.

It is very likely that making it tougher to join the programme will have no impact other than reducing the number of applicants. Given that less than 50,000 applications have been approved in the 18 years the programme has been running, the majority of which never relocated here, it is certainly not a case of the country being overrun by MM2H visa holders. In fact, the Malaysian population has increased by some nine million people in this time, so the impact on society has been minimal.

Here at TEG Media, we have been actively promoting the programme for 15 years and have been encouraged to do so by the government. This is in line with our efforts to promote Malaysia to the rest of the world. We now feel that we have misled people about the welcome they would receive in Malaysia; we certainly never anticipated that the government would decide that the programme was not something they wanted to support. We always assumed that given the low number of applications and the billions of ringgit it contributes to the economy each year, it would always remain a valued government initiative. It seems we were wrong.

One thing is clear, the MM2H programme has suffered long-term damage and not just because of Covid-19. It is now clear that the MM2H visa holders have no special residential privileges, and since there is no one in power fighting for the rights of the MM2Hers, their status is weak. In fact, the programme does not seem to have any real champion to fight for it, or even explain why things are happening.

Clearly, if the programme is to continue, the marketing will have to change to explain that applicants should not make Malaysia their permanent home or expect any sort of favourable treatment as a resident. That is regrettable, because it is the ones who relocated here, spent money, and bought houses and cars who made the biggest economic contribution to the country.

The other alternative is to give approved applicants some kind of guarantee that their long-term visas will be respected, so they are given the same treatment as Permanent Residents in terms of their right to live here and access their homes.

While many now understandably feel the programme is doomed, we continue to hope that someone in authority will recognise the value of this programme to the Malaysian economy and help fix these issues and ensure that visa holders’ residential rights are strengthened.

The future of MM2H is anything but clear | Image Credit: Free Malaysia Today



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