Opinion

It’s Time to Let Them Come Home

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An open letter to the Malaysian government from Andy Davison, CEO of TEG Media.

The last year has been challenging for many people, but it’s been particularly hard on one group of residents in Malaysia: those with a Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) visa. Since the start of the pandemic, this group has constantly come up against barriers when they wanted to return to their homes in Malaysia or even obtain information on the rules governing them. Although we, along with other concerned parties, have tried to raise awareness of their plight (and some of our stories have been read by many thousands of people), little has been done to improve their treatment.

Those who never left Malaysia have not experienced many problems, but they are becoming increasingly aware of their fellow visa holders’ troubles. There are plenty of reasons why a foreign national needs to return to their country of origin, and they should not be punished for it.

It started when the borders were first closed in March last year and some foreigners were caught outside the country. Malaysia is often marketed as being well-placed for those wishing to explore the many surrounding countries and it’s one of the factors which attract MM2Hers to settle here. Not surprisingly, a few were travelling at the time the borders were first closed, which happened with little advance warning, and it took many weeks and sometimes months before they could obtain permission to return to their homes in Malaysia. In many cases, this was their only home as they had taken up the government’s invitation to retire here. As a result of being locked out, some incurred substantial expenses staying in hotels for long periods and covering their daily living expenses in the countries where they were stranded.

After the initial lockdown, there were visa holders who needed to leave for various reasons, and foreigners were told they were free to leave anytime. They have discovered, however, that because they left, they are also banned from returning and we have emails rejecting their request because they left after March 18, 2020. It was only after several months passed following the first lockdown that the government advised expats to get approval if they wished to return. A special online form was eventually set up for this, but it was not available to those with an MM2H visa.

However, in addition to those who left Malaysia after the first lockdown was enacted, the government decided last year that they would not allow foreigners to enter Malaysia if they were travelling from any of 23 countries with a high number of Covid-19 cases. This list included UK, Iran, India, and Bangladesh, four countries of which many MM2Hers are nationals. However, it seems that even holding such a passport is grounds for denial of permission to enter, whether or not a person has recently been in the blacklisted countries. In one example, a British man who has been in Singapore for six months – and has even had the Covid-19 vaccination – was rejected on the grounds he is a national of one of the 23 banned countries, despite having not travelled there for a long time. These rules do not apply to Malaysian citizens and six months ago they relaxed the rule for working expats and their families, but they still refuse to allow MM2Hers to return.

There has been a general lack of information for those with MM2H visas. Working expats could contact the Expatriate Services Division (ESD) for information and check their website for announcements, but information for MM2Hers was hard to find and the rules changed frequently. We were contacted by hundreds of stranded expats seeking advice on how to get back to their homes in Malaysia. We had to rely on third parties for our information, as our emails to the immigration department appealing for information were ignored. Over the last year, we feel proud that we helped hundreds of MM2H visa holders navigate the frequently changing rules so they could eventually return, although along the way, some of their stories were quite distressing to read.

Having actively promoted the MM2H programme and Malaysia as a place to retire for the last 20 years, it is both sad and frustrating to see this change in attitude by authorities. We now feel guilty that we have actively encouraged so many people to move here and make it their home as we hear the stories of their suffering, especially when it has been entirely unnecessary. Most other countries have allowed people with valid long-term visas to return, but Malaysia has decided otherwise.

Ironically, the Tourism Ministry frequently quotes International Living’s annual survey showing Malaysia as the best place to retire in Asia, but is now treating them quite poorly by locking them out. Of course, there are always a few people in every country who would like to see foreigners kicked out of their country, and some people have posted comments on social media supporting the government’s stand and saying all foreigners should leave. It is disappointing that the government almost appears to be harbouring the same sentiments.

Some visa holders have had double suffering because while they were locked out of Malaysia their MM2H visas expired, and so when they were eventually in a position to return, they were denied because they did not have a valid visa. They were also told they could not renew the visa without coming to Malaysia, so they would have to wait until the borders opened.

So the question everyone is asking is: Why are they being treated this way? Recently the Minister of Tourism, Nancy Shukri, announced that she had a meeting with the outside consultants charged with evaluating the MM2H visa programme and making recommendations about its future. This seems to indicate the government sees the value of MM2H and wants to continue the programme, so why give current MM2Hers such a hard time now?

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The reality is that there is very little risk they will spread Covid-19 around Malaysia because the health controls and testing at the border and compulsory quarantine will prevent that. One diplomat told me when he raised their inequitable treatment with a government Minister, he was told the government did not want foreigners taking up hospital beds intended for Malaysians.

We can understand this, but part of the marketing for MM2H programme includes telling everyone what great medical facilities exist in Malaysia and even uses the MM2H programme as evidence that foreigners have confidence in the local healthcare system and feel safe moving here.

The idea that the very government that was inviting these foreigners to relocate and settle here would then take steps to keep them out of their hospitals was of course never mentioned. More relevant is that we have not heard of any MM2Hers catching Covid-19. There may be some cases, but we have never heard of any significant numbers catching the disease, because most are very careful (as they tend to be older and at higher risk) and are not mixing with extended family and friends. It is not clear why the government continues to treat MM2Hers differently from other expats with visas, particularly since they have longer visas than most working expats and many have their permanent homes here.

We very much hope that the government will reconsider its stance and allow those MM2Hers who are still locked out to return and permit those with expired visas to come back and renew them. The continued negative stories about Malaysia and the programme are not benefitting either party, so why allow the suffering to continue?

A previous government started the MM2H programme because they were smart enough to realise it would help Malaysia in many ways. During the last year, all the good work building up the programme for the last 20 years is slowly being undone. The message now seems to be that foreigners are not really welcome here or appreciated for whatever contribution they make. Some have even told us they consider the government’s actions to be deliberately aimed at persuading them to leave.

Unsurprisingly, none of this helps foreign investment, which the government has repeatedly said they are keen to encourage and it certainly is not helping any future version of the MM2H programme. We hope a change in attitude will happen soon to prevent the continuing flow of negative stories.




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