Immigration Scare 2021: Are We Done, Malaysia?

As you might know, Jonas and I have been in Malaysia for nearly a year. But we aren’t expats, nay, we’re ‘Tourists stranded in Malaysia‘ (TSIMY). The Malaysian government basically granted us amnesty to stay in the country during the COVID-19 crisis. They call the special rules ‘the MCO’, which have an end date that has been extended by weeks or months every time the deadline approaches. This is stuff I’ve detailed in my pandemic diaries. Every time they extend the MCO rules for the pandemic, we might hear the news that we have to leave. Thus far, the government’s communication had been quite good. But we just had a pretty big immigration scare on the 31st of December 2020 that gave us a headache and lasting anxiety.

So, what happened?

Waiting for news

The old MCO would end on the 31st of December 2020 at midnight. If it would end, businesses and life could technically return to the ways before the MCO; no more temperature checks, no more social distancing, no more masks. But Malaysia’s COVID-19 cases have been on the rise since September 20th and there’s no way the rules could or should end. The Malaysian government announced that it would have the PM speak on TV at 21:00 on the 31st. Okay, that’s a little late; usually, he announces the extension a few days before the deadline. We followed the news, but he made no mention of an MCO extension. Strange. But it’s impossible to scale down measures now. We’re confident they’d extend the MCO by another two-to-four months. Perhaps they just didn’t want to say frustrating things on new year’s eve?

So we continued our business without worries.

On the 31st of December around 22:00, we were watching the HBO special documentary about the final season of Game of Thrones, when Jonas received a notification from the TSIMY Facebook group. The New Zealand embassy had just announced that all foreigners on an expired tourist visa should leave Malaysia by the 31st of January 2021. Sad, but technically not a problem. But then it also said that we’d need to get a special departure permit from an immigration office. We went to the immigration office website to book an appointment, but the only free slots were for February 15th, after the Chinese new year, and way too late for a January 31st departure.

Panic. Pure fucking panic.

Midnight strikes, it’s 2021… yay. Even before the fireworks start, I have an enormous headache—something I haven’t experienced in months.


The implication of this new policy is that you can’t leave Malaysia without a permit you can’t possibly obtain. If that sounds terrifying, I can tell you: trust me, it is terrifying.

Would immigration really do that?

But without stories from people trying to leave, this was just our interpretation of the new rules. Perhaps the implementation would be different?

While we experienced non-stop heavy rain for the first two-and-a-half days of 2021, we saw posts by people who had booked their departure flights for the 1st and 2nd of January. One by one, their stories entered the group that they were refused to board their flights. No way they got their money back, but I guess money isn’t the main issue. Another couple managed to get an appointment at an immigration station, where they were promptly told they’d overstayed their visas for a long time and needed to pay a RM 2000 fine before they’d get their permission to leave—which they refused. Jonas and I gave each other many motionless and wordless stares. We booked the appointment at immigration for the 15th of February anyway, just so that we had proof that we tried. But we weren’t in a hurry to book a flight, yet.

“They fucked up. No way this is what’s intended.” I said to Jonas.

Then the news came on the 3rd of January that a couple had argued with immigration until they were allowed to board their flight. Another person who should have boarded that same flight commented that they weren’t let on.

Yes, someone fucked up. Immigration wasn’t like this:

 

But more like this:

 

But still, there’s no way I could talk myself onto my flight. I have a notorious record of communicating effectively with immigration. Perhaps Jonas would get us aboard a flight if I keep my mouth zipped. He can do the white man persuasion thing if it is called for.

The next few days, the Malaysian government said that the MCO had been extended in Malaysia till the 31st of March—a mere three months. We had a slight feeling that the fate of TSIMY people might still change, but no proof beyond the opinion of our guts.

Backpedaling

Finally, on the third of January in the afternoon, the embassy of Romania came with a statement that none of it was true; TSIMY people like us could also stay until the 31st of March, plus a two-week grace period. And to leave Malaysia before the 31st of March, nobody needs permission from immigration to leave. Other embassies soon confirmed the good news and the first travelers left Malaysia without impossible permit.

romanian embassy notice immigration Malaysia spain announcement MCO imigration Malaysia

Order has been restored in the universe.

hi brian ukraine embassy notice

And yet, I can’t rid myself of the headache I’ve had since the 31st December 2020 at 22:00. Something has been irreversibly damaged. I still have that anxiety about not being welcome but also not being able to leave. The quality of communication has decreased a lot over the last 10 months. Although I know the Malaysian government has had other – much more important – things on its mind regarding the pandemic…

malaysia kini 15 jan covid cases

Source: MalaysiaKini

…I’m still emotionally stuck on the idea that people have been refused their departure

A silver lining?

This whole thing did kick us awake, hard. We decided to leave Malaysia before the 31st of March regardless of any further MCO extensions. I just don’t want to go through another “🥺👉👈 will you allow us to stay, pretty please?” again. You know…

 

Perhaps we’d grown too comfortable in our nice-ass apartment in JB. Over a Skype call, my sister had said that it sounded like we’d nested in this Malaysian city. I’m not gonna lie, it does appear that way. I mean, look at all the stuff we bought for this apartment that we’re absolutely not going to take with us:

Johor Bahru nested all the shit we bought

It kind of just started with the two glass cups, since the apartment only had mugs and I like to see my wine from the side. Then the wok, the table-tennis set, some sauce plates, a good morning towel 96… I swear it felt as if we’d bought a lot more stuff, but I guess that’s it. At our peak, we had a bag of 100 vegetarian dumplings in our freezer and the absolute confidence we’d eat them all.

Beyond the stuff we’ll leave behind, we also bought some objects that will travel with us. Jonas bought a virtual reality (VR) headset and glasses. The VR set means this is the end of Jonas’ era of traveling with hand luggage only on the few flights we take. I bought new clothes after ripping some during horseriding.

All of this nesting was caused by a desire to move some projects forward. It has undeniably resulted in us not pursuing more domestic travel in Malaysia. But we’d made the rough plan to go travel starting in January. The government had explicitly stated that they encouraged domestic tourism. Now that we knew we could stay until the 31st of March, we defined our travel plans better by spreadsheet. We would leave JB to Kluang by train, then travel to Mersing, Kuantan, Kuala Terengganu, Kuantan again, Genting Highlands, and finally the capital city of Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur. To not travel too fast, we allotted a minimum of seven days for each place with the possibility to extend.

We’d spend the next three weeks finishing projects and eating our fridge empty. On the 24th of January, we’d venture out into the unknown.

malaysia travel plan 2021 january

More plot twists

But… the cases in Malaysia continued to rise rapidly. Johor became one of the worst states, exacerbated by the heavy monsoon rains that had flooded many parts of the state and the country. Nine people died, people’s homes were destroyed and they had to move into temporary shelters… during a pandemic. Not that we had anything to complain about, but even our condo (finished in 2016) received some damage which made the table tennis court unavailable for a few days.

We were about to book our accommodation in Kluang when the government announced an announcement for Monday the 11th of January. We were on the way back from horseriding when the news broke: there will be another lockdown in parts of Malaysia. Johor State? On the naughty list. Start of the lockdown: Tuesday the 12th of January at midnight. Preliminary end date for the lockdown: Tuesday the 26th of January at midnight.

Big oof.

We’d undergone the long lockdown in Penang. Now we’re doing it in JB. The rules: no interstate travel, heck, no interdistrict travel! No travel outside a 10km radius. Take-away and delivery food only. That means we wouldn’t travel to Kluang on the 24th. And let’s face it, a two-week quarantine will probably not break the exponential spine of the graph. We’re probably talking about another two weeks after that, and another two.

During our Grab ride back, we decided to make the most of our 30 hours of not-yet-lockdown—in a responsible fashion. We rerouted to a restaurant we still wanted to dine in at. The next day, we picked up a banana cake from Hiap Joo and ate the saucy noodles at Toast & Coffee. In the evening, we dined-in at an abandoned Deja Vu Coffee House and smoked a coconut-melon-lychee shisha at Chimney Hookah Cafe.

On the first day of lockdown, we tried to support our local businesses such as Life Ricette and Hock Kee Kopitiam by picking up food and coffee. In the afternoon, Jonas decided to check whether the pool, gym, and table-tennis court were also closed; our condo had been quite generous with keeping things open. So instead, Jonas downloaded Eleven Table Tennis for VR—which is good, but not the same. We also still tried to reduce our fridge food.

But all of these small remaining pleasures wouldn’t kill the feeling that there was nothing left for us in Malaysia. We don’t need to stay here. Hindsight is a powerful thing: the best time to leave Malaysia was within the tight window between the 3rd and 12th of January, 2021.

That window has closed.

Leaving?

Leaving Malaysia – despite the reduced immigration hurdles – is still not easy peasy. From our basic research it requires the following:

  • An interdistrict travel permit from a local police station
  • A printed negative PCR corona test, though copyshops are likely non-essential. The test usually needs to be taken less than 72 hours before boarding the flight
  • A confirmed flight ticket in order to obtain the two mentioned before
  • Trains seem to be decimated, so a bus or flight from JB to KLIA airport. Preferably a bus, though that will take at least 5 hours of travel
  • Perhaps we’ll need another permit once at the international airport south of Kuala Lumpur

All of this on top of the preparations our destination requires from us. That can be anything from downloading a corona app to booking specific accommodation, an extra test on arrival, two weeks of quarantine, or being refused entry. It’s overwhelming. I’m so happy we’re a team of two.

We’re closely following the successes and failures of other TSIMY people in the group. Now that there is another lockdown, we’re not the only ones contemplating an escape from Asia. And where we can travel to changes on a daily basis. As of the time of writing, everything in Asia is still off-limits without dropping at least €5000 per person on just getting in. So we’re turning our eyes westward, where EU countries are a little more likely to allow us in and where we can legally stay in perpetuity. No headache, I hope.

Leaving Malaysia is still a giant gamble with perhaps yet another immigration scare. There’s a good chance we won’t leave at all and just stick it out here. One. More. Lockdown. But I’m unsure if I can do it again.

Addendum

Don’t get me wrong. I still love Malaysia. I love Malaysia’s food, its scenery, its hospitality despite this crisis. Though I haven’t come in a whispering distance to another human being besides Jonas in months, I also love Malaysians. Granted, Malaysia’s alcohol tax is very high, but I think it’s also what protected us against our better judgment during these lockdowns. I love how seriously people have taken this pandemic and how rapidly people adopt and embrace (new) technologies. I love how diverse it is. How Malaysia keeps surprising me.

After nearly a year here, I’ve not yet reached the disenchantment phase. But I can’t act on it for now. Sabah, Sarawak and Labuan, Pahang and Terengganu, Perlis and Klang Valley still have my curiosity and attention. Mount Kinabalu looms in the back of my mind. I’ve looked across the causeway to Singapore and turned around for more Johor. I’m not done; I’m just tired and need a break. And I’m well-aware that this break might last for years.

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