Amid Tourism Push, Malaysia Keeps Binational Families Apart

An illustration in colour pencil and watercolour, divided into one large central image and three panels on the left and right sides. In the centre, a woman in a t-shirt and skirt bows her head and reaches out to her partner, a man in a t-shirt and slacks who is wiping tears off his face. A Malaysian flag hangs in the background, red and white stripes forming bars behind the couple. In the six panels, three on the left and three on the right, the same couple stand at a counter, speaking to different immigration officers in each panel. There are small Malaysian flags on the countertop. The first officer looks stern; the second holds up their paperwork, laughing at it; the third shakes a form at the man angrily; the fourth beckons to another officer; the fifth looks apprehensively at another set of documents; the sixth points to a counter off in the distance, directing them into another series of altercations.

After Malaysia sealed its borders in March 2020, Indonesian national Novita Andriyana began counting the days until she could reunite with her Malaysian husband William Wong. As of December 2021, they had been apart for nearly two years.

Giving birth alone in Indonesia’s Batam, just across the 16-kilometre straight from Singapore, in October 2020, Andriyana could not share the early days of parenthood with Wong, let alone register their marriage in Penang, Malaysia, where Wong is from. Instead, they tried to bridge the distance between them through nightly video calls that lasted until 3 a.m.

“He calls me almost every hour,” Andriyana, 36, tells New Naratif. “Without him here, it’s very painful. Sometimes I cry alone.”

In an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, Malaysia’s Immigration Department introduced the My Travel Pass (MTP) in October 2020 as a requirement for anyone wishing to enter or exit the country. As of September 2021, some 209,000 of 357,000 MTP applications have been approved, or about 58%, according to a department statement. Meanwhile, about 127,000 applications have been rejected, while nearly 7,000 applications were withdrawn, with some 13,000 still being processed. Defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein said applications were mainly rejected because the applicant was blacklisted, submitted incomplete or falsified documents, or uploaded documents that could not be read.

“The Immigration [Department] always changes their rules. If they don’t like you, they’ll ask you to bring more documents.”

Although Malaysians have been allowed to exit the country without the MTP since October 2021, many remain separated from their foreign spouses and partners who cannot secure a pass. Many do not know when they will be reunited with their loved ones.

Malaysians living and working overseas also face difficult decisions about when and whether to attempt to return home. As higher vaccination rates and new coronavirus variants keep movement restrictions in flux, some worry that unpredictable travel rules could prevent them from returning to their work or family commitments outside Malaysia. 

Separated from her family in Malaysia since late 2019, Greece-based Jaspreet* has yet to introduce her newborn child to her mother, sister and aunt. She fears they will miss her newborn’s early years. Even though it is easier for her to enter the country as a Malaysian, Jaspreet fears leaving behind her 11-month-old child, who holds Greek citizenship. She applied for a MTP for her son in November 2021 and is awaiting a response.

“It’s like a lottery. I don’t think this is living,” Jaspreet says. “Every day, I think about how I can go back, but the uncertainty is really affecting me.” 

Infographic: The My Travel Pass (MTP) requirement was introduced by Malaysia’s immigration department in October 2020 for anyone wishing to enter or exit the country. The requirement was lifted in October 2021 for fully vaccinated Malaysian citizens leaving the country, but it remains for non-citizens without a valid long-term pass. MTP applications (Oct 2020–Sept 2021): 357,000* Approved: 209,000 (58%) Rejected: 127,000 (36%) Withdrawn: 7,000 Pending: 13,000 *Figures are rounded. Source: Immigration Department of Malaysia
Ellena Ekarahendy and Charis Loke

A “Non-Essential Business Matter”

For many MTP applicants, the application process is long and demoralising. The official processing time, according to the Immigration Department, is seven to 14 days, but some applicants report waiting up to 50 days, and those who are rejected are not guaranteed an explanation.

“One of the reasons they often give me is that they can’t open my supporting documents,” such as a copy of her passport, Andriyana says in December 2021. In one MTP rejection letter seen by New Naratif, the Immigration Department describes her appeal to travel to Malaysia as a “non-essential business matter”. She says the same reason was given for all her applications in 2020 and most in 2021.

However, Andriyana has Indonesian friends with Malaysian partners who were granted MTPs and entered Malaysia. “Some friends submitted the same documents as me, but they can enter Malaysia,” she says. “Why [is] my luck so bad?”

After over 25 failed attempts since December 2020, Andriyana gave up on the MTP process entirely and, along with her 15-month-old baby, ended up entering Malaysia as a tourist through the Langkawi International Travel Bubble, which was launched on 15 November 2021 to revive Malaysia’s tourism sector. They were only able to reunite with Wong this month. Holding his baby for the first time, Wong burst into tears. 

Belfast-based law student Myia Nair says the lack of transparency around the MTP application process has left her confused and anxious.

“There’s so much paperwork to be done, and yet there’s not much help with what is needed,” Nair says. “Some people attach pictures of their [wedding] day or electric bills, and apparently you don’t even need that. Each time you get rejected, they either tell you, ‘You didn’t add this’ or ‘The file size was too small’ or ‘The file was too big’.” 

UK national Myia Nair with her father, who is Malaysian. Supplied
UK national Myia Nair with her father, who is Malaysian. Supplied

As a child of a British mother and Malaysian father, Nair holds UK citizenship and used to visit her Malaysian family in Kuala Lumpur every year. However, the pandemic has deterred her from seeing her partner, father and other relatives for over two years. After four or five attempts in the past year, her MTP application was finally approved. She reunited with her family in Kuala Lumpur in November 2021, but she is anxious about their impending separation once her stay permit expires this month.

For couples who were not married in Malaysia, reuniting can be even more challenging, especially for same-sex couples, as MTP applications require the applicant to prove the validity of their relationship. 

Paula*, an US national separated from her Malaysian partner, says it is almost impossible for her to enter Malaysia, as her relationship with another woman is not recognised in the country. “We could never get married in Malaysia, and now the pandemic prevents us from even seeing each other,” Paula says. 

After more than 20 rejections, the latest response from the Immigration Department said Paula and her partner should “repent”.

“It’s already demoralising enough having to face the long process of applying for an MTP and being separated for this long,” she says. “And then to be rejected and outrightly told by authorities on who I should choose to be with!”

Multiple calls and emails to Malaysian immigration department officials from New Naratif this week went unanswered.

Forever Foreign in Malaysia

​​While separated binational couples continue to grapple with travel restrictions, the pandemic has also exacerbated difficulties for foreign spouses already living in Malaysia on spousal visas, officially known as the “Long-Term Social Visit Pass”, or LTSVP. On 12 April 2021, the Immigration Department announced that all holders of an expired LTSVP in the country must exit Malaysia within nine days or apply for a special pass before 30 June 2021. Those who did not leave before the deadline risked incurring fines or being detained.

Holders of an LTSVP, which may be valid for six months to five years, are not eligible to purchase affordable housing or study in Malaysian universities. Despite having the necessary qualifications, many experience difficulties in finding a job due to restrictions under the LTSVP. Only those with a visa valid for a year or longer can seek employment in Malaysia, and only with the permission of the Immigration Department

Malaysian national Rina* and her Pakistani husband Salman* have been married for nearly eight years, yet they still do not know what factors determine pass approvals and duration, leaving their fates to be decided by the Immigration Department.

Although Salman’s requests for LTSVP extensions have never been rejected, Rina says the process can slow down unexpectedly when immigration officers ask her for documents that are not listed on the Immigration Department’s website. 

“It’s not always accurate on their website. You have to go to the department to get a [list] of the supporting documents to submit,” says Rina, 33. “But the Immigration [Department] always changes their rules. If they don’t like you, they’ll ask you to bring more documents,” she says, recounting how she and her husband had to return to the office repeatedly for this reason.

On one occasion, after a day of waiting, the couple were instructed to go home and wait for a phone call from the department before applying again. 

“[Immigration officers] say things like ‘Hey, be careful, you have to respect me. You’re not from here’. That’s when I am reminded that I am a foreigner.”

Foreign spouses cannot apply for a spousal visa until six months have passed since their marriage to a Malaysian national—a time known as the “cooling off period”. This means that an applicant who got married in Malaysia normally has to leave the country for six months before re-entering to apply for their LTSVP. It may also mean a long separation from their spouse right at the start of their marriage.

“It feels like life has been on hold for the past two years,” says Selangor-based travel writer Luna*, 31, whose Filipino husband was forced to return to the Philippines in February 2020, just three months after they got married in Malaysia and right before the country shut its borders. He quit his job as a marketing manager in the Philippines hoping he would move to Malaysia soon, but remains stuck in the Philippines due to the country’s lockdown.

“Being apart for this long has been stressful for us—there’s a lot to consider, like documents for the Immigration [Department], hotel quarantines, expensive flight tickets—especially in this situation where things may get delayed or cancelled at the last minute,” she says.

The couple anticipate further problems once Luna’s husband is able to travel to Malaysia with an LTSVP. “The spousal visa has a stamp that mentions that they are not allowed to work,” she says. “It puts off a lot of potential employers who might not understand the policies that [the Immigration Department] has, and this makes it even more difficult for foreign spouses to find a job here.”

“At the end of the day, your spouse is here, their family is here, they want to come here and settle down and contribute to the economy, right?” Luna adds. “So make it easier for them. It’s a resource that you can tap into, rather than treating them as outsiders who are just visiting. They are here to stay.”

Chee Heng Leng, a researcher focusing on transnational marriage migration in Malaysia and Singapore, says these rules affect the foreign spouse’s sense of self and can make them vulnerable to exploitation and domestic abuse.

“For foreign spouses, the lack of right to employment or work—even [to] own businesses—means they have to be dependent on their spouses. This has a negative impact on the spouses’ ability to carve out an independent life and also a negative impact in terms of the spouses’ ‘bargaining power’ within the family, especially when conflicts occur,” Chee says. “Most often, the female foreign spouses are the ones to suffer most from familial conflicts.”

“There is also a social class aspect because often a person from a higher social class will be more able—as compared to a person from a lower social class—to find ways around these policies,” she adds. “For example, foreign spouses who can afford it can apply for long-stay visas such as the MM2H programme.”

These alternative routes to residence visas are not affordable for all. The Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) programme requires residing in Malaysia for a minimum of 90 days and having a minimum offshore income of 40,000 ringgit (US$9,500) a month and a fixed deposit of 1 million ringgit (US$240,000). 

​​Indonesian national Novita Andriyana with her Malaysian husband William Wong (left) and their daughter (center, right). Supplied
​​Indonesian national Novita Andriyana with her Malaysian husband William Wong (left) and their daughter (center, right). Supplied

Couples’ desperation to reunite and their desire to avoid mistreatment at immigration offices can leave them vulnerable to exploitation by unauthorised agents. Rina and Salman say they were swindled out of 8,000 ringgit (US$1,900) by an agent who took the payment and then vanished before providing any services. They ended up handling the process themselves, as they could not afford to hire another agent.

Salman, 40, says he thought that after five or six years he would be eligible to apply for a permanent residence pass in Malaysia. “But when we applied two years ago, we were questioned [by the immigration officer]: ‘Why do you want to apply so fast?’ They still believed that our marriage was fake, even after eight years of marriage,” he says. 

Rina also gets questions from officials doubting the validity of their marriage. “They’d ask me: ‘You’ve already married this man for so long, why don’t you have a child? Are you really married? You all palsu (fake), ah? What is your problem?’ I would say that I did go to check [my fertility] at the doctor—I even have receipts to prove, but they don’t care. They continue to ask me seriously about my fertility.”

Rina adds that immigration officers have conducted surprise home inspections to confirm that their marriage is genuine. These visits have been sporadic and without warning, forcing Rina to take unpaid work leave in order to return home during the checks. During one visit, after the immigration officers checked her house, they subtly requested a meal from a nearby nasi kandar stall. Rina felt compelled to oblige in order to secure her husband’s visa. 

“They didn’t even finish eating, and then expected us to pay for it. But once you say or do anything in response, your life will be difficult,” she says.

“When you’re married and have to go to immigration, it’s different. They talk rudely, and when you go home, the two of you end up fighting.”

Rina often receives unpleasant remarks from local immigration officers who suggest they find it unusual for a Malaysian Chinese Buddhist to marry a Pakistani Muslim. “They ask me things like: ‘Why did you marry him?’ I’ve already converted to Islam and have been married for many years, and still the Immigration Department is asking me these things?”

Salman believes this is because of his Pakistani passport and brown skin. “They see your skin colour. …Foreigners from countries like Australia and New Zealand—they do not give much issues. I have seen this for myself—they treat you differently based on your nationality and passport,” Salman says.

While Salman’s allegations are difficult to verify, similar discriminatory practices are enshrined in official policy. For instance, Malaysian spouses of nationals from China or African countries can only apply for and renew their visas at the Immigration Department headquarters in Putrajaya, causing unnecessary travel expenses, whereas spouses of other nationalities can apply at their local immigration offices.

Questioning immigration officers, moreover, can affect one’s chances of an approval. “The moment I answer back at them or defend myself, they immediately treat me like an animal,” Salman says. “They say things like ‘Hey, be careful, you have to respect me. You’re not from here’. That’s when I am reminded that I am a foreigner.”

On one occasion, Salman inquired with an officer about why she gave him a six-month rather than one-year visa. “She got angry, and then my six-month visa became three months. So I took my passport and went home quietly. After that, I stopped asking questions. I let [Rina] do the talking.” 

His wife says she never thought it would be so difficult to be married to a foreigner. “For us locals, we’d never gone to immigration before this. So we don’t know the problem. But when you’re married and have to go to immigration, it’s different. They talk rudely, and when you go home, the two of you end up fighting. It’s so hard. If I had to choose again, I’m not sure if I would marry a foreigner because of all these issues.”

Making Families a Priority

Stymied by Malaysia’s byzantine immigration policies and racist bureaucrats, many binational families have turned to each other for support and guidance. One online community that has garnered media attention is the Love Is Not Tourism Malaysia Facebook group. With more than 10,000 members, it is part of a global grassroots movement dedicated to reuniting couples and families who have been separated by travel bans and border closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The group’s administrators Crystal Au and Elise tell New Naratif that they co-founded the Malaysian branch in July 2020 to push for practical changes for binational couples by reaching out to local government officials, launching petitions for their cause and conducting media interviews to draw attention to the issue.

Elise, a Dutch citizen who requested her surname be withheld, has yet to reunite with her Malaysian fiancé, who works as a civil servant in Malaysia. Together with Crystal, a Malaysian separated from her partner in Denmark, they started the group “with an activist goal in mind, to raise awareness on social media. We saw what it was like in other countries and how the movement can achieve something”. Elise and Crystal were inspired by the enactment of “sweetheart visas”, or laissez-passer, which began allowing unmarried couples to travel in France and other European countries during the pandemic with proof of their relationship.

“These current restrictions are against our human rights,” says Crystal, a 3D animation student. “Our relationship is being decided by the government. They decide whether our relationship will go on or not—whether we should get married or not, or be together or not.”

The group has also evolved into an online information hub to help couples navigate changes in recent immigration rules and travel application procedures. Like many community groups on Facebook, it has served as a place to exchange information on how transnational couples can register their marriage, how to apply for entry passes and how to manoeuvre new travel bubbles. 

“For many of us, we just want to go home. We don’t want to go out at all once we get home. We just want to spend time with our family.”

Many binational couples are disappointed that courting tourism has been prioritised over reuniting families in Malaysia, which they believe contradicts the spirit of the Keluarga Malaysia (Malaysian family)—a system of ethics proposed by Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob in late 2021.

“Right now, they’re focused on building up the economy, but they forget that binational couples and families are still separated for almost two years now,” Crystal says.

For Elise, travel bubbles that prioritise tourists do not sufficiently address the problems binational couples face. “Of course, it’s still nice to meet after such a long time, but it doesn’t really solve the problem for people who want to get married and settle down in Malaysia,” she says. “Families should be prioritised, then tourists after.”

Additionally, not every separated couple can afford to see each other through the travel bubble scheme. For example, Jaspreet just wants to visit her family and not have to worry about budgeting for a hotel and baby food. “For many of us, we just want to go home. We don’t want to go out at all once we get home. We just want to spend time with our family.”

This frustration has spurred Crystal and Elise’s social media organising efforts, which have not gone unnoticed. In September 2021, Love Is Not Tourism members tagged and commented on the Twitter pages of foreign minister Saifuddin Abdullah and other ministers. This caught the attention of Muar MP Syed Saddiq, who then petitioned the government to let binational families “obtain travel passes without any hiccup”. By October, the government permitted fully vaccinated Malaysians to leave the country without an MTP “to connect separated family members and couples”, as the prime minister said at the time. 

In a private meeting on 25 October 2021, Saifuddin credited Love Is Not Tourism Malaysia’s advocacy as the reason the government reviewed the travel guidelines, Crystal says. 

“Dato’ Saifuddin actually told me during the meeting that our group actually pushed for this—so that Malaysians are now allowed to exit without an MTP,” she says. “I am so proud of the community.”

Crystal also hopes that more mental health issues can be addressed within the binational families’ community. “The long separation has caused depression, anxiety and suicidal thinking. We’ve received messages from some of our members that were pretty scary, and we understand this feeling as well. A lot of couples end up divorcing or breaking up too.”

Crystal says she aims to engage the government to come up with solutions together. 

“I don’t think it is wrong for us to ask, to bring all your concerns to the ministers themselves. One of their jobs is to take care of the citizens. So of course, they need to listen to our concerns. After realising this myself, I was not afraid to keep doing this, just keep on pushing, because I think it is important for them to know that this is not right, to be separated like that.”

Ultimately, Crystal hopes the government will start to consider all relationships equally—whether couples are married or not—and see family reunification as essential travel.

“This is our human right, we have to do this. We need to do this.”

*A pseudonym has been used due to the person’s fear of reprisals.

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