On the way for a waiver

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 11 Dec 2016

Efforts are still on track to enable Malaysians to travel to the United States without a visa. When this happens, our passport will allow visa-free travel to 155 countries, further boosting its record as one of the most powerful passports in the world.

GOING to the Land of the Free, visa-free, may soon be within our reach.

And yes, some may have their doubts about this, especially after Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential elections.

But our Immigration Department is still working to pave the way for Malaysians to travel to the United States without the need for a visa.

Offering an update on the effort, the department’s public relations office says that there are a few requirements that the Malaysian Government still needs to comply with.

“We estimate it will be 2018 when Malaysians can travel to the US without a visa,” the office tells Sunday Star when asked about the move.

Last month, following Trump’s win, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi had reportedly said he believed that US foreign policies would not change that much.

“I am confident that Malaysia’s efforts in the US Visa Waiver Programme (VMP) will be successful once we have fulfilled all the requirements,” he had said.

On March 31, Dr Ahmad Zahid mentioned that the US government had tightened conditions for the programme following security concerns after several terror attacks in Europe and Turkey.

He said the US Department of Homeland Security had expressed willingness to assist Malaysia in meeting the statutory conditions.

Following the extra conditions, Malaysia’s application to join the programme would be monitored for a year.

Another requirement set by the United States was to cap the percentage of rejected visa applications to below 3%. Dr Ahmad Zahid had said the figure currently stood at 3.34%.

In an email response to Sunday Star, US Embassy spokesman Drake Weisert says the United States is working closely with Malaysia to implement the visa waiver requirements, including through law enforcement cooperation and information sharing.

“There is no timetable for the visa waiver implementation but we are working diligently to achieve it,” he says.

Asked whether President-elect Trump’s policies on immigration would have any bearing on Malaysia’s effort in the VMP, Weisert says he could not elaborate on the matter as policies are still being developed during this transitional period.

“The current administration is working with the incoming administration as fully and openly as possible to ensure a smooth and peaceful transfer of power.

“We are confident that the new US administration will see the value in maintaining a strong bilateral relationship with Malaysia and, more broadly, with South-East Asia.

“The US-Malaysia relationship is rooted in shared interests and broad people-to-people ties that have developed over many decades,” Weisert adds.

The US Embassy in Malaysia has issued over 35,000 visas between Oct 1, 2015 and Sept 30 this year.

Of this total, approximately 32,000 were temporary visitor visas, another were 3,000 student visas, and the remaining were exchange visitor visas for government-supported exchange programmes.

“We approved over 96% of Malaysian applicants seeking temporary visitor visas,” Weisert says.

The United States welcomed nearly 82,000 Malaysian visitors last year – a number that has grown more than 70% over the past 10 years.

But while Malaysians wait on the prospects of travelling to the States without a visa, they can currently travel to 154 countries visa-free.

Which explains why the Malaysian passport is ranked the fifth most powerful travel document in the world, according to the 2016 Passport Index, which compares passports from 193 United Nations member countries and six territories.

At present, Malaysia shares the fifth spot with Austria, Luxembourg and Portugal.

Topping the list is Germany, whose passport allows visa-free travel to 158 countries, followed by Sweden (157).

The third spot is shared by six countries, which allows travel to 156 countries without a visa, namely Finland, France, Switzerland, Spain, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

Singapore, Japan and the United States come in at fourth place, sharing the ranking with five other countries that allow visa-free travel to 155 nations.

On Malaysia’s strong rankings in the 2016 index, the Immigration Department’s public relations office says visa arrangements are based on mutual agreements between two countries and depend on requirements that include security concerns.

“Some countries allow visa-free travel due to political affiliations like Commonwealth nations and member countries in Asean,” the office explains, adding that the department has no plans to bar citizens from other countries from entering Malaysia.

While efforts are underway to make the United States another visa-free destination, many travellers want it to happen soon.

Tour agencies are also hopeful as the move will give their business a boost.

Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents president Datuk Hamzah Rahmat says the continued progress of the Immigration Department is “good news” to him.

“The sooner the visa can be waived, the better. But even if it only happens in 2018, it wouldn’t be a problem.

“Trump’s victory in the presidential elections shouldn’t be a concern as tourism is still a key economic contributor for many countries in the world.

“We have confidence in the Malaysian Government’s efforts in joining the VMP,” he says.

Hamzah says tour agencies are not allowed to apply for the US visa on behalf of their customers; travellers have to apply to the US embassy in person to secure their visas.

“So far, that is how it is and all of us make sure that we follow the procedures. But with the waiver, it will be a lot easier for our customers and tourists in general,” he says.

A mother of two, who wishes to be known only as Rohani, says her family plans to visit her youngest son – who works as a tutor in New York – next year.

“Some people are worried that travel restrictions will be imposed because Trump will soon become the president.

“But I know that there are others who are going ahead with their plans. If limitations are imposed, then what can we do? It is beyond our control,” says Rohani, 53.

Applying for a visa “is not a big deal,” she says, adding that it would just require more planning on her part.

“There are other more important factors, such as inflation and our ringgit’s weak performance against the US dollar. Being charged for the visa does not deter people from going to the United States,” adds Rohani.

Washington-bound university exchange student Naomi Ng, 23, says it was fairly easy to obtain her student visa for her stint next year. And she plans to tour the United States some day.

“The visa waiver would be convenient when I do so in future. My sister is also going to the US for a conference and will visit me when I am there.

“If there’s a visa waiver, it would save her about RM700,” says the economics student.

Among Trump’s plans, as stated on his website, is to “suspend the issuance of visas to any place where adequate screening cannot occur, until proven and effective vetting mechanisms can be put into place”.

He also plans to ensure a biometric entry-exit visa tracking system is fully implemented at all land, air and sea ports.

However, perhaps most people would remember one of his most controversial proposals – to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States.

But the businessman-turned-politician seemed to have softened his stance in June, when his policy director reportedly said that the best way was “to suspend temporarily immigration from regions that have been a major source for terrorists and their supporters coming to the United States”.

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