WHEN 22-year-old Chew Keat Heong returned to Malaysia from the United States early this year for a short holiday and to renew his passport, he did not know that his “vacation” would last more than three months.
The problems for Chew, who followed his parents to the US as a 13-year-old, began as soon as he arrived at the KLIA airport immigration checkpoint.
After being questioned for about three hours, he was given a letter dated Jan 9, 2003, to report to the Security Division of the Immigration Department at the Damansara Town Centre, Petaling Jaya, a month later.
As Chew had to return to the US early, he applied for his new passport on Jan 11 and, about two weeks later, he received a letter from the department stating that after reviewing his case he would not be able to get his passport between Jan 22, 2003, and Jan 11, 2005.
Only after that date could he contact the department for his new passport.
As a “Green Card” holder working in the US, Chew could not remain outside the country for more than 183 days. He also needed his Malaysian passport to renew his green card.
Desperate, Chew called his parents. His mother, Madam Chang Fong Chin, obtained a government re-entry approval letter from the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and went to Malaysia to bring back her son on April 26.
Chang, whose husband runs a car body workshop in Northern Boulevard in Corona, New York, said they had previously renewed their passports at the Malaysian Consulate-General’s office in New York without any problem.
But this time Keat Heong was told he had to return to Malaysia to do it. As his passport had expired, he was given an Emergency Certificate (EC).
Many Malaysians here are worried that they, too, will have problems if they return to apply for the new Machine Read Passport (MRP).
The consulate here has stopped issuing passports. All applications are processed and then sent to the Immigration Department headquarters in Kuala Lumpur for new passports to be issued. But green card holders who have not returned to Malaysia for five years will have to return home and apply for a passport.
Chang brought up her son’s case when Malaysians living in the borough of Queens held a meeting recently with Consul-General Ahmad Shahizan Abdul Samad in Flushing on the new passport ruling and other matters including marriage, registration of births and reports of loss and replacement of official documents.
Also present were Consul Nuryante Yazid and Vice-Consul Fadzil Othman.
About 150 Malaysians, mostly from Flushing, attended the meeting organised by “Concerned Malaysians of Queens” led by Sunny Teow and Tom Tan.
In a letter to the Consul-General, they said the new ruling could cause difficulty in arranging for time off at short notice to return to Malaysia to renew their passports.
They added that while some Malaysians had done well, the vast majority were ordinary wage earners who could not afford making trips back every five years.
The turnout was large, considering that Flushing was only one small “kampung” in New York.
“There are lots of Malaysians in Chinatown, Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and in other parts of New York. If meetings were held in these areas, there will also be large turnouts,” said Teow.
The immigration ruling, requiring green card holders or permanent residents to return to Malaysia at least once every five years to renew their passport, came into effect in 2000 and was only implemented here some time last year.
Among the reasons for the ruling is to keep Malaysians living overseas in touch with the developments and changes taking place in the country.
Many learned about this ruling when they went to renew their passports.
While they were told there should be no problem in renewing their passports, Chew’s case makes them think otherwise. They fear they might be held back longer than expected and in the process lose their green card and jobs.
Tan said that while the ruling was good in that Malaysians should keep abreast with developments back home, there should be some flexibility in the implementation.
“The fact that they are retaining their Malaysian passports shows that they intend to return home,” he said.
“If you have family here and you are the only one working, it will be almost impossible to go back immediately. You need time to plan a trip.
“Besides, taking leave would mean no salary. Worse, you may no longer have a job when you come back because of the poor state of the economy.”
A Chinese newspaper caused some panic when it reported that Malaysians had until June 1 to renew their passports. People began making preparations to go home, fearing they would not be allowed to enter Malaysia again.
“Some are working here to support their families back home. They have sacrificed in order to ensure a better life for their families,” said Tan.
While the Consul-General went to great lengths to explain the new ruling and showed understanding for their plight, many questions were left unanswered.
There appears to be little, if any, contact between Malaysians living in the US and the consulate although Shahizan has tried to bring Malaysians in the tri-state area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut closer together.
The problem is that Malaysians are spread out all over the US and only come to the consulate or embassy for passport renewal, registration of marriages and birth, or to report loss of documents. It is during these visits that they learn of any changes in regulations.
But they can also be faulted for not registering with Malaysian missions or consulates, as required by law and stated clearly on the passport, and not getting involved in activities planned by the consulate.
There appears to be lack of communication and regular dissemination of information on changes and developments between the authorities and Malaysians in the US.
The meeting in Flushing is a case in point – it was organised by a group of “Concerned Malaysians of Queens” who felt that something should be done.
Shahizan said he planned to hold more meetings to explain the main purpose of the policy and why Malaysians should return home to renew their passports.
Meanwhile, the “Concerned Malaysians of Queens” are hoping that the Consul-General will bring their plight to the authorities in KL.
Johan Fernandez is Editor, North America Bureau, based in New York (e-mail: email@example.com )