Photo: Daniel bin Abdullah McLean and Sophia Khan are trying any which way to reunite in Malaysia, a challenge they're facing during the COVID-19 movement control order (MCO) period. Photo supplied by Daniel bin Abdullah McLean and Sophia Khan.

Islamic Lifestyle

Love can’t keep them together: Malaysia’s COVID-19 lockdown shutting out foreign spouses


KUALA LUMPUR - Midway through their return to Kuala Lumpur from the United Kingdom after a late honeymoon last month, Daniel bin Abdullah McLean and his pregnant Malaysian bride, Sophia Khan, learned that only one of them would make it home.

Their return coincided with the Malaysian government imposing movement restrictions, on March 18, known as the movement control order (MCO). The MCO was first extended from Mar 31 to April 14 but on Apr 10 it was further stretched to the 28th of this month.

Under rules that had been announced earlier, only Malaysian citizens, permanent residents, expats working in essential industries and the foreign spouses of Malaysians would be allowed to enter the country.

The couple knew this would be the case as they boarded their flight, though by then they did not know the detail.

“It was really bad timing, really. We knew these restrictions were coming but we hadn’t got any clarity,” McLean told Salaam Gateway.

“There were some others on the flight in the same boat. Our flight was delayed so we had time to call embassies and contacts who might help, but it was only when I was stopped at the gate that we knew for sure that I wouldn’t be allowed into Malaysia.”

The problem McLean faced was that he had not been married long enough. Under Malaysian rules, a foreigner must wait for six months before starting the process of applying for a long-term social visit pass, known widely as a “spousal visa”.

Having tied the knot with Sophia only in October, he was about to enter Malaysia on his employment visa, which as a non-essential worker isn’t enough to get him into the country during the COVID-19 restricted period.

McLean is not alone.

Under government rules swiftly imposed with the MCO, “the spouse and children of a Malaysian resident are allowed to enter Malaysia on condition that they have a long-term social visit pass and are required to undergo 14 days of self-quarantine.”

Other foreigners, including those on temporary work visas, student visas, employment passes and long-term social visit passes are “allowed to leave Malaysia and will not be allowed to return during the period” of the MCO.

Foreign spouses of Malaysians… are allowed to return to Malaysia but they need to present both their marriage certificate and spouse visa,” according to Immigration Department director-general.

Many spouses and family members have taken to Facebook groups and bulletin boards to ask for advice about how to bring their loved ones home.

STUCK IN IRAQ

John Crabtree travels to Malaysia on a tourist visa, in between stints at the oilfield in Iraq where he works, to be with his Malaysian wife and two children in Penang.

“His employer had stopped operations and told the workers to go home, but he cannot get home. He’s from England but we don’t live there,” Melissa Crabtree told Salaam Gateway.

“Now he is stuck in Iraq and I am here with the girls and we don’t know when we will see him again.”

Melissa has been dealing with officials to find a way to bring her husband home but it appears a system that only recognises spousal visas, and not any other official marriage paperwork alone, will not help him.

Each enquiry she made appeared to get a different response from the Ministry of Health, ranging from there being no hope to offering just a glimmer. But nearly a month after Malaysia closed its doors to foreigners, her husband is still in Iraq.

“It’s very frustrating but there isn’t much you can do about it. It’s just the way the system works. They have not just been trained or properly briefed on what’s happening.”

CAN’T GET HOME TO PAKISTAN

Waqar Hassan is in the opposite situation. The Pakistani entrepreneur, whose IT business has an office in Kuala Lumpur, had intended to see his family in Lahore before the MCO was imposed but his flights were cancelled.

Now he cannot leave Malaysia because he cannot return on his social visit visa until after the MCO ends.

“It would be inconvenient to leave and not to return to Malaysia because I have set up a business here and spent a lot of money during the immigration process. I have paid taxes for two years, and if there are problems in returning back, all this investment would be wasted.

“Im waiting for the lockdown to end and the flights to start so I can at least visit Pakistan and see my family members and friends, and return when everything is better.”

NOT EVEN IF IT’S YOUR SECOND HOME

With parents in Iran who are members of the My Malaysia Second Home (MM2H) scheme, KL-based start-up consultant Shahab Yarmohammadi has been looking for ways they can come back to the country.

MM2H is a long-running government scheme that entitles expats and retirees to a 10-year visa if they fulfil certain financial requirements. Unfortunately for Yarmohammadi’s family, their MM2H visa is not sufficient to grant automatic entry into Malaysia at this time.

According to the MM2H Programme Agents Association, nearly 22,000 people were accepted for the visa between 2002 and 2018.

“My parents are semi-retired but they have investments here and interests. Even if they found the means of transportation to Malaysia, I don’t think that Immigration would allow them to enter.”

For the Yarmohammadi family, a lack of clear information from government agencies about schemes like MM2H has added to the confusion.

According to two agents canvassed by Salaam Gateway, it is possible for MM2H visa-holders to return to Malaysia as long as they fill out a form to verify their address there. Though the process is “quite straightforward”, it can only be done in a third country, however.

FINDING ANY WHICH WAY

Now, almost a month after seeing off his bride at Doha airport, McLean is staying in his native Manchester and still no closer to finding a way back.

"Hopefully Malaysian immigration lifts their restrictions alongside the MCO,” said his wife, Sophia.

“We are trying to see if there is any way he can be granted entry back into the country, especially since Im due in August and we really have no clue how long the ban on foreign entry will last.”

(Reporting by Richard Whitehead; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim [email protected])

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Richard Whitehead