How to work and live nomadically as a Malaysian passport holder

I’ve been doing this whole work and travel thing for almost two years now and it wasn’t until April 2017 that I started doing it legally. The fact that I didn’t have the right paperwork didn’t even occur to me until a friend and I started talking about taxes and EPF and all sorts of adult things that I hadn’t thought about before.

I began where every millennial begins, by hitting up Google. I was surprised to find very very little information about digital nomading as a Malaysian. Apart from learning that I had to get a business license to operate legally, there really was nothing more. What about declaring my income for tax purposes? What sort of business license should I get? Do I also require a business bank account? How about investing my income? How do I do all this without breaking the law? What is the legal requirement pertaining such work arrangements? Bloody hell, where do I start?

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The fear never goes away

I went to bed at 4.30am last night but found my exhausted body shaken to consciousness by my anxious mind. Go to bed, my tired body says, but I can’t. My mind is like a war zone, with thoughts flying left, right and centre, like bullets coming at me, making me scared for what the future might hold. 

At one point, I almost cry because I’m terrified.
I’ve been thinking about this for the past few days, this growing fear as the date for my departure slowly arrives. There’s a little excitement, but there’s also more fear than before. And sadness. Being back home for a year has definitely got me used to quite a few things, like the comfort of my bed, my mum’s incredible soups, the certainty of a jam going into KL or Bangsar, the immaculate taste of a cold brew at Thursdvys, the silliness of new found friends and warmth of someone’s hug. In other words, familiarity and security.

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Passports

The world is connected and separated by passports.

“A passport is the most noble part of a person. Thus it will be approved if it is good, whereas a person without a good passport can be just as good but still not be approved.”

– Bertolt Brecht, German poet, playwright and theatre director

I saw this quote in Berlin, when I visited the museum opposite Checkpoint Charlie. The museum focused on the division between East and West Berlin back in 60s, how people lived back then and the many attempts by regular folk of the East to escape to the democratic West.

I remember reading it and being struck by its profound truth. It was true in World War 2, it was true a few months ago when the Syrian refugee crisis was gaining traction in the media (who continue to face the same crap today), it was true when I applied for my student visa 4 years ago and it is true now as I figure out the Swiss visa system. And that makes me incredibly sad.

Of course one can argue that I am clearly upset about how complicated the system is, but the more I learn about it, the more I realise that it is deliberately so to deter people from moving about.

I remember the day I had get to the UK visa application office in KL 4 years ago to apply for a student visa. We arrived at 7am and there was already a queue. The office opens at 8am. The number of times I had to wait without knowing when it would end (not once but three times, if you’re curious) the exorbitant fees I had to pay, the interview I had to go through to make sure that I had “no other intentions” (unless your country makes a nasi lemak like the one in Masjid Jamek, I will always want to go home), the cross examinations of my documents by a stern emotionless being, the countless finger prints, being told that I wasn’t allowed to smile in my pictures…

I’m lucky to be able to rant about this to begin with, I must admit. But it’s the inequalities that irk me so much. It’s the fact that I am made to jump through hoops like a monkey in a circus just because I was born on the other side of the earth that upsets me. It is the sad truth that my Malaysian passport could hold me back from exploring the world, a privilege that many of my first-world peers get, that gets under my skin. It is this state of the world that seems to punish people for where they were born and how they were brought up, by no choice of their own, that really pisses me off.  

Again, I say that I am incredibly lucky. It is something I need to constantly remind myself about.

While travelling, I experienced many first-hand encounters with refugees fleeing their countries. Some begging, some sleeping next to me in a bus station as I waited for sunrise, some waiting in line to buy food from the corner shop.

In Budapest we walked into a protest when the local authorities shut the gates to the city’s main train station, delaying and possibly stopping hundreds of refugees from getting into Germany.

Above ground, right outside the main entrance, I saw young men excited, old men tired. Under ground, where the tubes connected to the station, mothers tried to keep an eye on their children as they talked to other women.

I had never seen so many people looking so out of place with absolutely no where to go.

At the ticketing offices, men pleaded with those issuing train tickets to take their money, to let them onto the trains, to let them be on their way. They promised no trouble. Those who were turned away the first time because they had insufficient cash returned with more, hoping that this time, they might be given a ticket.

Who are you to deny a person their right to safety and a better life?

There were security guards, policemen and soldiers with guns. The sun was hot and there was a lot of people. None of whom spoke my language, nor I theirs. It was chaotic and loud. I wish I could explain to you how I felt in that moment, feeling so scared because of the tension in the air (I mean, guns were in sight!), because the media had taught me to fear men with long beards; and feeling excited because I had no idea what was happening and I revelled in the energy of the crowd.

That day, I learned the importance of my passport and the colour of my skin. We asked strangers in the crowd if it was possible to get into the station and were directed to a side entrance where we approached a tall soldier who also wielded a gun. As he saw us, he lowered his weapon.

“Where are you from? Passport please.”

We handed over our precious little red logbooks, adding that we are Malaysian and were heading to Bratislava.

“OK. This way in. Have a good journey.”

For the last time, I need to remind myself that I am lucky. Much luckier than a lot of people. So for now, I need to put on my big girl pants, get over myself and get on with this visa application.

PS. I wanted to work this podcast by Freakonomics into the article but couldn’t so I decided to add it below. It gives a logical perspective on the possibilities of open borders. It is incredibly interesting and totally worth your time.

Click here to listen to Freakonomics’ “Is migration a basic human right?”