Foreign students learning the hard way


Increasingly restrictive policies related to the issuance of student visas have transformed Malaysia from a rising education hub to a foreign student’s worst nightmare.

“I would have never thought that the police could detain me for such a thing,” says Dinesh, a 30-year-old international student who came to Malaysia to pursue his PhD and whose name has been changed for fear of retaliation. Dinesh, an Indian national, spent two days at one of KL’s alien detention centres, locked in a cell with a group of hardened illegal migrants.

“Someone at the university forgot to send my visa renewal papers to the immigration office on time. I decided to go there and enquire directly, but the officers detained me on the spot for overstaying my student visa,” he explains, a look of horror etched on his face.

Dinesh’s case is just one example of how the Malaysian student visa acquisition process has, over the past 18 months, mutated into an unprecedented bureaucratic gridlock.

It all began in 2005 when, in a bid to become a regional education hub, the Ministry of Education began to promote Malaysian higher learning in foreign countries and bestow generous scholarships on new foreign arrivals. It was successful in its aim to mobilise a sizeable foreign student population. “Malaysia presently hosts more than 120,000 students from some 160 countries,” says Mohd Yazid Abdul Hamid, CEO of KL-based Education Malaysia Global Services (EMGS).

Established in April 2012, EMGS is a governmental agency that processes new student visa applications and renewals on behalf of universities. Unfortunately for the students involved, the introduction of the agency turned a quick formality into a lengthy, convoluted process.

At the root of the problem seems to be miscommunication between administrative bodies. “In 2014, EMGS records show that the average time for student visa renewal is six days – an improvement compared to the 11-day average of 2013,” says Mohd Yazid. “If all required documents are in place and are submitted at least six weeks before expiry of the previous student visas, there is no processing delay on our side.”

He also adds that in a move to increase efficiency and show transparency, students can now check the status of their application online. On top of that, the EMGS operations centre in KL also opened an onsite immigration office in February last year.

But regardless of EMGS’s recent track record, international students continue to report that the visa renewal process is tedious. “After all the arrangements on my side, last year I had to postpone my own wedding day because my passport was not returned on time,” says a Kashmiri Indian student, who also asked to remain anonymous.

Upon collecting a student’s passport, Malaysian universities will not provide them a precise return date. Students are instead given visa-processing forms that are meant to function as temporary identification documents. Unfortunately, these papers are rarely recognised by the police, who know all too well that international students are breaking the law by not carrying their passports with them at all times. “I have got to the point where I’m afraid to leave campus to go to the city centre on weekends,” says Nadeer, an engineering student from Yemen. “It’s not at all uncommon for the police to use the temporary papers as an excuse to extort bribes from students. They threaten to deport us if we don’t pay on the spot.”

It’s no surprise then that international students who live on meagre scholarship allowances prefer to avoid the authorities and hole themselves up on campus or in their homes; those who don’t receive their passports back before the dreaded visa expiry date, like Dinesh, are likely to be punished.

Mohd Yazid says that last July, his company began issuing international student identity cards with the aim of quashing this problem. “The document is recognised by all law enforcement agencies in Malaysia. Students no longer need to carry their passports around, thus reducing the risk of misplacing or losing them,” he says. However, none of the students interviewed have received these IDs, which are given only to those who were issued their visas from October 2014.

The authorities do not discriminate based on where an international student is from, either. “Renewing my student visa has become way more expensive,” says Lindsay, a South-East Asian studies honours student from Australia who came to Malaysia to better immerse herself in her chosen field of study. In fact, the international student visa process that until 2013 cost about RM100 has now increased tenfold to RM1,000. The renewal process also mandates a compulsory yearly medical screening, which includes testing for cannabis use and HIV. “That would be a violation of human rights back in Australia,” Lindsay says.

Ong Kian Ming, an MP for Serdang, denounced this fee increase in a media statement released last August 1. In it, he said that EMGS enforced a list of approved clinics where international students were required to undergo a mandatory medical check-up (RM250). He also said that EMGS monopolised the sale of the mandatory student insurance policy (RM500 or RM800 based on premiums) to affiliated company Axa-Affin, thus wiping out all competition.

Considering the number of foreign students in Malaysia, these are lucrative stipulations on the agency’s part and, in setting them out, EMGS has violated several sections of the Competition Act from 2010. “EMGS has promised a turnaround time of 14 days to process a visa, but delays of up to six months are not uncommon. If we are to take the Government Transformation Programme seriously, rather than passing responsibilities to an agency that charges much higher but delivers a lower quality of service, the efficiency of the Immigration Department should be increased,” says Ong. “In fact, if new passports are issued to locals in a mere few hours, why not do the same for foreign students’ visas?”

Mohd Yazid on the other hand claims, “The charges imposed are not a deterrent to genuine applicants, and are justified by the operational enhancements EMGS has put in place and is planning for the upcoming future.” He also adds that EMGS is now in a better position to weed out irregular applications, track misuse or abuse of the student visa and protect the broader, genuine population of students.

On the flipside of this “genuine population of students” are those who have been grabbing headlines and generating widespread criticism of the system in recent years. For example, in October 2013, The Star reported that three young Nigerians, arrested two years earlier in KL for drug trafficking, were ultimately sentenced to death for drug crimes. And in February 2014, the same newspaper reported the busting of a drug-smuggling syndicate run by an Iranian former PhD student with the help of six other Iranians and four Malaysians. All the foreign men came to Malaysia as students.

In fact, due to the long-term student visas awarded to them, a number of Sub- Saharan and Middle Eastern citizens have used the “student” guise to establish prostitution rings and take control of the trade in syabu – a popular type of locally produced methamphetamine – in KL and the greater Klang Valley.

Of course, many former students stay on in the country and end up working in Malaysian universities. “When I started my PhD in 2006, I received my passport and student visa in a little over a week,” says an Iranian professor, who also requested anonymity. “But things today have changed a lot. One of my students from Sri Lanka waited nearly five months to get his visa,” he adds.

Local students, meanwhile, are largely unaware of the distress many of their classmates endure. “Do international students really have to pass drug screening tests every year?” asks a shocked MBA student at a private university in the capital. “That’s awful.”

Her comment suggests how even in higher education, Malaysia seems to be developing the same biased racialised perspectives affecting other spheres of society. What remains clear, however, is that by continuing with such unequal policies, Malaysia will not be able to maintain the flow of international revenue that has made it a desirable, low cost international education hub in the first place. This unequal treatment works exactly the same way as twotier pricing systems used at tourist sites in many Asian nations, and obviously makes international students rethink their destination choice.

“Who’d come to Malaysia to study if it costs the same as better-ranking universities in the UK, Australia or the US?” was the remark of all the foreign students I interviewed. Sad to say, Malaysia most often fails to deliver the goods it promises from its flashy advertising campaigns aimed at snaring as many foreign students as possible.

Marco Ferrarese is a musician, author and travel writer. He has written about overland travel and extreme music in Asia for a variety of international publications, and blogs at His first novel, Nazi Goreng, is available at bookstores. Follow him on Twitter @monkeyrockworld.

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