Passports, visas and immigrations

Passports and visas

Contrary to popular opinion, I do not spend a lot of time at airports. I weave in and out of them with as little fuss as possible. I have no respect for airline instructions to show up three hours before a flight (crazy), unless it is absolutely necessary because of security reasons. I always show up 15 minutes before they close the checking in.

These days, I am armed with a biometric card that enables me to pass through immigration in Singapore electronically. I have the Hong Kong Frequent Traveler card, which is marginally better for cutting the queue at Chek Lap Kok. In Malaysia, my Malaysian passport is already encoded with the biomatric chip (Malaysia was one of the first countries to have biometric passports and a very successful one, I might add. But the US government rather work with Singapore, which is an ally, to provide visa free access under its own electronic passport programme.)

But the most powerful card I have is the APEC Business Traveler’s Card. What a great invention! As a citizen of a member of an APEC country, I applied for and got this card which provides me with visa free entry into about 16 countries along the Pacific shoreline, from Japan to Australia to Peru and Chile. Not only that, I get to use the fastest lane in any airport in any of these countries, usually the ones reserved for diplomats. So, you know those long queues at Beijing airport or Narita? Well, I whizz pass through those. If there is no diplomats lane, I just walk nonchalantly to the very front of the queue much to the consternation of the 150 people on it, and wave the card to the immigration officer who then waves me in to cut the queue. What a life!

Now, there is a reason why the millions of other business people in the APEC region who should qualify do not have this card, but I will be an idiot if I told you this. I will keep that lane all to myself as long as I can. Alternatively, pay me.

I am not a great user of airline lounges, although as a Singapore Airlines Solitaire and Star World Alliance Gold, I pretty much can use any lounge I want in most airports. (There was once however, when I was traveling with two other guys, and although we had any number of gold airline cards between us, we could not all get into the same lounge together in Hong Kong. We struck a deal with the lady guarding one of the lounges by romancing her and she let us all get in as a “once off”. Hilarious!) It amazes me that the single most important activity in lounges is eating! Guys, there is food in the plane, why do you eat and eat again??? Coffee, I understant. Check emails, I understand. But more food, why??? Airlines are the greatest stuffers of food into the belly of their already fat premium customers.

My main purpose in making it to the airport in time to use the lounge is usually to distribute The Asian Banker Journals, especially in cities that do not receive them. I know that I don’t really need to do this because we now have staff who do all the distributions to the airport lounges, but I do, just to remember my own origins. Also I know that we are more than just a publication these days, running consultancy and research projects around the region, but I still need to remember my roots. I think all entrepreneurs should never forget the little things that make up the history of their business. If you are a famous restaurant owner, lay the tables or seat the guests from time to time. If you are a famous politician, go have coffee in the local coffee shop from time to time to remember where your constituents come from. So, you will see me either sneaking in The Asian Banker Journal on to the lounge magazine racks or just handing them over to the receptionists to tell them that these are magazines they can display. There have been times when a friend would be in that same airport a few hours later and tell me later that he or she was impressed by the fact that they had our magazines, not realising I was there just before.

Apart from that, lounges are of course good places to run into business friends. You are part of a community if you tend to travel on the same airline or are part of an airline loyalty programme (although Singapore Airline abuses this fraternity, something I will write on later).

A Malaysian passport, like a Singaporean passport, is a happy passport, unlike a Chinese or an Indian passport, which require visas for almost every country they visit and unlike an American passport, which is targeted by terrorists (I have American friends who request hotels to use an identity card number instead so that terrorists don’t know who is American in the hotel) or which comes with the tag of having to pay US taxes wherever you live in the world. Ours are also desirable passports, especially since we are multi-cultural countries. You can be a Malaysian or Singaporean of Chinese, Malay or Indian or whatever origin. So, Chinese and Indians from China or India who want to do bad things would steal a Malaysian or a Singaporean passport because they can masquerade as us. That is why some immigration officers in some countries (I have had this experience in Tokyo and Sydney) speak a few words of charming Malay, almost disarmingly even as they are going through the passport, just to test if we are genuinely from these countries. I always pass with flying colours, of course.

Sometimes, some countries can be sticky. Before I had the APEC card, I used to need a visa to enter Japan. If you read the Japanese embassy website for Malaysia, it starts by saying that Japan and Malaysia have some kind of a visa-free treaty, but then goes on to say that Malaysians are strongly urged to get visa. The truth of that is that because many Malaysians, mostly of Chinese origin, have been over-staying and working illegally in Japan, that Japan technically requires all Malaysians to have a visa to travel to Japan, while Malaysia does not require Japanese (tourists and business people of course!) to have visas to enter Malaysia. The website then provides a long list of conditions under which Malaysians can get a visa (visa free, my foot!).

For a time, the Japanese embassy in Singapore would give me multiple entry visas. Then for some reason, they started giving me only single entry visas, which irritates the hell out of me, because my passport then starts filling up quickly. So, the last time I applied to go to Japan, I asked Janet (my able assistant!) to specifically request for a multiple entry visa. They asked for my bank account (disgusting people, what does that tell you!!!!), this and that letter and so on, and still wanted to give me a single entry visa.

Then one evening, while my passport was still in the Japanese embassy, I re-read their website again, and wrote a long email to the immigration attache at 2am telling him essentially that the conditions on his website were pretty ridiculous and that if he bloody took at a look at my passport, he would realise how much trouble he was giving me, and that by the way, I fulfill a number of his conditions already. He gave me a FIVE YEAR visa, which was more than the validity of the passport. Glorious. Success. Breakthrough. Always get what you want!

Same thing in Singapore. Although I am a “Permanent Resident”, I have to renew a document called a “Re-entry Permit” (maybe taken from the US Space Discovery program every time a space ship re-enters earth!), in the past it was every five years. This document enables you to leave and return Singapore as a “Permanent Resident”, which technically means that although you are always a “Permanent Resident”, you still need permission to leave and return as one. A misnomer, but very Singaporean.

A couple of years ago, the Singapore government extended this “re-entry permit” to 10 years. So, I go to the immigration department when my time for renewal came, and the lady at the counter asks me “would you like a five year renewal or a ten year renewal?”. I said “10 years of course”. She then plays on the keyboard of her computer and something shows up on the screen. She then turns around to tell me “you have not been in Singapore for more than 120 days in the past year, so I can only give you a five year renewal.” To which I replied, “are you saying that if I was a housewife who did nothing but stayed at home, you will renew me for 10 years, and if I am working my butt out for the country and paying taxes, you will give me only five years.” Understanding the irony, she asks me, “would you like to speak to my officer.” To which I say, “yes, of course”. She then takes all my documents into the offices, disappears for a good 10 minutes and returns with my passport stamped for 10 years without having to see “the officer”.

Essentially, there is no way in the world to have a livelihood in Singapore without having business outside the country. The island has only 3.5 million people. We are all international from day one.

Although I am relating this, I am not at all suggesting cynicism. This is the most efficiently run country when it comes to immigration and many other procedural matters. Procedures like renewals take all of 10 minutes to complete. They have all your records online, the officers on the front line are trained to make categorical judgments on the spot and the whole experience is cordial and very professional. You can’t say the same for almost any other country, including ANY SINGLE ONE in the west. If anything, the opportunity to banter with an officer on an obvious irony is exactly part of the fun. A few years ago, when I lost my Malaysian passport in Beijing when it was stolen in a bag under my feet, I was given an “emergency passport” that allowed you only to travel back to Malaysia. I disobeyed the rule and bought a ticket dirctly to Singapore and showed my police report and Singaporean identity card to the immigration officer who very simply let me back into the country without a passport.


  1. Dear Sir,

    It was a great pleaure reading your post and in fact very informative. Similarly to you. Im a Malaysian and Singapore PR, with a Hong Kong Frequent Visitor Pass + APEC card, the only difference is I am based in Southern China (But I will be relocating back to SIngapore soon) and do not have any Star Alliance frequent flyer card due to the fact that the company has been trying super duper hard to save cost on travelling.. hahah,

    I will try my stunt with teh Japan visa next time.. hmm then again, I now have teh APEC card. haha

    P/s: just bookmarked your page. keep in touch & see ye.


  2. Dear Mr Goh, cheers. Well with the APEC card, you can be kind to the Japanese. Now, my passport has run out of pages, and I have to go through the whole rigmarole again. 😉

  3. That's a drag. But then again. Can't you just sound them the connection? your new passport normally has a declaration at the last page stating that you were previously travelling with Passport number XXXX. Wouldn't that work? Do share details!

    Anyway, I have yet to put my apec card to the test as no chance to go to Japan yet. Im relocating back to Singapore next month, lower pay, lower position but bigger jobscope.. that's what a man has to give up for a woman.. hahha ( recently got married! )

    Ok.. see you when I see you!

    Sim Cik

  4. All valid visas for all countries are still valid even if the passport is expired. I have a Ukranian friend whose US visa was on an old passport and her immigration department gave it back to her as a loose piece of page, and it was still accepted at US immigration. Ditto my US visa is on an old passport. What I have to test, and it will be happening within the next month or so, is whether the APEC card, which is technically a “multi-country visa on a card”, can be used in conjunction with a new passport. Whatever it is, the trick is to always look officious and like you have no time to muck around even to the immigration officer. They sort themselves around you, not the other way around. 😉

  5. Hi:
    All well said indeed!!! As Malaysians living in Singapore – we are neither here nor there. I dont know if you guys experienced this – went through japanese customs, I was hand-searched a number of times when I showed him my Malaysia passport. Are we more prone to smuggling??? I guess they must have profiled Malaysians. I'm dying to hear from the Msian authorities about visa free US. Has anybody from the govt put this into the pending US-Malaysia FTA talk? Does anybody care?


  6. Can we still renew our Malaysian Passport in Singapore if we are not SIngapore PR, let say we are student pass holder?

  7. Yes, you can. As long as you are resident in Singapore whether as a student or married to a Singaporean or whatever resident status, not just PR.

  8. Speaking about Japan, they have started getting very civiilised with me, as long as I enter the country well dressed. A couple of weeks ago, I went in over the weekend to attend a barbeque party with the family I know in Osaka, and I was dressed in jeans and a t-short, carrying just a knapsack. The immigration cleared me through just fine, using my APEC card on a new passport, but the customs official asked me if I was carrying drugs, and instead of checking my bag, he touched, in fact molested me by putting his hands around my crotch to see if I was hiding anythig between my legs. I look at him very angrily and said “excuse me!” and he smiled and let me go. Bugger!

  9. Hi, what document do I need to bring if I have to renew my Malaysia passport in Singapore? Do you know how long does it take?

  10. hi Adele, they have a long list of things they will ask you (it's actually on their website). If you are going on just one trip, then just humour them by giving them what they ask for and they wil give you a single entry or double entry visa. But if you plan to go there regularly, the most important thing you will need is a letter from a PUBLIC LISTED company in Japan, so a bank or a large technology company or whatever business you are in saying you are visiting for work and that you will be visiting regularly. Try to get the multiple entry. ALternatively, please apply for the APEC card which includes Japan straighta way. The waiting time now is shorterend to about four months, but it ends your visa applications to Australia, China, Japan. Also, onel more thing, (GREAT IMPROVEMENT) the United States now allows APEC card users to use te special diplomatic lanes! This DOES NOT mean you do not need a visa to the US – let me stress you still need to apply for a US visa separately.

  11. You said “…walk nonchalantly to the very front of the queue much to the consternation of the 150 people on it, and wave the card to the immigration officer who then waves me in to cut the queue…”

    Which airports do you get to do that?

  12. Walk in front of the queue: I have done that at Beijing and Shanghai airports, when the APEC counter was closed. In Hanoi, because I was not able to tell which was the APEC queue. Now most airports have very clear signs where the APEC card can be used, and if it is not the diplomatic lane, it is the small office on the side of the immigration counters, so I have not had to stand in front of 150 people queues for a while. I am writing this in the US, and I am happy to say that the APEC card is now recognised here – except that in the US they make you use the same queue as for “Flight Crew” which is not necessarily always devoid of people. If I walk in front of the queue in the US, I have to speak loudly and wave my APEC card as if I absolutely know what I am talking about, because they have no concept of subtlety here. They sort themselves out after that.

  13. i am at airport with some policemens around me because my son has torn out the mid. page of my passport but i didnt knew it, now they have kept me under custody and i dont know what to do plz help me ed as fast as possible olz ed fast…………

  14. Hi,
    May i know where you apply the APEC card? (In Malaysia or Singapore?)
    As a Malaysian, can we apply APEC card in Malaysia High Comm?


  15. All APEC cards can only be applied directly back to your own countries, and not even from the embassy of the country in another country. The websites of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (or equlivalent) of all participating countries would have a section on how to apply for an APEC card. Having said that, all applications are then sent on to the secretariat in Australia for the processing of the different participating countries visa requirements. It is this part that takes easily between 3-6 months.

  16. As fo a person caught with pages torn from his passport, it depends on whether you were caught in your home country or in a foreign country, leaving or arriving. Home country, all they want to know is whether you traveled to a banned country (usually Israel), or if you were banned or wanted in any other country. Checking this out on Interpol takes a few hours, so you might just as well enjoy the capitivity. But even after checking you out on Interpol, your country's immigration authority will seize your passport and to get a new one, you will have to provide sworn statement and things like that – they will let you know. If you are trying to enter a country, they would have just thrown you out to go back to your home country because a torn passport is an invalid passport. If you are already in the country, then they would want to know if you are an over-stayer or criminal. All very difficult, but a learning experience.

  17. Hi what if there a small torn on the passport (the first page where the name and no appears) and aslo on my US Visa.. its like 1.5 cm long.. can it still be accepted?


  18. Hi ED, i am SPR too, i went through Malaysia immigration website and it show me, we need to go KL and collect the APEC card. do you know, could they send to the immigration office in Johor Baru?

  19. For any APEC member country, including Malaysia, the part of the immigration department that handles the APEC Card or the ABTC as it is called, is usually just one small sub-department in the main office. For this reason, the service is not usually available in branches of immigration departments or in embassies. This small sub-department talks directly to the secretariat in Australia that does the actual processing by sending a computer message to 12-16 countries and waiting for replies (which can take between 1 day and 6 months – which is what happened when the computer system in Brunei broke down once).

    For Malaysian passport holders, there is a very nice Malaysian-Chinese lady (I forget her name now) who handles this in the Putrajaya headquarters of the Immigration department. I have never met her – they accept passports and applications sent via a handler. She needs to see the actual passport, but will return it straight away while the application is being processed. She also corresponds by email to keep you informed of the status of the processing and so on. All very pleasant by Malaysian standards.

    Incidentally, US and China passport-
    holding citizens are not allowed to apply for the APEC card although they are APEC member countries. But the US is a limited participant in the programme for inbound visitors in that at US airports today, you can clear immigration through a special channel that is usually shared with the airline crew channel (very humiliating but it works). Look out for the ABTC logo. The US does not provide visa-free clearance at all through the ABTC programme, so if you are hoping to travel to the US visa-free, forget it.

  20. Japanese customs officials do a lot of racial/country profiling. They will waive off checks to Europeans and American passport holders but check like crazy when you have Asian pp. Basically Japan does not think to be part of asia.

  21. Hi Ed,

    I really wanted to apply the APEC card as its really help you to cut the queues ! I am a frequent traveller to Japan and I have obtained a 1 year multi entry visa via Japanese Embassy in Singapore as I am a SPR myself.

    I have few questions to you:

    a) I am working with a MNC in Singapore. I am eligble to apply for the APEC card? I read the conditions in Malaysia immigration website which they only process for people in the public sectors or with some business asscociiation.

    b) I am a graduate from a Japan college, stayed there for 4 years and been travelling to Japan frequently and trust me, I have not gotten any 5 years multi entry visa before in my life ! How did you do it? Can you advise me because my passport is full of Japanese visas.

    Looking forward to your reply.

    Thank you.


  22. Hello! I just wanna ask if you have this APEC card, will your passport still be stamped at the immigration? I am very, very curious. Hoping for your reply.

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