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.