The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the contested meanings of home, belonging and new hierarchies of mobility deservingness that affected the im/mobilities of Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) visa holders. There is clearly a mismatch between individuals’ and countries’ understandings of what home and belonging mean. We need to confront this mismatch and work towards a more ethical social contract that is relevant to and representative of the current age of mobility, write Sin Yee Koh, Nirmala Arath Prabhakar and Jimin Oh
Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) has been one of the most popular retirement and lifestyle migration programmes, globally (Nesheim, 2020). Running since 2002, the scheme has evolved over the years and attracted participants from around the world to Malaysia, who have utilized this pathway to fulfil various aspirations. For example, some use it for lifestyle and retirement purposes, while others use it to achieve certain goals (e.g. children’s education, business objectives, property acquisition) whilst still keeping the family unit together.
The MM2H programme has also been subject to periodic reviews by the Malaysian government and there were signs of a shift in policy with a dramatically higher than normal rejection rate of MM2H applications in the last quarter of 2019. In August 2020, the Malaysian government announced the suspension of the programme, pending an official review.
After a year-long wait, the MM2H programme was reactivated in October 2021 with new conditions, including substantially higher financial requirements (e.g. a fourfold increase in the minimum monthly offshore income from RM10,000 to RM40,000) (Zainudin, 2021). The management of the MM2H programme now falls under the portfolio of the Malaysian Ministry of Home Affairs, moving from the purview of the Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture.
Initially, these new conditions were also extended to existing MM2H visa holders who were given a year’s grace period to meet the requirements – or leave Malaysia. However, in the face of pleas and lobbying by various stakeholders, existing MM2H visa holders were eventually exempted from most of the new conditions (Malaysiakini, 2021), needing to only meet the increase in annual processing fee and the 90 day annual residency requirement.
The official reasons cited for these changes were security concerns (Rahim et al., 2021). However, no further data was provided to support these concerns until some points from the Auditor General’s 2019 report on the MM2H programme was reported in the media in late-September 2021 (New Straits Times, 2021). The government also indicated that the new conditions were aimed at attracting high net worth individuals via the MM2H – described as “high quality MM2H participants” by the Minister of Home Affairs (The Star, 2021) – thus equating wealth with merit.
MM2H and lifestyle im/mobilities in the COVID-19 era
The programme’s name and promotion – “Malaysia My Second Home ” – suggests that visa holders are welcomed to make Malaysia their second home. And indeed, some MM2H visa holders have made Malaysia their second or even only home. Despite this, the COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent international border and mobility restrictions exposed and highlighted the contested meanings of home, belonging and new hierarchies of mobility deservingness (Koh, 2022, 183-192) that affected the im/mobilities of MM2H visa holders.
With Malaysia closing its international borders commencing March 2020, a number of MM2H visa holders were left stranded outside Malaysia and their entry into Malaysia, denied. When the borders were subsequently opened, MM2H visa holders found that other categories of residents in Malaysia (including foreigners with employment passes), had priority over them in terms of receiving official approval for returning to Malaysia. Many MM2H visa holders had lived in Malaysia for decades and now saw Malaysia as their only or main home. Yet, the Malaysian government’s border restrictions and new MM2H conditions seemed to question their belonging and/or claim to Malaysia, and assume that all existing MM2H visa holders would have a place or “real” home to return to, at short notice. This assumption disregards the fact that some MM2H visa holders no longer have another “home” to return to, in their country of origin or former residence.
Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic and changes to the MM2H programme have effected some re-constructions and re-negotiations of home, belonging and hierarchies of mobility deservingness (Koh, 2022, 183-192), and also highlighted the temporal nature of such configurations, which are in flux.
What, where, and when is home?
Some of these observations are useful to consider in the context of Doreen Massey’s (1991) examination and interpretation of place, as not solely defined by its long, internalised history and/or boundaries but as a constellation of social relations that can be seen as processes and hence not static. Moreover, place as process must also be considered in the context of differential power and mobilities. Massey (1991) also referred to places as not having single identities and thus, full of internal conflicts.
Whilst Massey’s observations are in the context of globalisation, a seemingly opposite scenario – the COVID-19 pandemic, mutating viruses and the resultant uneven disruptions to global mobilities – also give rise to these contested meanings of place, home and identity, as can be seen in our study on the MM2H programme during the COVID-19 era.
Findings: Participants’ im/mobility responses
The findings of our project highlight these uncertainties about place(s), plans, mobilities and belonging, in the respondents’ narratives. We found that these uncertainties shaped and intertwined with people’s mobilities and immobilities in different ways. Broadly, we found that there were 3 distinct mobility responses to the (perceived) uncertainties relating to MM2H and to Malaysia generally: (1) Stay Put, “Wait and See” (in country or out of country); (2) Return, “Wait and See” (return “home” whether in Malaysia or elsewhere); and/or (3) Move to Greener Pastures Elsewhere (can’t afford to or don’t want to wait) (see Figure).
Interestingly, we also found that the same individual or family may have progressed through each of these 3 mobility responses as events unfolded. It is worthwhile to mention that the transitions from the first to the third mobility response took place over a relatively short duration of time – within 12-18 months. This contrasts with the 3-5 years or longer timeframe that potential lifestyle migrants typically take to plan and actualise their mobility projects during pre-pandemic times. As King et al. (2021: 1209) note in reference to international retirement migration, such moves are “not an instantaneous event, but phased over a period of semi-retirement which… may coincide with a move abroad.” The relationship between places and people therefore, is processual and continuously being constructed and negotiated, particularly in the face of the disruptions and uncertainties brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Conclusion: Thinking beyond the MM2H case
These ideas could also be further extended in a global landscape, to explore the disruptions to and (re)constructions of the concepts of place, home, belonging, in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, we have seen that beliefs and assumptions about what it means to be a resident or even a citizen of a country being strongly challenged during the pandemic, in different places and in various ways. For example, the travel ban imposed by the Australian government in April 2021, on flights from India to Australia was accorded by emergency powers to the federal health minister, via the Biosecurity Act 2015 (Biosecurity Act 2015). The travel ban was challenged by an Australian citizen who had been in India since March 2020. However, as the LSJ reports (Pillai, 2021), the case was dismissed and with the travel ban lifted, constitutional questions related to the situation were unanswered, particularly in relation to what Australian citizenship actually means.
The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a period of intense uncertainties and unknowns about the future – for individuals, societies, and countries. It is during this milestone event that the assumptions and associated practices about home and belonging to place(s) become unexpectedly challenged. What is clear is that, there is a mismatch between individuals’ and countries’ understandings of what home and belonging mean. It is in times of crisis that the mismatch became surfaced. Beyond solving the immediate and individual cases, we need to confront this mismatch and work towards a more ethical social contract that is relevant to and representative of the current age of mobility.
 In mid-December 2021, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), a bi-partisan parliamentary committee, reported that MM2H participants did not pose a national security threat (Carvalho & Rahim, 2021).
This project received support from the SEAC Undergraduate Research Fellowship and the Monash University Malaysia School of Arts and Social Sciences Internal Grant (IRG-2021-03).
AG Report: No LOGC for MM2H participants’ dependents poses risk to security. (2021, September 28). New Straits Times. https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2021/09/731639/ag-report-no-logc-mm2h-participants-dependants-poses-risk-security
Biosecurity Act 2015 (Cth). http://www.austlii.edu.au/cgi-bin/viewdb/au/legis/cth/consol_act/ba2015156/
Carvalho, M., & Rahim, R. (2021, December 16). MM2H participants not a security threat to the nation, says PAC. The Star. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2021/12/16/mm2h-participants-not-a-security-threat-to-the-nation-says-pac
Hamzah defends new MM2H rules amid royal objections. (2021, September 24). Malaysiakini. https://www.malaysiakini.com/news/592695
Hamzah: We seek high quality MM2H participants. (2021, September 15). The Star. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2021/09/15/hamzah-we-seek-high-quality-mm2h-participants
King, R., Cela, E., & Fokkema, T. (2021). New frontiers in international retirement migration. Ageing and Society, 41(6), 1205–1220. doi.org/10.1017/S0144686X21000179
Koh, S. Y. (2022). Emergent bordering tactics, logics of injustice, and the new hierarchies of mobility deservingness. In H. B. Shin, M. Mckenzie, & Oh, D. Y. (Eds.), COVID-19 in Southeast Asia: Insights for a post-pandemic world. LSE Press, 183-192.
Massey, D. (1991). A global sense of place. Marxism Today, June, 24–29.
Nesheim, C. (2020, March 11). Malaysia’s MM2H world’s largest investor visa in 2019 following record year. Investor Migration Insider. https://www.imidaily.com/asia-pacific/malaysias-mm2h-worlds-largest-investor-visa-in-2019-following-record-year/
Pillai, S. (2021, May 28). Australian citizenship: Lessons from the India travel ban. LSJ. https://lsj.com.au/articles/australian-citizenship-lessons-from-the-india-travel-ban/
Rahim, R., Tan, T., Carvalho, M., & Zainal, F. (2021, September 14). Revision of MM2H criteria also gives improved security, says Home Minister. The Star. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2021/09/14/revision-of-mm2h-criteria-also-gives-improved-security-says-home-minister
Zainudin, F. (2021, August 11). Malaysia My Second Home to resume in October. Free Malaysia Today. https://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2021/08/11/malaysia-my-second-home-to-resume-in-october/
* Banner photo shows Petronas Twin Towers by Nirmala Prabhakar
*The views expressed in the blog are those of the author alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.