Malaysia visa move pinches Iranian entrepreneurs

Malaysia's decision to no longer let Iranians obtain visas upon landing, combined with international sanctions on Iran's nuclear programme, are having negative economic ripple effects.

By Grace Chen for Khabar Southeast Asia in Kuala Lumpur

July 03, 2014
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Iranian expatriates in Malaysia say the climate has become less friendly to them during the nine months since the Interior Ministry cancelled visas on arrival (VOA) for Iranian citizens.

  • A passenger waits May 2nd at the immigration counter in the new terminal at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA2). Iranians entering Malaysia can no longer obtain visas upon arrival. [Manan Vatsyayana/AFP]

    A passenger waits May 2nd at the immigration counter in the new terminal at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA2). Iranians entering Malaysia can no longer obtain visas upon arrival. [Manan Vatsyayana/AFP]

Last October, Malaysian officials revoked a VOA policy that had allowed Iranian visitors to obtain a 90-day visa upon entering the country. Now, they can only get a 14-day entry permit, but must apply in advance for a visa at Malaysian embassies.

"First, they welcome us. Now, they are changing the rules. All this is making me feel insecure," Bardia Dowlatshahi a 29-year-old Iranian who works in Malaysia as an interior designer, told Khabar Southeast Asia.

Both Indonesia and Malaysia changed their visa requirements to deter Iranians from using their territories as transit points for people-smuggling, and to stem alleged Iranian involvement in narcotics smuggling and illegal drug use on their soil.

Harmful ripples

Expats and business associates say Kuala Lumpur's decision is having a negative effect on Malaysia's resident Iranians, who number between 70,000 and 100,000, according to the Middle East Institute at Singapore's National University. They warn the change also harms bilateral trade and commercial ties.

During peak season, tour manager Vahid Fakhimi said his company used to book excursions for 1,500 Iranian tourists every two weeks. But that number has dropped by 60% to an average of 600 Iranian tourists, Fakhimi told Khabar.

"When you cut 76 days off a visa, people are going to wonder what is going on," he said.

Aside from the VOA issue, he suspects that international sanctions against Iran's nuclear programme also have a ripple effect on Malaysia's tourism industry. Fewer Iranians are travelling abroad because sanctions have squeezed the domestic economy, he said.

"Five years ago, the price of bread in Tehran was equivalent to 5 Malaysian sen (1 cent). Now, it's 50 sen (10 cents). That's a price hike of 10 times. In the face of such steep inflation, people are going to travel less," he said.

Anxious times

Bardia Dowlatshahi and his family are living in Malaysia under a long-term immigration permit known as the MM2H (Malaysia My Second Home) programme. In exchange for renewable 10-year residential permits, the government requires foreigners to buy property in the country.

Nonetheless, given the new climate around visas for Iranians, Dowlatshahi says he worries about the safety of his family's investments in Malaysia. He and his relatives have a Malaysian bank account and a condominium in Ampang Hilir, an affluent neighbourhood in Kuala Lumpur.

Dowlatshahi says he's also reassessing an earlier decision to venture into the local restaurant industry.

Echoing those concerns, Hishamuddin Hashim, a lawyer and vice president of the Malaysian Iranian Friendship Association (MIFA), said the change in policy would make it harder for Iranian entrepreneurs to come to Malaysia to set up companies here.

"Imagine spending so much money on a seven-hour flight and you only have two weeks. The effect is not going to be felt immediately but over time, people are going to feel more and more unhappy," Hishamuddin told Khabar.

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