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South-East Asian special visas lure the good, bad and wealthy

Tan KW
Publish date: Sun, 19 Mar 2023, 08:28 AM
Tan KW
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American Steven Johnson often sits inside a wooden hut in Cavite, a province south of the capital Manila, as he records videos teaching other expatriates what they need to do to live the rest of their days in warm and sunny Philippines.

Johnson, 59, was a school safety officer in the United States. But since moving to this South-East Asian country five years ago after retiring from his day job, he has become a YouTuber running The Philippine Info Channel catering to mostly Westerners hoping to retire in the Philippines.

He also leads a support group of about 150 foreign retirees, some of whom are raising children with their Filipina partners like himself.

He is one of more than 73,800 holders of the Philippines’ Special Resident Retiree Visa designed to entice foreigners 50 years old and above to call the country their second home.

Other South-East Asian nations offer similar visas or temporary stay permits that allow foreign retirees to live, work or study there for a certain period and enjoy perks like multiple entry privileges, health insurance and tax exemptions.

South-East Asia has long been a hot spot for thousands of foreigners looking for a new place to live or work that comes with tropical weather, rich culture, cheap commodities and housing, and proximity to nature and wildlife.

They often live in or near capital cities for easy access to business districts or in top tourist spots like Bali in Indonesia and Boracay in the Philippines that are renowned for their white-sand beaches.

Apart from retirees, South-East Asia is also attracting a rising number of digital nomads and rich professionals who have cash to spend and are looking for a change of scenery.

Though the numbers are not readily available, policy analyst Kate Hooper of the Migration Policy Institute noted that the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated this trend in 2020, as lockdowns and border closures ushered in a new era of remote work.

Governments in the region, particularly Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, are capitalising on this trend by offering special visas for digital nomads. But there are also drawbacks to the influx of these foreigners.

While most of them come to South-East Asia for the low cost of living, they ironically drive up the prices of resort bookings, local housing and even restaurant food in key tourist destinations.

Sex tourism remains a scourge in parts of South-East Asia, putting women and young girls at risk.

Johnson would usually advise his viewers against engaging in the so-called “sexpat” industry, a play on the words expatriate and sex.

In Thailand, a so-called “foreign mafia” on the resort island of Phuket has been accused in February of taking jobs in industries set aside for locals while using visas that do not allow them to work.

These concerns challenge governments in the region to tighten security checks and ensure programmes crafted for foreigners are not detrimental to welfare of locals.

 - ANN

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