I’ve been traveling for more than five years now and I’ve never thought of myself as an immigrant. But that is exactly what I am, a legal immigrant, but still an immigrant.
Why this sudden recognition of my obvious standing in the many countries I have lived in during the past five years? Maybe because they’re getting tougher on foreigners here in my current home. Sound familiar?
During my first 2 ½ years in Batam, I stayed under an Indonesian work permit, or a KITAS. This cost my employer about $1,500 and allowed me to come and go from the country at will and did not require any periodic “visa runs” to renew my standing. Normally, I would have to leave the country every 30 days and then re-enter, paying a $35 visa-on-arrival fee. With the $40 ferry fee to Singapore, that means spending $75 every month if you want to stay long-term.
For the past year, I have stayed under a “business visa” thankfully provided me by a Batam company I do business with. For this visa, my sponsor had to provide immigration with certain paperwork, but there was no fee for my sponsor. I did, however, have to pay an agent here about $150 to process the paperwork and then had to pay another agent in Singapore $200 to go to the Indonesian Embassy to obtain the visa. Without using the latter agent, I would have to stay in Singapore for three days, but by paying the fee my stay was only half a day. The main benefit for me was that I could make visa runs every two months instead of monthly.
I should note that the business visa didn’t actually allow me to work in Indonesia; in fact, the rules explicitly say you cannot work with a business visa. Sounds a little crazy.
This time around, my sponsor once again agreed to help me. However, a snafu with an address on the application resulted in my application being turned down. Seems that immigration this time around decided to check my sponsor’s address. Unfortunately, my sponsor had moved and the address on the application was incorrect.
Given hesitancy on my sponsor’s part concerning what immigration might do, I decided to just make the monthly trips. This is a hassle, taking up most of one day, but the financial part has been eased greatly by a recent decision by the government to allow Americans to enter the country without paying the $35 visa-on-arrival fee. So I am left just with the ferry fee every month, much less expensive than with the business visa. However, there’s a caveat (there’s always a caveat).
In its wisdom, the government only sanctioned certain ports to eliminate the visa-on-arrival fee. On Batam, one of those is the airport. The other is the Batam Centre ferry terminal, about a 20-25 minute taxi ride for me. Normally, when I go to Singapore I use the Harbour Bay ferry terminal, which I can walk to, but re-entering Batam at Harbour Bay means paying the $35 VOA.
So to avoid the VOA, I must taxi to Batam Centre, take a ferry ride that is about half an hour longer than from Harbour Bay, and then book my return ferry to Batam Centre in Singapore. Or …
One of the ferry services that happen to serve both the Harbour Bay and Batam Centre terminals has approached me about a trade for advertising on my BatamExpat.com site. An advertising-for-ferry-tickets trade would shave half of the $40 ferry ticket price from each trip. But I’m still left with the taxi fares to and from Batam Centre, roughly $12-15 total each month.
Since the ferry company serves both Harbour Bay and Batam Centre, however, I can eliminate one taxi fare simply by walking to Harbour Bay to catch the ferry to Singapore and then using the same ferry company coming back to Batam Centre. Every little bit counts when you’re on a budget.
All of this is “the cost of doing business” if you want to stay in another country, so I’m not complaining. In fact, this new setup will save me hundreds of dollars, albeit it will be more of a hassle.
Part of that hassle is the immigration process on both sides of the Malacca Strait. On the Singapore side, it takes between 30 minutes and an hour and a half to clear immigration simply because of the number of people to process. On the Batam side, if you rush to get off the ferry first, it takes far less time.
I should mention, also, that people who keep renewing their visa every month like I will be doing often come under scrutiny from immigration officials. The rescinding of the VOA fee is meant for tourists and my doing a monthly visa run looks suspiciously untouristy.
Which finally gets to my point about feeling like an immigrant. The government here has become very nationalistic since the last national election in 2014. In addition to making it harder on foreigners to live and work in Indonesia, the religious parties have managed to pass some laws aimed directly at the expat population.
For example, a law was passed that all foreigners obtaining a work permit (KITAS) must be able to speak and write Bahasa Indonesia, the official language. That was such an onerous law that even Indonesian companies objected. No company here would be able to bring in foreign expertise under that law, which would cripple industries like oil and gas and shipbuilding, the main industries on Batam. The law was revoked.
Then the religious parties managed to pass a law banning beer and wine sales at mini-markets, under the pretense of saving children from the dangers of alcohol. Such a law impacts foreigners mostly, either tourists or those living and working here. That law was implemented.
Following that, the government is now pursuing a law to ban alcohol sales completely in the country, again mostly directed at the expat population. I’m not sure how such a law would pan out in tourist areas like Bali or in Jakarta, where there are more than 15,000 expats living. An alternate law being considered would increase tariffs on alcohol by as much as 250 percent.
And it’s not all about alcohol. There have been other restrictions placed on foreign workers, such as no one over 60 years old being allowed a KITAS.
All of this is designed to rid the country of what many perceive as carpetbaggers taking jobs away from Indonesians – despite the fact the Indonesian workforce does not contain the expertise to do the jobs the foreigners are doing. It’s pretty convoluted.
I guess I’m one of those immigrants the government wants out of the country, and that perception is why I’m suddenly feeling like an unwanted immigrant. This despite all the money I pour into the local economy. It’s not a lot by any macro measure but it is something, and multiplied by the tens of thousands of expats living in Indonesia, it does come out to be a significant amount.
While my situation is different from that of “illegal immigrants” in the United States, there are some similarities and comparisons. Most of those US immigrants are working, like I am – in the shadows but contributing to the economy. Most, I guess, like me, would gladly pay a small fee to remain in the country legally.
The citizenship question is another story. I don’t desire Indonesian citizenship; I just want to live where the cost of living is low. In the U.S., those immigrants want jobs, first and foremost. They want legal status so that they can lead productive and safe lives, and not be afraid of being deported in the middle of the night.
Why couldn’t a fee system work in the U.S.? Allow those in the country illegally to come forward, pay the fee on a regular basis, and let them apply for citizenship through the normal channels. In effect, let them pay a visa-on-arrival fee every 2-3 months without having to leave the country. If they want to be citizens, they can get in line like everyone else.
Would those newly legal immigrants have access to the U.S. safety net, since they would then be paying U.S. income taxes? That’s a tough call but here in Indonesia I cannot use safety net services, even though I am paying local sales taxes. I am not paying income taxes, however, and the newly legal U.S. immigrants would be, so there is a difference,
At any rate, I’m feeling less welcome here in Indonesia as lawmakers seem to be hell bent are driving the expats out. Definitely feeling like an immigrant, but I’ve been told the current nationalistic fervor is normal after a new election here and that it will calm down soon.
And next week I begin my monthly sojourns to Singapore and back, with one worthwhile benefit – the Singapore ferry terminal is next to a huge mall that contains an upscale grocery store. Bacon, ham, pork shops, cheeses, sour cream, spices, maple syrup and other Western staples will be available monthly now. And if I want to spend a little more time in Singapore, there’s a store in India Town where I can get clothes cheaply that actually fit.
You gotta look at the glass as half full.
(Note: These are not my photos.)