Malaysia has built a WFH paradise. Now people just need to show up.

“It’s your meal!” Watch out, it’s hot,” chirped a robot waiter at a restaurant in Malaysia’s Langkawi archipelago. “Thanks bye!” he exclaimed as guests took plates of scrambled eggs and toast from his shelves, heading to the next table where another group was waiting for breakfast. A few meters away, the calm waters of Pantai Tengah beach lapped on the shore.

The shiny white robot, made by the Chinese company Pudu Technology and purchased by Camar Resort, is symbolic of the Malaysian government’s ambition to embrace a tech-driven future – and to do so by attracting a new class of digital nomads. The quiet the island of Langkawi, where Rest of the world visited during a press trip organized for the Malaysian government, is part of the new DE Rantau visa program. The program promotes the resort destination as one of four digital hubs, all selling a high-tech yet laid-back lifestyle, offering connectivity and hospitality.

In Malaysia, Langkawi is a well-known tourist spot with solid infrastructure: high-speed Wi-Fi, cafes, restaurants, ease of payment with Visa and Mastercard. Getting around is easy, too, with companies like loudhailer Grab and airline AirAsia operating there. When Rest of the world visited, however, it was not yet the dynamic center that the country wants to convey. Activity was still muted due to pandemic restrictions, and the only nomads Rest of the world met on the island were those who accompanied the official voyage. Yet the opportunity is huge: the program targets a few “millions” of nomads around the world, said Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Minister Annuar Musa.

Southeast Asia is trying to adapt to a new reality. The beaches and coworking spaces that were buzzing with Western drop shippers and digital marketers have become relatively quiet and, as countries seek to put the Covid-19 pandemic behind them, some are rushing to introduce visas for digital workers. Malaysia launched its signature program in September, inviting applicants with a minimum income of just $24,000 per year. A few weeks later, Indonesia introduced a six-month permit for remote workers, as well as a “secondary residence” visa for high earners. A brand new Thai visa scheme, which also started taking applications in September, requires nomads to earn at least $40,000 a year, in exchange for a promise of 10-year residency and a rate of reduced tax.

The Malaysian DE Rantau initiative aims to appeal to a wide range of people. The program allows remote workers in IT and all digital-related work to stay in the country for up to one year, with the possibility of renewal; beneficiaries can also bring in dependents, use living and working centers created especially for them, and benefit from discount vouchers for local services. The founders of the program aspire to a high-tech society mixed with foreign nomads – specialists in blockchain technology and smart cities – and locals.

“AI, sustainability, developing outer space… these are the new things we want to be able to do and take advantage of the nomads coming in [and] settle here,” said Mahadhir Aziz, CEO of the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), the government agency tasked with rolling out the scheme. Rest of the world.

According to the MDEC, more than 2,000 applications had been submitted by early October. Rather than AI specialists, however, content creators, software engineers and UX/UI designers have typically applied so far, according to agency data.

Rest of the world spoke to Reg Ching, a digital nomad living in Malaysia, who came to Langkawi as a journalist to learn more about the visa. A digital marketing company owner who employs an all-remote team in the Caribbean, he’s been a nomad since 2003, traveling between Canada, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Jamaica, before coming to Malaysia, where he has roots. generational.

Many of the digital nomads he’s met recently are into content creation, Ching said. Rest of the world. For a time, he knew crypto investors who became “accidental nomads,” quitting their full-time jobs and adopting a free-wheeling lifestyle. But since the crypto market crash, which began around May this year, “the number of crypto-related projects or people working [with it]I noticed a big drop,” he said.

Digital nomadism is not new. But visa regimes suitable for them are, according to Olga Hannonen, a researcher who studies digital nomadism at the University of Eastern Finland. Estonia, the first country to introduce a digital nomad visa in 2020, did so to increase local consumption and support the local economy without giving up local jobs.

“It is natural that [digital nomadism] grew out of these other types of lifestyle mobility that have been popular in Southeast Asia,” Hannonen said. Rest of the world, referring to a journey that blurs the boundaries of tourism, work and migration. But if the Malaysian government wants to attract talent that matches its needs – smart cities and AI specialists – as well as YouTubers, this should be done through “specific campaigns targeting these professionals”, with benefits or bonuses, she added.

While Malaysia is among the first to emerge from the bloc in Southeast Asia, it is also the first to encounter start-up problems.

On Reddit, some have complained about a confusing circular application process, while others wonder what tax rules would apply to them. There is also uncertainty about qualification for key requirements, such as local banking. “They demand every page of your passport,” one Reddit user complained. “Will nomadic visa holders be subject to the same tax rules as ‘normal’ residents…?” another asked.

When Langkawi journalists confronted the agency with these concerns, MDEC admitted that the details still needed to be worked out. Taxation is still being discussed with authorities, and the agency said it was working with partners to find cross-border payment methods – for example, to allow a Southeast Asian bank account holder to Is to use the same account in Malaysia.

“In short, yes, the program is very new,” Mahadhir Aziz told reporters gathered in Langkawi. “We are flexible enough to be able to respond to… [feedback] we also receive from our nomads,” he added.

Back in the visa application battlefield, some processes have started to recover. A YouTuber, Kensho Quest, who had pointed out some frustrating pain points in early October, posted a follow-up video two weeks later about how the government had listened to complaints and made changes.

“If you have any questions regarding your application, please contact MDEC. They’re super responsive and super user-friendly,” Quest urged its nearly 8,000 subscribers. “The second thing you can do is leave a comment below as they watch this video and take notes,” he added, assuring.

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