Thursday, April 01, 2004

Indonesian Immigration Woes

Indonesian Immigration Woes

I've said a lot of good things about Indonesia in my blog. Before anyone starts believing that I'm on the payroll of Indonesia's Ministry of Culture and Tourism, let me for a change write a bit about the ugly side of Indonesia.

NGOs are fond of ranking Indonesia among the most corrupt countries in the world. However, If you are just the average camera-toting tourist, you'll probably not encounter any unpleasant situations where you'll need to resort to bribery. You are more likely be charmed by the courtesy and grace of the people and wonder why you didn't visit the country a lot earlier.

But If you happen to be completely enamoured with Indonesia (like yours truly) and start entering the country every other week, then you must be prepared to handle the occasional "friendly" immigration officer at the airport. Flipping through the pages of your passport, they will ask you why you come to Indonesia so often. Are you here on business?

Obviously if you arrive in a shirt and tie carrying a laptop bag, you can't be a tourist. So you attempt to be honest and say that you are here to attend a few meetings with potential customers. But you just came last week... Then you try to explain that this is a follow-up meeting and you are meeting some other customers too.

That will give them the opportunity to lecture you on the need to apply for a business visa if you are conducting business in Indonesia. They'll ask to check your return ticket. They'll ask you who your local partner is and if you are working for them. They will continue flipping through the pages, and give you some subtle hints on what is expected from you. Sometimes they'll ask you outright.

There are many regular travellers who routinely shove a 50K rupiah (20 over ringgit) note inside their passport to avoid any hassle at the immigration. Now if you are comfortable doing that, there's also a "fast lane"--the small office beside the immigration counter--where you can bypass the queue altogether and get your passport stamped immediately.

Malaysians seem to be hassled more often because they know that we understand Malay and in our innocence we attempt to be friendly by answering back in the same language. That is usually a big mistake. It is better to pretend not to understand what they are saying. They'll give up on you and stamp your passport immediately--they'd rather not waste time for there are a lot more fish in the queue behind you.

Which brings me to the next thing that one must remember--try to avoid being the last person in the queue. You will be in for a royal treatment if you are, for they have all the time in the world to "chat you up".

Having said all that, I'll have to add that the genuine tourist will never face any problems going through immigration if their papers are in order. It is the frequent visitor who gets harassed, on suspicion that they are actually working in the country without a valid work permit. Apparently a lot of foreigners do that.

I know a Malaysian who is married to an Indonesian woman and works there permanently on a social visit pass to avoid paying taxes. He has to travel out of the country and return again every 60 days (the maximum duration of stay for a social visit pass). How does he manage that without being harassed? Well, there are "agents" who can help you arrange for a hassle-free passage through immigration--for a fee of course. It's still cheaper than paying taxes.

Anything can be done in Indonesia if you are willing to pay for it. Well, that's part of the "charm" of Indonesia.

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