HONG KONG (SCMP): On a recent weekend when anti-government protesters were engaging in violent street clashes with the police, about 40 middle-aged Hongkongers sat in the conference room of a Wan Chai office, learning how to emigrate to Malaysia.
They were a mix of men and women, in their 40s and 50s mainly, executives, businessmen, professionals and housewives. Dressed casually, they were busy taking notes and pictures of the presentation slides.
They were all looking for somewhere to move to, away from the chaos of Hong Kong.
The presentation that day was about the Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) scheme, a residence-by-investment programme offered by the Southeast Asian country.
To get a renewable 10-year residence permit, applicants aged over 50 must make a bank deposit of HK$300,000 in Malaysia after proving they have assets worth at least HK$700,000 and an overseas monthly income of at least HK$20,000. Those under 50 must make a bank deposit of at least HK$600,000.
The discussion was vigorous, with many questions.
“How can a housewife or retiree prove that they have a monthly income to fulfil the eligibility requirements?”
“Can a self-use property produce a monthly income? What’s the trick?”
“What if one family member has a criminal record?”
It became clear that most in the room were not desperate to quit Hong Kong immediately, but were drawing up their “Plan B” in case the city becomes too dangerous or dismal to live in.
Vincent Fong, founder of MM2H Club, a consulting agency for the Malaysian scheme, says that over the past three months, his agency has submitted about 800 applications to the Malaysian government, equivalent to the total it handled over the previous decade.
Other companies that provide emigration help and information say they have also seen a spike in interest, coinciding with the unrest now in its sixth month. Hongkongers have also been inquiring about moving to Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom.
There are no official statistics for Hongkongers who emigrate, but one indication is the number of applications for certificates showing no criminal convictions, a requirement for immigration to most countries.
Police figures show there were 13,810 applications for those certificates from July to October, up sharply from 8,019 over the same period last year.
Among those at the Malaysian session were legal executive Edwin Yuen, 51, and his wife, Connie, 53, who have been mulling a move for some time but are now speeding up their relocation.
“Originally I planned to take my time to weigh the different relocation options,” Yuen says. “But Hong Kong’s situation is getting more chaotic, with stand-offs between police and the protesters becoming really violent. I am worried that this will become a vicious cycle.”
At first he was looking for a place that would provide a comfortable retirement for him and his wife. Now he is also looking for a country where their sons can find jobs and have bright futures.
“Our considerations are actually not about the erosion of freedom in Hong Kong. We are not activists, so we aren’t worried about Hong Kong’s politics,” he says. “We are simply pessimistic about Hong Kong’s economic prospects because of the social instability, and my children’s future is a concern.”
He has narrowed the choice to Malaysia or Thailand, as both require relatively low investments. Thailand has the edge, he says, because he has friends there and its well-developed hotel industry might offer career opportunities for his elder son, who is studying hotel management.
“I reckon that in Thailand, my family and I will have more opportunities,” says Yuen, who hopes to move within a year.
Paediatric nurse Carmen Tam, 41, says that from the day their son Harvey was born 12 years ago, she and her husband have been working out ways to ensure that he leaves Hong Kong and avoids becoming “mainlandised”, a concern for some city residents who decry the impact of Beijing’s influence on local affairs and the arrival of migrants from the rest of China.
“I don’t want him to be confined in Hong Kong and become another mainlander. When he was a toddler, I only spoke to him in English and never taught him any Chinese,” she says. “Since kindergarten, I’ve put him in an international school. In primary school and his current secondary school, he’s only learned Japanese and English, so he speaks very little Cantonese.”
Her dream is for her son to study in Japan and settle there. “I love everything about Japan, especially its culture,” she says.
Tam says the Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy student protesters in 1989 remains vivid in her memory. Her deep anti-mainland feelings were reinforced when she witnessed, as a student nurse, pregnant mainlanders flooding Hong Kong’s public hospitals to give birth and ensure the right of abode for their children.
The 2014 Occupy movement, when pro-democracy protesters blocked several city areas in Hong Kong for 79 days, left her wanting to emigrate, but it cost too much for the whole family to go.
So her plans now focus on getting her son out, and the current turmoil makes her hope he can leave for Japan sooner. “I get very angry about the police crackdown on students,” she says.
She and her husband are considering moving to somewhere like Malaysia or Taiwan, where there are people who speak Chinese.
“At this moment, everybody in Hong Kong is finding a way out, either through relocation or emigration, as we look for some kind of security for ourselves,” she says.
Finance executive Kenneth Lo, 52, has already moved. He gave up a well-paying job and moved to Toronto, Canada, at the end of August. His wife, a toy designer, and their 11-year-old son will join him next year.
They decided to emigrate to give the boy a better education.
“I’ve all along disliked the spoon-feeding and examination-oriented education system in Hong Kong. I hope my child can be exposed to the multifaceted Western education so he can learn to think freely and embrace universal values,” he says.
This is not his first move to Canada. His father took the family there in 1997, after Hong Kong was returned by Britain to China and they had permanent residence.
But the family later returned to Hong Kong. Lo thought his Canadian residency status had been revoked after so many years, so he was pleasantly surprised to learn last year that he was still considered a resident there.
That led to the decision to emigrate, which comes with a steep price tag, as Lo and his wife are giving up jobs with a combined income of more than HK$1 million (US$127,800) a year.
“Of course we went through some struggling, as we’ll need to start from zero in Canada. This is not an easy decision, but we reckon we’ll be able to lead a simple life in Toronto after we sell our house in Hong Kong,” he says.
With the current political turmoil in Hong Kong, Lo is glad he made the decision to move his family.
“I have nothing to fear for myself if I stay in Hong Kong,” he says. “But considering my child will have to face a very complicated political environment, I am more convinced that I made a good decision to ensure a better future for him.”
MM2H’s Fong is certain the unrest has boosted interest in emigration.
“Since June, the number of cases we received has started to jump,” he says. “The August figure was about 10 times of that in July. Now there are more than 700 applications in the queue.”
Applicants seeking a better future for their children are attracted by the lower international school fees in Malaysia compared with those in Hong Kong, he adds.
Ivan Mak, head of Hong Kong for the AIMS Immigration and Relocation Group, says his outfit is handling about 200 applicants a month now, about a tenfold increase from two years ago.
Australia, Canada, and Britain are among the most popular destinations for applicants. “Many of them are making the move for their children, as they are concerned about their children’s education,” Mak says.
Paul Bernadou, who set up an emigration consulting agency in Hong Kong named after himself in 1993, also has no doubt that the increased interest in emigration and relocation is linked mainly to the social unrest.
“The push is coming from the current unsettled conditions which are, for most people, unprecedented. Their children’s future is most important,” he says.
“The protests have opened their eyes, and they realise they need to start planning now for the future, even if things settle down.” – South China Morning Post
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