How I Got My Australian Working Holiday Visa
On the 2nd of July at 1.05 am, I am playing cards on the dirty pavement outside the Australian High Commission in Kuala Lumpur with two other fellow CouchSurfers Marcus and Stefano while waiting and sitting in line.
There are about 38 other Malaysians ahead of us, starting with the first girl sitting on a foldable chair, closest to the iron wrung entrance of the High Commission. While we may look like refugees to a passerby, huddling in front of an institution that may promise sanctuary and asylum, we are actually more like a bandwagon of bedraggled aspiring travellers, camping out so that we can secure ourselves a spot of opportunity: our only chance to apply for the Australian Work and Holiday visa for the year 2012.
I’ve previously applied for the UK’s Working Holiday visa and am familiar with the process for such an application. Usually the application requires a submission of a litany of paperwork of personal data, appeal letters and one’s genuine wish to travel the country, an interview follows to confirm the applicant’s information and intentions, and that was it. A day later, you usually get your passport and a shimmering stamp of a visa.
Unfortunately, the Australian’s Work and Holiday visa for Malaysians (Sublcass 462) differs from this process. While both visas share about the same eligibility requirements, the Australian visa is limited to only 100 per year and only accepted on the first working day of July, each year.
The official Australian High Commission’s website had solemnly recommended that applicants should prepare their visa applications early to avoid disappointment. In the past, all 100 places have been allocated on the first day, but for those who do their research know that these slots are usually filled up much earlier before the opening hours of the Australian High Commission. It has been known that the visa is purely a first come first serve basis.
Sometime in February, I’ve checked and rechecked the website’s for documents needed for the visa. Ironically, to qualify, you needn’t really display your keen travelling intentions but rather, you need to have a legal document of good conduct from the Malaysian government, proof of sufficient command of the English language, a university degree, a birth certificate and a bank account brimming full of funds. Apparently, you need to get all the documents right else you won’t stand a damned chance.
While the application process is not that complicated, the compilation of documents do induce some kind of hassle and stress. Not to mention the paranoia fueled by rumors and anxious discussion that takes place on a Facebook page dedicated solely for this process. The website moderators must have founded the website with good intentions but instead of learning more about the visa, I found myself riddled with panic.I started to doubt if I’d enough funds or should I have my birth certificate translated. All unfounded worries which I’ll come to realize later.
“Shithead!” Marcus yells at me triumphantly and trumps down his last card on the growing pile of poker cards. After admitting defeat, I gulp down some juice from the bottle I brought with me and look around. There are people swiping their fingers furiously on their iPads and smartphones, some munching into their McDonalds burger, and some chatting with fellow queuers.
While all this is going on around me, I sneak a glance at my watch and groan. It’s only 2.30am – another 6 hours till the Australian High Commission opens. I yawn while Stefano excuses himself to wander down the streets of KL and look for a sportsbar that shows Italy playing against Spain in the finals of the Euro League 2012. He isn’t here to queue up for a spot; he’s mainly here to accompany me for the camp-out-that-may-change-my-life, like all good friends should.
A few hours ago, I was planning to have a short nap prior to camping out. Marcus and I have planned to to arrive at 2.00 am, leaving us plenty of time to get a spot. Previous successful visa applicants had warned us on the Facebook page to arrive at some sort of ungodly hour, just to be safe. Apparently last year, people had started lining up at 4.30am, and all spots were taken up by 7.30am. Just to succeed the Joneses’, Marcus and I agreed on 2.00 am, even though I thought it sounded ridiculous. Who would go as far as this to satiate their wanderlust?
Not just me and Marcus, I guess. At 11pm, my nap was thwarted by a phone call.
“Hey, are you sleeping? Well, don’t because we need to get our asses to the High Comm right away. My friend told me that there are already more than 20 people there waiting in line!”
What the ….?
Cursing under my breath, I climbed out of bed, gathered my documents and gave it a one last check. It all boils down to this particular day and I can’t afford to mess up, I thought. Scanning through the paperwork, I realized a discrepancy. Panic shot up my nerves. Why I didn’t notice this before? On the checklist, I was meant to complete the 1028 form, but the form that I filled out was a 1208. This couldn’t be happening!
I scrambled out of the room, knocked on Stefano’s door and asked him to look up on the internet if I’d got the papers wrong. Fortunately, his iPhone was working and after losing 10 minutes of a heartbeat, I concluded that the checklist was wrong and I did download the right form.
We arrived at the High Commission, finding ourselves in an affable yet tense atmosphere. Subtle tones of anxiety and competition permeate subtly in groups. Who are these people and why are they here, I’d thought. Have Malaysians finally picked up the art of travelling? Have they all gained an eagerness to explore the world instead of photographing their 2-week vacations from a tour bus?
It’s not like I’m a travel snob; I don’t go out of my way to avoid other Malaysians in foreign countries but at the same time, from my previous experiences, Malaysians tend to stay in little communities when abroad, be it as international students or as travellers, not willing to venture out of their cultural comfort zone. Instead of truly blending in with locals and enjoying the country, Working Holidaymakers tend to slave away in dinghy Asian restaurants or office cubicles, and then going out with fellow Malaysians and do things that they’d do with their friends in Malaysia. Then, what is the point of living and working abroad? As for me, my intense desire for the visa stemmed from the fact that I’ve been a vagabond for the past 6 years in my life– the only way to sustain another bout of travelling is by working and living abroad.
We are no longer playing cards by 3.30am. A few of Marcus’ friends have found him and are now sitting with us, chatting. One of them feels a tad bit sleepy so she asks around for coffee orders and drive to the nearest McDonalds to get some snacks and caffeine.
I can’t help but feel a little guilty about my previous judgments. Sitting down and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations made me realise that there has been an increase of wayfarers, wanderlusters and travellers among the young Malaysian community. A chatty Malaysian Chinese girl, sitting two spaces ahead is telling two other Malaysian Indian boys about her last year’s experience. She was one of the unsuccessful applicants last year because she’d arrived at 7.00am and got number 108. She was on the waiting list but as all the other 100 applicants ahead of her had no issues with their applications, her application was then cancelled and would not be considered.
She says that she has promised to come back much earlier this year so that she can work and save up money to go on a road trip around Australia.
Looking around, I also see grandparents, parents and friends alike, staying up and being there for their siblings, children, etc. Perhaps they all see the visa like a luxurious kind of freedom, one that esaped their grasp (since it’s only for 18-30 year olds),but are still willing to support and accompany their younger friends and relatives who qualify.
At 4.00 am, the line has grown serpent like, spilling into the pavement of another building next to the High Commission. A rough count tells me that there are already more than 130 people waiting in line; the last few ones at the back wear looks of both hope and despair. Perhaps they are feeling like what the chatty girl was feeling last year, crossing their fingers till they bleed so that somehow, by some miracle, the first 30 people in line would just dissapear from the crowd.
As streaks of gold and silver starts to illuminate the horizon behind the Petronas Twin Towers, those who were napping on their sleeping bags and blankets start to stir. Those who had their shoulders slumped into a foetus position start to erect their posture once again. Despite my cramped limbs, my dehydrated lips and fuzzy mind, I too try to rouse myself into a state of alertness. Traffic on the main street slowly roars into a cresendo.
It feels a little like judgment day, a do or die situation. My life hangs precariously on the minute where the Immigration Officers start handing out the numbers to applicants. I let out an exhausted whoop when I am given a number 38 sticker, pressed onto my application form. Marcus cheers and dances. He is given a number 39.
When they finally call us into the High Commission to submit the paperwork at 9.00 am, there are still a few hopeful applicants turning up, not knowing that all spots have been taken since 3.45am. Their faces fall when the Immigration Officer tells them to come back next year to try their luck.
By noon, the ordeal is finally over. The process still takes another week or two for the visa to be finalised but my part is finally done. I think sourly about how most Europeans and Americans can get away with this kind of exhausting ordeal as they’re allowed to submit their visa applications online and have it granted within 3 hours.
Life isn’t fair, is it?
Yet, despite the brief negative thoughts, I make my way home with my heart brimming full of gratitude. I know well that my efforts have been worthwhile and I’ve been truly blessed to be given the chance for the application. The sleep sacrificed is nothing compared to the joy that I will experience as soon as I land in Melbourne again in August.