The red passport emblazoned with the words “Kingdom of Cambodia” in gold might not be what anyone would expect Yingluck Shinawatra, former prime minister of Thailand, to present at an immigration checkpoint.
With visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to just 54 destinations worldwide, it is ranked among the least powerful passports in the world by the annual Henley Passport Index, at a lowly No. 84 out of 104.
Officially, anyone with US$300,000 to spare can pick up a Cambodian passport. That is what Cambodia requests as an investment before handing out its travel document.
Yingluck, in self-exile since 2017, before Thailand’s supreme court sentenced her to five years in prison for mishandling rice subsidies, used a Cambodian passport to register herself as sole director of a Hong Kong company incorporated last August last year, according to official filings. The disclosure, in a South China Morning Post story this month, added to the theory that she fled Thailand via Cambodia.
It also put the spotlight on the ease with which the world’s wealthy can obtain new passports or residency in a new country if they have the cash it takes – anything between US$100,000 and US$2 million.
This can all be above board and properly regulated, with thorough screening of applicants. In some cases, however, getting a new passport has been said to be as easy as shopping online, and the individual does not even have to show up in person.
Some get new passports by bribing officials.
“For some investors, they want to move to somewhere else because they truly want to do business there,” said Benny Cheung Ka-hei, director of the Goldmax Immigration Consulting in Hong Kong. “But then of course, some of the rich Chinese have too much money to spare and have no problems spending a few million dollars on foreign passports. They want foreign passports as protection, and also for showing off.”
In a report last September, the Economist magazine put the number of passports bought and sold at thousands each year, and the number of pay-to-obtain residence permits at hundreds of thousands.
The world’s cheapest passports to be had at US$100,000 apiece are said to be from the Caribbean nations of the Dominican Republic, Antigua and Barbuda, and Grenada. For US$150,000 and with few questions asked, St Kitts and Nevis, also in the Caribbean, will issue a passport in under 90 days. Its passport-scheme, important to its economy, is popular. Malaysian businessman Low Taek Jho, also known as Jho Low, is wanted in Malaysia over the 1MDB scandal and had his Malaysian passport revoked, but is said to be travelling on a St Kitts and Nevis passport.
About 20 of the European Union’s 28 members also offer residence or citizenship in exchange for hefty investments.
Malta’s passport can be obtained with a donation of US$850,000 to the European island country. A Cyprus passport requires a US$2.26-million investment, with no residential requirement.
So while the passport is held up as a precious mark of citizenship by many countries, it has also become a commodity sought after by the well-heeled on the move for one reason or another, and they have an army of experts in law, finance and accounting to turn to for advice.
Former American Andrew Henderson, the founder of Nomad Capitalist, advises wealthy clients looking for a new country where they will pay less in tax. He recommends holding multiple passports, and has four himself.
He relinquished his US passport so that he no longer has to disclose his finances to the US government, and has said that he spends each year in 15 to 20 countries.
He declines to say where his passports are from because, as he tells his clients, one country may not like its naturalised citizens to hold the passports of some other countries.
“The benefits of multiple passports are better travel, a warmer welcome, and being able to choose the best passport in each situation,” he said. “For my Israeli-Polish friend, it allows him to do business in the Gulf. For me, it gives me a slate of peaceful, small countries that don’t bother me.”
The best known guide to the world’s most powerful passports is the Henley Passport Index which ranks passports every year by visa-free access across borders.
Japan was ranked No. 1 because its passport-holders have easy access to 190 destinations, with Singapore and South Korea joint No. 2 with 189 destinations. The rest of the Top 10 were mainly European passports.
The Hong Kong passport was ranked 19th, and China, 69th. At the bottom were Afghanistan and Iraq.
But some who want a new passport are looking for considerably more than visa-free travel. They also want to pay less tax and enjoy unrestricted freedom to go wherever they want.
Then there are those like Yingluck and Jho Low, who want to avoid the law. After Yingluck’s billionaire brother and predecessor as prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra fled the country, he was said to have acquired several passports.
Chinese tycoon Xiao Jianhua, who disappeared in Hong Kong in 2017 and is believed to be in Chinese custody on suspicion of stock-price manipulation and bribery, holds a Canadian passport as well as a diplomatic passport from Antigua and Barbuda.
Henderson of Nomad Capitalist thinks that a Singapore passport, which scores highly on the Henley index, is not worth the trouble because the citizenship by investor scheme costs a lot and the authorities are “very by-the-book” in the applications.
“Asian passports are difficult. Singapore can be had, but they are very by-the-book. They also prefer families with kids over older people,” he said. “Asia is a bad place for passports.”
The Lion City has a Global Investor Programme under which a foreigner is eligible for permanent residence upon investing at least S$2.5 million (US$1.8 million) in a new business entity or to expand an existing business.
Henderson says he points out to clients that South Korea’s US$500,000 residence programme not only requires that they live there, but the taxes are also high.
He has also begun putting out his own most valuable passport list, based on criteria that matter to the world’s elite: visa-free travel as well as taxes, global reputation, freedom to hold dual or multiple citizenship, and personal freedom.
In the 2018 list, Sweden was No. 1 and European countries took all 10 top spots. The US did not make the top 30. Among other things, its high taxes as well as rules for citizens abroad have been blamed for driving Americans to give up their citizenship.
FOR SOME, A MONEY-SPINNER
Henderson is not alone in serving those looking to move. Worldwide, there are consultants in the “citizenship and residence by investment” industry providing advice and assistance for a fee.
But Cheung, from Goldmax Immigration Consulting in Hong Kong, said countries around the world had been tightening their investment immigration programmes.
“These days, countries are not looking only for money. The help that money alone can do with the economies are small. Countries are looking at your education background and your age. They want investors who would really invest in local businesses, who would hire the locals,” Cheung said.
Even Hong Kong had scrapped its investment programme some years ago as the economy needed more than just money, Cheung said, adding that tycoons often preferred European passports to Asian ones as these allowed dual citizenship.
There are no official figures on the number of passports issued through the passport market each year, and certainly none for Asia.
In Europe, Transparency International and Global Witness estimated in a report last year that Spain, Hungary, Latvia, Portugal and the UK have each given away more than 10,000 “golden visas” each year over the past decade, granting permanent residency by investment.
Malta, Cyprus and Bulgaria are the only EU members that sell citizenship, reportedly for between US$1.1 million and US$2.2 million. They and 20 others sell residence permits.
Other reports have suggested that EU members collected about US$28 billion of foreign direct investment in the last decade through these schemes.
An alarmed European Commission warned in a report this week that citizenship by investment schemes posed “risks of infiltration of non-EU organised crime groups in the economy, money laundering, corruption and tax evasion”.
It was concerned because some of these countries do not check the origins of the wealth of those seeking citizenship and residence. With a passport from any European country, the holder is free to travel through all 28 member nations.
Ahead of the commission’s report, Bulgaria said it would stop selling passports. Its Justice Ministry said that since 2013, only 50 foreigners, from Russia, Egypt, Israel and Pakistan, had been sold passports in return for hefty investments.
Nomad’s Henderson believes some of the concerns are exaggerated. He said most countries screen applicants properly, to the level in the UK or US, and many people have their applications rejected.
“The idea that criminals are bypassing checks is merely a propaganda piece of people who ... don’t like the rich ‘cutting in line’,” he said.
He has no patience for those who make moral arguments against selling passports and residence permits.
“I say, who cares? People with money to contribute to an economy – particularly economies in debt such as St Kitts and Nevis – will always be welcomed,” he says. “The countries need the money.”
IT’S JUST A COMMODITY
Across Asia, many countries forbid dual citizenship, including Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, India and China.
Cambodia is an exception, according to a Shenzhen-based consultant with an investment and immigration firm, who responded to queries from a Post reporter posing as a client.
“We have had a success rate of about 95 per cent,” the consultant said. “The process has been stricter recently, but it shouldn’t be a big problem.”
The company charges US$180,000 for the immigration service and clients receive a full refund if their application fails. Brochures from the company claim the firm has ties with the Cambodian military and political elite.
The consultant said that although China does not allow dual citizenship, holding Cambodian and Chinese passports is not a problem as long as the authorities do not find out. “It is not easy to be discovered,” he said.
An immigration consultant with an international firm said: “Cambodian passports can be obtained through ‘special channels’ – which means bribing officials.”
Neither consultant commented further on being informed they were speaking to a reporter.
But Chinese court judgments show how far some Chinese will go to obtain a Cambodian passport.
Last year, three Chinese men sued their Chinese friend, Wu Benhui, in a Fujian province court, Southwestern China, over an unpaid debt the three lent to Wu so he could become a Cambodian citizen.
The four were identified as businessmen in the ceramic tiles business in Phnom Penh. The three lent Wu 479,140 yuan (US$70,000) so he could become a Cambodian citizen.
Wu has never paid back the money. ■