“It’s your meal! Be careful, it’s hot,” chirped a robot server at a resort restaurant in Malaysia’s Langkawi archipelago. “Thank you, bye!” it exclaimed, as guests took plates of scrambled eggs and toast from its shelves, scooting to the next table where another group waited for breakfast. Meters away, the calm waters of Pantai Tengah beach lapped at the shore.

The glossy 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 luring in a new class of digital nomads. The tranquil island of Langkawi, where Rest of World visited on a press trip organized for the Malaysian government, is part of the newly launched DE Rantau visa scheme. The program promotes the resort destination as one of four digital hubs, all of them selling a lifestyle both high-tech and laid-back, offering connectivity and hospitality.

In Malaysia, Langkawi is a well-known tourist spot with strong infrastructure: high-speed Wi-Fi, cafés, restaurants, the ease of paying with Visa and Mastercard. Getting around is simple, too, with companies like ride-hailer Grab and airline AirAsia operating there. When Rest of World visited, though, it wasn’t yet the vibrant hub the country wants to convey. Activity was still muted from pandemic restrictions, and the only nomads Rest of World encountered on the island were those along for the official trip. Yet the opportunity is huge: the program is targeting some “millions” of nomads around the world, said Malaysia’s minister of communications and multimedia, Annuar Musa.

Southeast Asia is trying to adjust to a new reality. Beaches and coworking spaces that used to buzz with Western drop shippers and digital marketers have fallen comparatively 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. Weeks later, Indonesia introduced a six-month permit for remote workers, along with a “second home” visa for high earners. A brand-new Thailand visa program, which also began taking applications in September, requires nomads to earn at least $40,000 a year, in return promising a 10-year residency and a discounted tax rate. 

Malaysia’s DE Rantau initiative is geared to attract 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 a year, with the potential for renewal; recipients can also bring in dependents, use living and working hubs created specifically for them, and enjoy discount vouchers for local services. The program’s founders have aspirations for a high-tech society blended with foreign nomads — specialists in blockchain technology and smart cities — and locals. 

“AI, sustainability, outer space development … these are the new things that we want to be able to do and to leverage on the nomads coming in [and] setting up over here,” Mahadhir Aziz, the CEO of the Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC), the government agency in charge of the program rollout, told Rest of World.

According to MDEC, more than 2,000 applications were submitted as of early October. Rather than AI specialists, though, it’s content creators, software engineers, and UX/UI designers who have typically applied so far, according to agency data.

Rest of World spoke to Reg Ching, a digital nomad living in Malaysia, who came to Langkawi as a journalist to find out more about the visa. The owner of a digital marketing company that employs a fully remote team in the Caribbean, he’s lived as a nomad since 2003, traveling between Canada, the Philippines, Hong Kong, and Jamaica, before coming to Malaysia, where he has generational roots. 

A lot of digital nomads he’s met recently are in content creation, Ching told Rest of World. For a time, he knew crypto investors who became “accidental nomads,” quitting their full-time jobs and adopting a freewheeling lifestyle. But since the crypto market crash, which started around May this year, “the amount of crypto-related projects or people working [with it], I’ve noticed a big decline,” he said. 

Digital nomadism isn’t new. But visa schemes tailored for them are, according to Olga Hannonen, a researcher studying 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’s natural that [digital nomadism] has grown out of these other types of lifestyle mobility that have been popular in Southeast Asia,” Hannonen told Rest of World, referring to travel that blurs the boundaries of tourism, work, and migration. But if the Malaysian government wants to attract talent relevant to its needs — the smart cities and AI specialists — as well as the YouTubers, then it should be achieved through “specific campaigns targeting these professionals,” with benefits or bonuses, she added.

While Malaysia is among the first off the block in Southeast Asia, it’s also the first to run into teething problems. 

On Reddit, some have complained about a confusing, circular application process, while some question which taxation rules would apply to them. There’s also uncertainty about qualifying for key requirements, like local banking. “They ask for every single page of your passport,” one Reddit user complained. “Will nomad visa holders be subject to the same tax rules as ‘normal’ residents …?” another asked.

When journalists in Langkawi confronted the agency with these concerns, MDEC admitted that details still need to be ironed out. Taxation is still being discussed with authorities, and the agency said it’s working with partners to figure out cross-border payment methods — for example, to allow a Southeast Asian bank account holder to use the same account in Malaysia. 

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

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

“If you have questions regarding your application, please contact MDEC. They are super-responsive and super-friendly,” Quest urged his nearly 8,000 subscribers. “The second thing you can do is leave a comment down below, because they are watching this video and taking notes,” he added, assuringly.