Malaysians are hoping for the day they can visit the United States without having to go through the hassle of applying for a visa.
And that could be in the not-too-distant future as the Home Ministry is now strongly pushing for visa-free travel between the two countries.
We have been working hard to join 37 nations, including Singapore and Brunei, on the US Visa Waiver Programme (VWP), Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in an interview with Sunday Star.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and US President Barack Obama agreed to consult further on Malaysia's intention of joining the VWP during the latter's visit to Malaysia in April.
The issue was in the forefront during Dr Ahmad Zahid's recent trip to New York and Washington. The VWP would enable Malaysians to enter the US without visa and allow them to stay in the US for a maximum of 90 days for tourism or business purposes.
The minister left for the US on Sept 24 for a nine-day working visit which included meetings with Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director John Brennan, former New York Police Department chief Charles V. Campisi, and US Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Edward Royce.
He also signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Immigration Cooperation with US Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to formalise immigration cooperation that among others that will include document screening.
The MoU would also enable Malaysian Immigration Department officers to undergo attachment programme at the National Targeting Center in Washington D.C.
To improve the immigration process, the country is working to implement the Advanced Passengers Screening System (APSS) - one of several new security protocols that were put in place at entry points following the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.
Describing the chances of Malaysia's admission to the VWP, Dr Ahmad Zahid said the Home Ministry was "very optimistic and committed" to realise the visa-waiver objective.
"The US Government's response to our efforts has been extremely warm and overwhelming.
"However, we need to update our (VWP) checklist regularly."
A delegation from the Home Ministry and other relevant agencies namely the National Security Council and the Attorney General's Chambers had also attended a detailed briefing from Aug 25 to Aug 29 2014 in Washington D.C. on the specific technical aspects and statutory regulations that need to be complied with before Malaysia could join the VWP.
To qualify for the VWP, Malaysia needs to fulfil several conditions, including the issuance of e-passports in line with International Civil Aviation Organisation standards, reporting of loss of passports to Interpol within 24 hours, waive the visa requirement for US citizens, assist in the deportation of Malaysians who overstay in the US, and to finalise the exchange of terrorism intelligence and serious criminal offences agreements.
Malaysia must also ensure that the rejection rate for US visa applications by Malaysians globally would not be more than 3 per cent annually.
Once all the conditions for the VWP are met, the US Department of State and Department of Homeland Security will conduct final checks and evaluations before making recommendations on Malaysia's position to join the VWP.
The US has also stressed on the country's seriousness in managing human trafficking as a factor of consideration for joining the VWP.
"I'm chairing high-level committee meetings on anti-trafficking in persons and anti-smuggling of migrants (MAPO) involving six ministries and 5 agencies who are collaborating closely to improve the trafficking in persons tier rating by the US States Department as part of the requirement to join the VWP," he said.
Dr Ahmad Zahid gave his assurance that the country was working to raise Malaysia's ranking, currently on Tier 3 of the US State Department's Trafficking in Person list, to Tier 2.
He said the ministry was still in discussions with the Attorney-General's Chambers and the Judiciary to establish a special court to expedite the hearing of human trafficking cases here.
"We need a judge that specialises in the area and this will take time because there is a need for training.
"So, as to when the special court can be established, the Chief Justice will have to decide," he said.
Since anti-human trafficking laws were implemented in 2008, a total of 1,892 victims of human trafficking in Malaysia have been rescued.
Early this month, Dr Ahmad Zahid had told Parliament that as of September this year, a total of 198 victims were rescued compared to 323 in the same period last year, representing a reduction in human trafficking cases.