Putrajaya, MALAYSIA - James E.* returns to his hometown of Sabah every year even after having moved abroad to work seven years ago.
Trips home have been smooth until one incident recently when he was stopped from leaving for Hong Kong from the Kota Kinabalu International Airport immigration checkpoint on July 29.
James, 40, was told by Immigration officers that he had been blacklisted from leaving the country.
"I was told that I couldn't leave the country until I sorted out my tax liability," James told The Star.
After being denied permission to board his flight, James turned back into the city and headed for the local tax office, where he finally learned about the unpaid taxes.
He was told he had an outstanding balance of RM200 (S$79.04) in 2006 and a whopping RM12,500 in 2007 - a discovery that shocked James as he had ceased working in Malaysia that same year and moved to Hong Kong.
In order to return to his workplace abroad, James was required to pay the 2006 overdue taxes in full and half of the amount for 2007 pending an appeal to the Inland Revenue Board (IRB) over the latter.
"Before I left Malaysia (in 2007), I asked my former company's human resources department to look into the tax returns on my behalf and I was told it was all settled. But it is now clear that something is not right.
"Nevertheless, after I made the payments (to the IRB), I was given a letter to confirm that I have a grace period of three months (to travel in and out of Malaysia) pending the appeal.
"At my second attempt to leave Malaysia on Aug 3, the Immigration officers said I should also get another letter from their department to be cleared to leave, but they allowed me to board my flight in the end," said James.
For Kenneth Chin*, trouble at the Immigration checkpoint came when his passport was barred at a KL International Airport 2 auto-gate on Aug 15.
The 58-year-old had just arrived from Australia where he holds permanent resident status.
"I was told to go the counter instead and that was when I found out that I had been blacklisted, although the Immigration records couldn't tell you why you were blacklisted.
"But I knew it was likely be related to tax issues, as I had not filed returns for two years.
"The Immigration staff were polite and they told me that I would have problems leaving the country after that," said Kenneth, who has hired an accountant to verify his outstanding income tax estimates.
"I was told that if I had come in a week or two earlier, there would have been no such problem," he said.
Jackie Pooi*, 30, had planned for a vacation with a group of friends but her joy was shortlived after she was told by Immigration officers that she could not proceed until she has settled her outstanding taxes.
Pooi said she had no choice but to tear up her flight tickets. The group that she was travelling with had to proceed on the holiday without her.
Philip, 29, said he did not realise that tax evaders could be "bounced back" from an Immigration checkpoint until he had witnessed it personally at a Malaysia-Thailand border.
"Paying taxes is part of our duty as citizens and I suppose the authorities have the right to deny anyone from leaving the country, as long as it is done within the law," said Philip.