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Smiling faces in the tropical north

Wednesday October 18, 2006

Peter Engelsman

When you first tell your family and friends in Britain that you are thinking of moving to Malaysia, you are likely to induce furrowed brows and signs of bewilderment. ?Where is that?? is one, ?Is it in Africa?? is another, or ?Do you have to fly over Germany?? is another strange one. So let?s get some geography right.

Malaysia is indeed a long way south of the UK. It takes about 13 hours by plane to get from the UK to the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Since an average jumbo jet flies at about 500 mph, you can work out how far it is.

So here is a quiz. Without looking at an atlas and bearing in mind that Malaysia is made up of the mainland peninsula plus the two other states of Sarawak and Sabah on the Indonesian island of Borneo, what percentage of Malaysia lies in the southern hemisphere? Is it
(a) 100%
(b) 75%
(c) 50%
(d) 25%
(e) 0%?

If you didn?t get it right, don?t worry: many Malaysians wouldn?t either. We are entirely in the northern hemisphere (e) but hard up against the equator.

If you are coming here to retire or to work it is likely that you will have made some preliminary visits and that you will have formed some initial views about the country and people. A common one is that everybody seems to be so young and another is that Malaysians smile a lot. Both of these are true. But beware of making culturally based conclusions built on those facts.

Saving face in a working environment

Smiling plays a crucial part in smoothing social interactions in this country as indeed it does in many parts of southeast Asia. If you intend to work here it is essential to understand the role of smiling and its relationship to the concept of not losing face.

Malaysians are very deferential, at least in public settings, to people in authority, to people with titles and to older people, especially those who are part of the family. This means smiling, nodding and agreeing whenever such a person expresses an opinion even when that opinion is rubbish or the consequences have not been properly thought through. If one were to object or point out inconsistencies in an argument, this would cause the senior to lose a lot of face and that is unacceptable.

21st century healthcare

Malaysia has extremely good healthcare services in the urban areas. Facilities are so good that the government is trying hard to promote the country as a health tourism destination.

There are numerous state hospitals but these are swamped by patients and staffed by extremely overworked doctors and ancillary workers. Private hospitals are numerous, well-equipped and efficient. A friend of mine had to have an emergency hip operation recently. Five days hospitalisation in a first-class ward plus all doctor?s fees amounted to 1,200. Compare that with the cost of private care elsewhere.

Employees Provident Fund

Find out whether you will be entitled to a (taxable) housing allowance and, most importantly, what your EPF status will be.

EPF stands for Employees Provident Fund. It is the Malaysian equivalent of a pension scheme. Contribution figures change from time to time but the employer pays approximately 12% of your salary and you pay 10-11% into a centrally held fund. You can withdraw the balance when you retire or return permanently to the UK. If you are on a good salary, this can prove a worthwhile investment. Indeed you may not have an option whether to join or not, but you should find out.

Then there is the question of retirement. The retirement age in the UK for men is 65. Many assume that it will be the same here. It isn?t. It is 55 for men. You must check with your local employer and get written assurances about whether your contract after age 55 will continue in its present form. Some expatriates have found that, after 55 or 60, the terms are reduced to an annual, renewable contract with a decrease in the number of paid-for trips to the UK.

Your UK state pension can be paid into an offshore or UK bank account and transmitted here. Any increases in the UK pension are only payable to expatriates living in certain countries. Malaysia is not one of those countries so your pension will be frozen at its current rate.

There is no escaping the taxman

The taxman seems to operate in individual, unconnected years. We do have PAYE based on self-assessment, so your employer deducts what should be taken and sends it off. But sometimes you get rebates from the taxman for no apparent reason. ?Good,? you think, ?I am up to date with my tax because some has come back.? Don?t believe it. When I stopped working the taxman said I owed him RM32,000, which I had to pay before I could get my EPF refunded.

I had been working off the UK model: that any arrears in one year would be carried forward to the next tax year and similarly any credits would be deducted. Not so. The years seem to be independent of each other. It may be a good idea to see a tax consultant.

The feminist liberation affront

Currently, wives of expatriate men are not allowed to work, no matter how well qualified or experienced they are. This can cause much frustration. Do not be reassured by mealy-mouthed expressions such as ?We will see what we can do? made by employers. What they can do is precious little. Although the government has said it will look into the problem, it will probably take a long time for anything to happen. Wives can do voluntary work, but that may not be enough.

Malaysia?s rich tapestry

Kuala Lumpur is the hub of everything for daily life. There are upmarket eateries, shopping malls, etc. There is a world-class orchestra and orchestral hall and world-class traffic jams, especially when it rains, which it does a lot. Theatre is a bit limited but more in evidence than in other conurbations. Outside KL, life is calmer and less expensive.

The most popular hobby is probably eating out. Food stalls abound, selling all manner of delicacies and meals. You will need to like spicy food to eat there, but blander western food is readily available too. A satisfying local meal will cost around 50-75p (7 ringgit = 1). Practically everything costs about a half or less of what it does in the UK. That includes petrol, which is heavily subsidised. It does not include cars, especially foreign ones, which are highly taxed.

Apart from eating out, there are many religious festivals catering to all ethnic and religious groups. It is common for many major festivals to occur close together and there is a riot of colour and noise with each one. The noisiest is probably Chinese New Year with its lion dances, pounding drums and cymbals. It is a real eye-opener for the newcomer.

If travel is your major form of entertainment, it?s all here. Malaysia has countless beautiful islands and beaches as well as jungle. Some are being ruined by development, but there is still a lot to see and do. Enchanting Thailand is just to the north. Mysterious India is a few hours across the water. Entrancing Bali is two hours away. Gentle Vietnam is so near. And we are just about as close as you can get to Australia without actually being there.

?You don?t need to speak the local language; they all speak English? is a cry heard frequently from expatriate lips. Sometimes this feels more like a justification for laziness than the truth. Certainly in the major cities you can get by with English as long as you don?t expect the subtleties and nuances which can grace the language. ?Dohhhh Waaaan? means you have declined the offer of a pudding in a restaurant (= don?t want).

But in the eastern, peninsular, coastal states, which are Malay and Muslim, English is not readily understood, and Bahasa Melayu (BM) (Malaysian language) is the language of choice since there are very few Chinese or Indian Malaysians living there.

In any event, it is always a courtesy when visiting a foreign country and especially when living in one, to have some skill in the local language. Even though it may not be perfect, it shows a willingness to try and will make mouths gape in awe and honour when you do have a go. So do try, but be forewarned that there is no verb ?to be? in BM. This makes the recently proclaimed intention to stage Shakespeare?s Hamlet in BM a little bemusing.

These comments are meant to convey things you would not normally find in guidebooks. After about 11 years of employment I decided to take early retirement. There was really no choice about where to live after that. It had to be Malaysia. The climate, the people, the cost of living and the beauty of the country make it an ideal place to spend time. If you are going to come here, you will love it as long as you leave your western expectations and attitudes behind.


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