Penang, Malaysia

Bob and Marion

Bob, who now lives in Penang, Malaysia, knew he didn’t want to live in Australia but had no idea where to go.  So Bob, being a thorough sort of person, developed a spreadsheet analysis on where the best place is to live in the world.  Bob’s spreadsheet spat out Penang.

Penang met his country filters.  It was safe, cheap, had rule of law, good medical facilities, acceptable tax regime, a good climate, a cultural backstory, widespread English as a spoken language, good housing and an interesting social life with plenty of restaurants and a diverse group of people.

Malaysia even offers a special long term visa for retirees.  It is called Malaysia My Second Home or an MM2H visa.

Penang, an island of Malaysia, was the place that offered a 60-plus-year-old the good life.

Bob and Marion's property in Malaysia is a large sub-penthouse apartment with sea views over the Malacca Strait, north-east toward mainland Malaysia. The apartment has five bedrooms, five bathrooms, a sauna, spa, maid’s room, and a huge entertaining and kitchen area. And the complex has a pool and a gym. All this costs about 6500 Malaysian ringgit a month—that works out to A$550 a week.

And there is the sea, shopping, restaurants and parks nearby.

Life is very comfortable indeed. It is also comfortable for their beloved old dog, Billy. In fact, Bob and Marion devote an entire three-square-metre screen in their living room to the dog—it’s a sort of doggy-focused room divider, covered with photos of Billy living in various places around the world: there is Billy in the US, Billy leaping through snow in Switzerland, Billy on the beach in Australia, and now Billy retiring in Penang.

Bob has a way with words. This is how he explains his decision to live in Malaysia: ‘When you sit in the bath and really start thinking about where you are going to go, it turns out there are a number of criteria that you—everybody, really—needs to consider.’

Bob said that on the criteria of crime alone, a whole lot of places have to be ruled out.  Bob’s definition of crime is broad.  He said it covers, ‘the justice system, recourse to law, the legal system, how corrupt the police are, whether or not you are likely to be kidnapped walking down the street—all of those things.’

And he added, ‘These immediately eliminate a whole lot of countries—most of South America, for example; you are not going to live in Bogota, you are not going to live in Mexico City.’

Taxation also takes out many countries.  According to Bob, ‘Taxation becomes a real issue and that counts out a lot of Western Europe, Portugal, Greece and Australia.’

Healthcare is also important to Bob, as it should be to all of us, especially if we are the walking 60 year old health time bombs.

‘There are two issues,’ he said.  ‘How expensive is it and how good is it?  So, for example, the US is incredibly expensive and not very good.  Australia is reasonably expensive and reasonably good.  The UK is dirt cheap and not bad.  Indonesia is terrible, while Thailand and Malaysia are very cheap and of reasonable quality.

‘Here, in Malaysia, there is a local health care system which I suspect is pretty awful.  Then you have a Western/Chinese system that is moderately priced and of a reasonable Western standard.  ‘We have Australian private health care cover, but we have to pay for medical services here.’

However, Bob believes the problem with private health cover is that the insurers are in it to make money.  ‘And by the time you hit 60, anything you can possibly die of is, I can assure you, pre-existing.’

It is a requirement of the MM2H visa that the visa holder has health insurance.  However, if you are over 60 and can prove that you can’t get health cover, then the Malaysian government waives the requirement to have it.  Bob only needed to have one health insurance company knock back his application to receive the Malaysian government waiver.

On the cost of living, Bob pointed out that if you didn’t care about money then you could choose to live anywhere: Sydney, London, Tokyo, Manhattan or Paris.  But you’d need plenty of it.

Malaysia though is cheap.  And that suits Bob.  Rent is 80 per cent cheaper in Malaysia than Australia and indeed many cities in the West.  Eating out at a restaurant is 70 per cent cheaper and groceries are almost 60 per cent less.  The Cost of Living in Malaysia means massive savings for a retiree.

Bob himself lived in Switzerland for six months.  He didn’t pay for accommodation—his brother owns a house outside of Zurich—and he had a car to use for free.  But it still cost Bob and Marion and Billy the dog A$90,000 of their savings over six months.

Clearly, Southeast Asia is fundamentally cheap, although Penang and Kuala Lumpur are relatively expensive compared to other countries like Thailand, Indonesia or even Cambodia.

But Malaysia also ranks high on Bob’s language criteria—English is widely spoken in Malaysia, a dividend of being a British colony.  That gets a big tick.

The cultural back-story of a place is another of Bob’s criteria.  He explained: ‘Because you speak English, you know a lot of the back-story of other English-speaking countries.  You know a lot about Canada without thinking you do, a lot about the US, England, New Zealand.  But what do you know about Switzerland?  Who is the president, how does their voting system work, what are their laws?  You have no cultural back-story and you can’t speak the language.’

He said, ‘You are living on an island of about 700,000 people, but it’s more like living in a village with a smaller population.  I have done the math two or three different ways, and I get to around about the same number each time — I reckon 1500 to 2000 is the total Western expat population of Penang.  That community is incredibly interconnected.

‘There is a downside to it.  They all go to the same dry-cleaners, the same bars, the same shopping malls, the same book nights. They’re all are in the same clubs.’

There is also an upside, Bob said: ‘If we really tried hard,  tomorrow night we could have a dinner party containing the following demographics: a professional chef, a woman who runs a modelling agency, an orchestra conductor, the commanding officer of Butterworth, some security experts, a chaplain, even a jockey.  We are swimming in an incredibly rich social pool—I never mixed with these people in Sydney or Melbourne.’

Bob added frankly, as only he could, ‘And for me that is one of the biggest disadvantages of places like Thailand because—now maybe I am being elitist here—I just don’t think a sex tourist would be much fun as a dinner companion.’