Penang, Malaysia

Judith

UK-born Judith is one an international citizen. She has lived all over the world—in South America, South Africa, Australia and Spain. She stopped working at 38 when she married. Tragically, her first husband died, then she later lost another partner. Having left the UK at the age of 21, Judith has never considered returning there to live.

Judith now lives in Penang, an island off the north-west of Malaysia which is linked to the mainland by two long bridges. Penang is like a less crowded, less congested and greener Hong Kong.

Judith moved to Malaysia in 2007—but it all happened a bit quicker than she expected. This was because her MM2H visa was surprisingly easy to obtain. 

She explained: ‘I didn’t use an immigration agent. I just emailed the Malaysian government and said that I fancy becoming a resident and joining the MM2H so “What do I have to do?”

They emailed back and said they needed a copy of my passport, details of my income and proof of medical insurance. These had to be approved [certified] by a notary. And then I sent it all off.

‘Not long afterwards I received a letter saying, “Here’s your visa. You have six months to activate this.” Well, I panicked! I needed to get over to Malaysia, put money in a bank account, attend a medical exam in KL and then the visa was instant. It took me less than seven days to make it all happen.’

But then, Judith was faced with another problem—where to live. ‘It had been years since I had been to Malaysia. I didn’t know where to live. I looked in KL, in suburbs, talked to people. It was a bit daunting, really. Norwegian friends, for example, were living on the top floor of a complex in Times Square, in the Golden Triangle, the centre of KL. But it was so busy, and I’m a country girl.’

So Judith gave up on KL. She hired a car and drove around Malaysia. She was keen on the island of Langkawi, about 120 kilometres north of Penang. She spoke to people there and discovered it was very quiet and she knew it was going to be a solitary and isolated lifestyle. It would take about three hours to get to Penang by boat, or a couple of hours by car and ferry.

‘It is lovely,’ Judith said. ‘A tourist island with nice beaches. Beaches in Penang are not so good. Langkawi is a great place to visit, but I realised that living there would be very different. If I got sick I’d have to come to Penang.’

And so Judith finished up in Penang, where she has been renting property since 2010; however, despite the suddenness of her arrival, she has wisely taken her time to settle in. ‘I initially did not live here. I had my MM2H. I visited, sorted myself out first,’ Judith said.

‘It is very, very busy in Penang, but it’s growing on me. I’m not sure if I’ll live here for the rest of my life—the traffic drives me crazy—but I’m liking it more and more because it’s so interesting. There are a huge number of cultures and religions here.

‘I like the people, the food is good. There’s lots to do. I joined the International Women’s Association. It’s a good way to meet people. I’m not very gregarious and it is not easy for a single person. But they have everything: majong, canaster, mingles, dinners, film nights.’

Judith added, ‘Life here in Penang is very transient. It is very levelling being an expat but I don’t regret doing it.’ The Cost of Living in Penang is also cheap and rents are low. Rents are 80 per cent lower than Sydney and most other Western cities, restaurants are at least 70 per cent cheaper and groceries are almost 60 per cent less.

Penang though has a special quality to it. It is primarily a Malaysian Chinese city but there are still many Malays and Indians. That’s Malaysia; a cultural melting pot. Penang is filled with British colonial legacies; the power architecture of the Empire. Grand, bright white, ex-British Government buildings stretch out behind massive Greek ionic columns. The old High Court building is perhaps a stand-out testament to colonial power. But then surrounding these colonial icons is a maze of narrow streets filled with cafes, restaurants, shop-houses, galleries and boutique hotels.

All that is thrown into a wok and stir-fried with an exotic mix of Chinese, Indian and Malay cultures, then garnished with Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. The result is a surprisingly peaceful but fascinatingly tasteful dish.

Shop houses, that typically have a commercial space on the ground floor and living areas on the second and third floors, dot Georgetown, the main town on the island of Penang. Timber louvred upstairs windows or jalousies, often painted white or a bright yellow or a turquoise blue, give the place a tropical Euro feel.

Unlike the very cleansed Singapore, these shop houses were not demolished – Penang had the land to expand outwards and development was slower than in Singapore. And critically, Georgetown was heritage listed by UNESCO in July 2008. That was about 220 years after Penang became a ‘British possession’. In 1786, Penang was initially ceded to the British East India Company. It remained a colony until independence and the Federation of Malaya was created in 1957.

Penang still has a lot of rough edges. Many of the winding streets lack footpaths, many drains are open and you get a good whiff every now and then. There are a lot of rundown properties and cheap boarding houses. But all that gives the place authenticity and romance. You get a real sense of discovery walking the streets of Penang. And it’s safe. Penang has had strong Australian links over the past 50 years. Butterworth Airbase is just nearby on the mainland and many Australian airforce staff based themselves in Penang and commuted to work.

Many still do.

RAAF Base Butterworth was handed to the Royal Malaysia Air Force in 1988.

Georgetown suburbs like Tanjung Bungah were developed by the Australian Defence Force. These ex-RAAF areas are very expat-friendly and offer large comfortable homes with gardens, all close to the hustle and bustle of central Georgetown.