Before we moved to Malaysia, Diane and I did a lot of research about local television options for overseas expats. Being that one of us is Canadian and I consider myself an honorary pseudo-Canuck, watching live hockey was a big issue and we dreaded the thought of missing the NHL playoffs. Knowing we’d be moving to a tropical nation where hockey is totally unknown and the closest we’d ever get to ice would be the cubes in our drinks, we devoted countless hours on forums dedicated to live streaming. Generally speaking, the consensus used to be that access to live North American sports for overseas expats involved a host of complicated options including VPN’s, special boxes and other devices for fooling the host provider into thinking you’re physically located in North America. And then of course there’s the obvious lazy person’s method of simply paying for packages from the major sports leagues like MLB.com.
Perfectly acceptable for retired expats older than us that know little or nothing about the internet, paid sports packages are expensive, rely on the strength of your local internet connection and often have annoying blackout options. Our Canadian neighbor, an avid baseball and hockey fan, is 12 years older than me and subscribes to NHL.com. Arriving last year as newbie expats without a definitive solution for our TV viewing options, we had no interest in paying for Astro, the local cable company offering a host of packages that are mostly useless for North Americans. And “sports packages” on the other side of the globe provide endless hours of football (soccer in American speak), and a host of other unfamiliar sports like cricket, rugby, and other bizarre options of no interest to us. Initially excited over the prospect of watching NHL games, we spent the first few weeks of last October plopped down on our neighbor’s couch as the season opened but his Chinese wife from Hong Kong didn’t take to kindly to this since he already spent way too much time couch surfing without us being there.
After three relatively easy but frustrating trips to JPJ,Malaysia’s Department of Motor Vehicles, I’m happy to report one of us has a shiny new Malaysian driver’s licence. Unfortunately, all I got was a walk to the little room where I argued my latest rejection letter to the senior officer and another walk to Counter Six. For those unfamiliar, this all started six months ago when we decided to take advantage of Malaysia’s program allowing conversion of foreign driver’s licenses for MM2H participants. As I explained in an earlier post, there’s a host of nations with bilateral agreements that are eligible for an “automatic conversion” but the United States, Canada and the UK are not on that list. Instead, we fall under “Appendix B” which are nations whose citizens need to apply at a local JPJ office and wait for the government headquarters in Putrajaya to return an approval.
Hypothetically simple, Americans need a valid current driver’s license (more on that shortly), a special letter from the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur “certifying” your driver’s license as valid (even though regulations prevent a Federal agency from verifying anything issued at the state level), an application (it’s in Malay so you’ll need Google translator or a help from a local), the MM2H Conditional Letter of Approval and some cash for a fee. Thinking we were lucky to have a good agent that told us about the embassy letter, it turns out nobody at the local JPJ office knew about the rule requiring an officer to certify the Conditional Letter of Approval. Being Malaysia, that rule is nowhere to be found on the government website explaining conversion procedures nor did we see it on any expat forum like ExpatGo or InterNations. So the first trip in February was a waste of time resulting in two rejection letters.
Those of us old enough to remember school essays that were actually written with pen and paper probably had to do at least one standard version of “How I spent my summer vacation”. Here in the tropics it’s always summer and Malaysia is one of the few tropical nations sandwiched between two influential monsoon weather patterns which means there’s not really any seasons here with the possible exception of January through March when it’s almost always very dry. Usually planning vacations in Southeast Asia around wet and dry season, we hardly ever know what month it is here and were it not for internet radio and social media, we’d probably have no clue that summer is winding down. Celebrated as the last official weekend of summer, Labor Day marks back to school for North Americans but here in Malaysia, the end of August ushers in a slew of holidays celebrating everything from Malaysian Independence to the most important Hindu Festival of the year known as Deepavali.
As seasoned expats (all of 14 months), we’re not as inclined to investigate each festival because most expats check out whatever local holidays have to offer in their first year and decide which ones are worth coming back for. Sadly, very few Penang events are worth writing home about as far as we’re concerned so as we settle into our daily lives and try to save our cash for travel, we usually avoid the crowds associated with most holidays. Living in the nation’s most popular beach resort town means withering large crowds on public holidays but unlike the big city, big parades and spectacles are not really part of the festivities for most Malaysian holidays. Indian and Chinese holidays do have more glitz but Chinese New Year 2016 was amazingly devoid of fanfare In Penang and many locals blamed a weakened local economy combined with the first full year after the government implemented the GST (goods and services tax). Choosing to spend the Merdeka holiday with the island’s non human population of mostly friendly monkeys held more appeal to me than hanging out on crowded beaches anyway so that’s exactly what I did.
Normally avoiding Sundays like the plague, being retired means never having to go anywhere when the rest of the population is enjoying their day off. Applying even more in the developing world where six-day work weeks are the norm, Diane and I rarely shop, eat out, visit major attractions or engage in any “working world” weekend morning activities like breakfast at popular eateries. But sometimes time sneaks up on you so the other day we broke tradition after a visit to our local supermarket reminded us of some inevitable merchandising realities in Malaysia. With public holidays occurring at the rate of one per week through the next 17 days, expats who cook a lot should take heed and get to the store while there’s still any supplies. Possessing possibly the world’s worst supply chain, Penang literally gets everything delivered by truck from Kuala Lumpur. Although that’s only a four-hour drive on a modern four lane superhighway, it often feels like living on a remote Pacific island with no airport that gets deliveries via passing cargo ships every three months or so.
This is Chicken Ass with a funny name
Studying supply patterns of everyday products like veggies, pasta sauce and canned tuna leads to a frustrating conclusion that Malaysian store supermarket managers don’t understand anything about merchandising. Every time you find an imported product you like, it’s almost guaranteed to be gone the next time you visit and not replaced for at least a few months. Or not at all if it’s something you really like. Constantly bombarded by mostly foreign expats that buy up all the European, American and Australian products before most island residents even know they’re in the store, if you blink and change aisles, it’s gone. Perpetually stocking items that are already nearing their expiry dates, the other thing they love to do is order products nobody buys and then put them on “promosi” (sale) at ridiculously low prices. While this seems like a good thing, I’d rather not buy something that came out of the factory in 2014 for 2 ringgit (50 cents) because it arrives in Penang just shy of its second anniversary date. Buying fresh food is a different animal altogether with stores sometimes going months between certain cuts of meat or lamb and beef that varies in price from inexpensive to insane.
Remembering the old saying “Don’t get caught in the system“, Diane and I recently went back to theJPJ, Malaysia’s version of the Motor Vehicle Department. Making our second attempt at converting our foreign driver’s license into a Malaysian one, our first trip resulted in two rejection letters. Back in the early spring I posted about how Malaysia allows an automatic conversion of foreign drivers licences for certain countries with bilateral agreements. Unfortunately, the United States and Canada aren’t on that list and citizens of “Appendix B” countries not living in the immediate Kuala Lumpur Area have to file some paperwork at a local JPJ office. After meeting with an agent and chatting about whatever they feel like talking about, the staff then forwards the application to Putrajaya, where the nation’s government offices are. Assuming everything’s in order, they’ll mail you an approval letter and then it’s back to the local JP office again for more paperwork, some fees and a shiny new Malaysian driver’s license. At least that’s what’s supposed to happen.
Part of the process involves an interview with a JPJ officer that’s supposed to “certify” all the paperwork including your passport, current valid foreign driver’s license and Conditional Letter of Approval for the MM2H Visa. Sadly, the head office forgot to train the rest of the nation on the procedure and the JPJwebsite for converting licences makes no mention of two very important requirements. Luckily, we knew about the first one thanks to our very competent MM2H agent. For anyone thinking of living outside of Kuala Lumpur, be aware that recently updated rules state that local JPJ field offices can’t certify a drivers’ license issued in the United States. For that, you’ll need an appointment at the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur to get a special letter that “certifies“ your valid foreign driver’s license.
Deciding not work anymore sounds great to many people, especially when you’re fifteen years away from the “standard” retirement age. But as the saying goes “it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye”. Never before in modern economic times has it been riskier to end your income stream and that weighs on me every day. Having been extremely lucky twice, Diane and I bought and sold two houses in totally different markets and came out ahead in both cases. Allowing us to put a large down payment on our California house at a time when nobody was buying, we sold our Canadian house four months before the market peaked and then negotiated a purchase price one year later well below asking price in 2008 when sellers were desperate. Amazingly, after a 30% decline in our home’s value, Bay Area home prices rebounded quickly allowing us to sell last year at a 12.5% premium over asking price. Fast forward 14 months and here we are living mostly from that sale for as many years as it lasts.
But all good things come to an end and although timing is everything in life, sometimes life throws you a curveball when you’re expecting a slider. With North American interest rates at all time lows and not expected to rebound to anything meaningful in my lifetime thanks to 40 years of horrible government policies worldwide, it’s been comforting seeing our MM2H Fixed Deposit accruing interest at 3.3% annually. For those unfamiliar with the program, the ministry requires participants of the Malaysia My Second Home Program (MM2H) to place a fixed deposit of 150,000 Ringgit in a Malaysian bank and maintain it while on the program. Most banks issue two separate deposits of 100,000 and 50,000 each with one year maturities and interest can be either paid as a cash dividend to a local checking account or reinvested as part of the principal. Unfortunately, the ministry prefers (decrees, actually) that fixed deposits must be set up with twelve month maturities and renewed at prevailing interest rates. Unexpectedly, Bank Negara (Malaysia’s central bank) recently cut nominal interest rates despite never ending claims about having the strongest economy in Southeast Asia and the move adversely affects interest starved citizens of western nations.
Usually marking anniversaries with celebratory posts, I’ll start this post by stating that today is exactly one year since Diane and I handed over our passports and received our MM2H stamps. Arriving only six weeks earlier, everything went according to plan and despite never having visited Penang, we established ourselves quickly. Before receiving our approval notifications and traveling back to Kuala Lumpur for the last steps, we secured a lease, bought new phones, established service and set up all relevant utilities like electric and internet. Since that time, I’ve written many posts about our expat experiences other than travel and they’ve usually been well received. Given I’m not part of today’s young generation deriving a paycheck from “online income“, I’ve tried to write fairly entertaining stories with my own slightly sarcastic but relatively realistic slant. But noticing a decline in the number of likes despite an increase in readership, it appears I’m beating a dead horse and my post the other day about our first negative infrastructure experience took dubious honors as my first post with no likes two days after writing it.
Out with friends
Having written about topics like establishing ourselves in a foreign nation, learning about the local cuisine, taking off the beaten path day trips and living through the annual haze season, I’ve shared a bit of expat life as seen through the eyes of two average middle class people (one American and one Canadian) that chose an experimental early retirement over daily cubicle life after an unexpected layoff. Also including detailed stories about the Malaysia My Second Home Program (MM2H), I’ve received lots of comments and emails thanking me for providing valuable information about Southeast Asia’s best retirement program. Retiring at a rather awkward age, it’s not always thrilling, often financially challenging and sometimes downright unexciting. Unable to always churn out really exciting content, I’d be lying if I said each day is filled with a new adventure so perhaps the blog’s almost run its course. The pictures on this post feature scenes from our life in Penang and part of the blog was to illustrate all parts of expat life, not just the best days.