That’s a great question. Upended by a global pandemic, our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement sent us packing from Southeast Asia. Fortunately, we spent the worst of it stuck in a small Thai beach town and came away unscathed. Temporarily neglecting the blog for over a year, it’s time to make amends. Amazingly, it’s been over six years since taking the plunge and I wanted to share how we got here, what we’ve learned and why we’re back in Canada. Benefitting old followers and anyone unfamiliar with our story, I created a static page summarizing our situation from the planning stages to the post-pandemic New Normal. Hoping you’ll have a look and continue following, please navigate to Our Progress and catch up with us.
As the time winds down to our last two months in Malaysia, I’m reflecting on the success (or failure) of our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement. While it’s time to move on, I wanted to clarify a few things based on some recent comments. First off, I’m not writing a “travel blog”. With thousands of really good travelogues out there, I wouldn’t even try to compete with any of them nor am I trying to tell any of you what hotels, restaurants and attractions to visit. Rather, our blog is for sharing stories about two middle class North Americans that decided to try an overseas early retirement and not stay in the workforce after an unexpected layoff. Calling it an experiment implies uncertainty and neither of us knew if we’d succeed or wind up crawling back home desperate for work. Honestly, if I had my way, I’d either stay in Western Canada without working or live in a sub-tropical or Mediterranean paradise like Turks and Caicos, Hawaii or Monaco.
But unless you’re born with a silver spoon or your family name rhymes with Hump, life isn’t about what you want to do all the time so we chose to push up our original plan a half decade or so by compromising some comforts in exchange for a middle class lifestyle in the developing world. Considering ourselves lucky with timing but smart enough to pay off most of our 15 year mortgage in 7 years thanks to a lot of Saturday nights spent watching free DVD’s from the local library, we always had an emergency plan for a possible mid-career job loss. Although it may not seem like it, we’re actually living that emergency plan (at least financially) and not some digital nomad dream. At the same time, we’re also not struggling to make ends meet in a place where almost everything is two-thirds cheaper than back home. Like most compromises, there’s positives and negatives and I’d rather write my blog as a storyteller. While I strive to be respectful of locals, expats and readers, there’s a lot of things that need a good dose of constructive criticism in Penang. Like our well-educated Malaysian friends of both Malay and Chinese descent, we’d love to see some attitudes and habits change along with the ultra modernization happening all over. Make no mistake; citizens, companies, and businesses that burn garbage every day and turn crystal clear air into stinking health hazards despite federal laws on the books for 45 years explicitly prohibiting this are not representing anything close to “fully developed”. Nevertheless, I’ll focus on some funny and positive aspects.
After recent comments about leaving Penang and moving to Thailand once our lease expires later this year, I’ve received a lot of questions asking what’s wrong with Malaysia so I thought I’d address the topic. In one short sentence, there’s nothing inherently wrong. Simply put, Malaysia offers the best long-term retirement visa in Southeast Asia and while the application requirements are not inexpensive and the process is a bit tedious, the benefits far outweigh the hassles when compared to other neighboring countries. For example, Thailand’s never ending revolving door policy of visa runs and short-term non immigration visas with endless reporting requirements and lack of permanent residency options for most applicants makes Malaysia’s MM2H look like an expat’s dream come true. For anyone looking at Malaysia as a retirement option or a temporary escape from the United Trump States of Draconia, I highly recommend the Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) program and I’ve written extensively about it on this blog.
Having said that, our situation is exactly what the blog’s title implies; an experiment. While Malaysia offers excellent infrastructure, English-speaking citizens and a myriad of annual festivals featuring three different cultures, it’s not everything we’d hoped it might be and it’s simply time for us to move on. Given our situation, it makes sense to stay in the MM2H program since we paid the annual fee for six years (when our passports expire). Additionally, the timing of our fixed deposit purchases was one rare case in our married life where we got hosed big time. (MM2H requires participants to keep a 150,000 ringgit fixed term deposit in a local bank while on the program). Arriving when the exchange rate was 3.7613 per USD, 150,000 Malaysian ringgit cost us $39,879 USD. Even with an annual reinvested interest payment of 3.3%, the current exchange rate of 4.42 means our fixed deposit’s current value hovers just over $35,000 USD. Even though the fixed deposits need to stay intact for as long as you stay in the program, local banks won’t let you take a term longer than one year. Suiting them perfectly, Malaysian fixed deposit rates rise with terms exceeding one year and since the central bank lowered interest rates twice during our first year in Penang we’re now earning only 2.9%. With nobody on Wall Street anticipating a rising Ringgit, even after six years of interest payments, we’ll probably just break even when we leave Asia and cash in our fixed deposits.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Eventually it had to happen. Residing in Penang for over a year now, sometimes Diane and I forget we’re on the other side of the world. Strangely resembling western nations, Malaysia’s infrastructure is surprisingly good and up until last week, we’ve had no bad experiences with the power grid, internet service, landlords, phone, noise or public transit. Often forgetting we live 7,000 miles from home, we listen to internet radio from San Francisco, use Viber for phone calls to U.S, companies at ridiculously low rates and stream almost anything we want from U.S. TV including pay TV series’, network comedies and the entire two months of NHL playoffs. Once concerned about paying for local cable with channels we don’t care about, we don’t subscribe to anything and even get twelve channels of uninterrupted commercial free Olympic coverage free as part of basic internet service. Enjoying sports we never even knew existed, Asian coverage includes weightlifting, archery, shooting, field hockey, water polo, badminton, table tennis, cycling, and the few things they show on NBC like swimming.
But ultimately, expats living in developing countries are bound to run into some typically “developing world” issues that can frustrate, annoy and test an anal “type A” personality’s patience. (Me, not Diane). And when it rains, it pours (Literally and metaphorically). After a trouble-free thirteen months of condo living, in the course of one week we had a broken air conditioner/landlord repair issue, three nights of overnight street drilling that kept the entire condo awake and the first power outage we’ve experienced in Asia. Ironically, some incidents that seem bad on the surface ultimately lead to fast resolutions that blow away anything you’d ever get in North America. Here in Malaysia, the relationship you establish with a property agent becomes important one because unlike back home, you gain a contact that helps you with any issues throughout the entire term of your lease. Acting as a third-party liaison between the tenant and owner, the property agent is your first course of action when something goes wrong. Professionalism and help varies depending on who your agent is so make sure you find a good one before signing a lease. Using a two-part post for easy readability, today I’ll share the best example of the three blunders and explain why bad situations often lead to fast resolutions.
Almost unanimously, the most frequent question posed by most of our Facebook friends and blog readers is “How’s the weather in Malaysia?” Always responding “Hot and Humid”, the next thing they want to know is “How do you get used to the heat?”. Generally speaking, you don’t. Those born and raised in Canada or other cold weather climates never really feel comfortable walking around with piles of sweat beads dripping down their faces. Frequently turning down my offer of afternoon walks around our town, Diane often chooses the afternoon balcony breeze while I endure the blazing heat. Remembering my childhood summer days in Brooklyn, an August afternoon stroll around Batu Ferrenghi often beckons memories of the “Triple H Days” (hazy, hot and humid). Unfortunately, I’m the antsy type and unless I’m sick, there’s nothing worse to me than sitting in the condo from the minute I wake up until the moment I go to sleep.
Thankfully, Malaysia gets a handful of days in any given year that defy the norm. Occasionally blessed with a crystal clear blue sky accompanied by lower humidity (by tropical standards), the other day we enjoyed startlingly low 58% humidity and a sky similar to the most beautiful western Canadian summer days. Granted the temperature still hovered near 90 and the “real feel” was higher but when you’re used to sweating every day, any small reprieve is always appreciated. Usually empty even on weekends, the beautiful skies brought out throngs of sunbathers to our condo pool and I even opted to lay in the sun. Coincidentally, the day coincided with the opening of the annual month-long Georgetown Festival and after basking in the sunshine like normal westerners on a glorious mid summer day, we headed off to the festival’s first event, The Melbourne International Comedy Festival Roadshow. Making its second appearance in Penang, the 2015 version was surprisingly funny and they held it at the beautiful Performing Arts Center of Penang so we anticipated an entertaining and fun-filled evening.
Happy Canada Day !!!
Having just stepped off the plane as newbies to Asia one day before July 1st, Diane and I didn’t really have much time to take in Canada Day last year. Uniquely different from American Independence Day, I always enjoyed celebrating when we lived in Calgary and love how Canadians appreciate independence differently than their patriotic neighbors to the south. Although there are Canadian expat organizations in Malaysia, the main ones are in KL and since we chose Penang over the big city, we don’t envision raising the red flag with any fellow Canucks this year either. With Canada Day falling during Ramadan this year, the island is especially quiet and so in the interest of all Canadian expats, I’m presenting
three ways to celebrate Canada Day; Penang style
1) Eat Duck Rice
One of Penang’s signature dishes, chicken and duck rice like Canadian bacon cheddar burgers in Alberta. Although there are dozens of shops to choose from, there’s one that stands out above and beyond the rest. Conveniently on the way to our favorite park and the Botanical Gardens, Sin Nam Haut serves up generous portions at strangely low prices. Offering crispy roast pork, honey glazed char siu, chicken and roast duck, the tables are large and roomy, servers come take your order right away and the floors are spotless.
With several locations, we usually eat in the Tanjung Bungah location near Island Plaza on the way to one of only two worthwhile supermarkets where we buy groceries. Less glitzy than the Pulau Tikas shop shown above, the staff always remembers us and we usually order combination duck, char siu and pork along with four marinated eggs. Also offering one of the island’s tastiest homemade soups, the homemade stock tastes like it’s been cooking for hours and it’s chock full of fall off the bone pieces of chicken, greens and some veggies. Granted the rice in Penang is nothing to write home about but the orange-colored moderately spicy sauce tastes perfect on top and for the price, you can’t beat the value. Coming in at about 25 or 30 ringgit, (about $7 USD) it’s one of our favorite lunch time treats and while you can’t chug a Molson Canadian to wash it down, we drink cold green tea and remember that a similar take away order from Edmonton’s Chinatown runs about $25.
And just like that, it’s exactly one year since Diane and I stepped off the plane in Malaysia to begin our Experimental Overseas Early Retirement. Looking back, the one word that comes to mind more than anything is “interesting“. Experiencing a totally different lifestyle without the added pressures of raising kids and commuting to work, the year went by faster than we’d imagined and tallying up the totals, we’re almost exactly on budget. Keeping careful financial records of every transaction, withdrawal, credit card charge and foreign exchange transfer, I’d say it’s indeed possible to live a similar lifestyle including moderate travel in Southeast Asia for about 80% of your pre-retirement net salary. Of course, we lived very frugally to get here and my unexpected layoff pushed us into this experiment five years earlier than planned. But with the tumultuous events unfolding back home, there’s no better time to retire in Asia for westerners tired of all the violence, political rhetoric and elitism that’s causing social upheaval not seen since the 1960’s.
Granted Malaysia isn’t the least expensive Southeast Asian nation but it doers have many benefits including an English-speaking population, above average infrastructure and inexpensive but excellent healthcare featuring many physicians and specialists that are U.S. or European Board Certified. While Penang isn’t exactly the most convenient airport for connections around the region, it does have daily non-stop service to Hong Kong allowing for a quick connection back to the homeland as well as direct flights to Bangkok, Ho Chi MInh City and many destinations in China. Unlike Kuala Lumpur, our not so little island has mountains, trails, national parks and serene parks. Despite the unprecedented and ridiculous over-development of million dollar luxury condos designed for wealthy foreign investors, you can still lose yourself in Penang. Spending many days hanging out with friendly monkeys or kicking back on a not so beautiful beach that’s mostly deserted over 40 weeks a year, I don’t miss the chaos of long commutes or the daily dose of intolerance that’s hijacked the homeland. Thanking every reader that’s followed my stories detailing our relatively unexciting life, I’ve written a chronological summary of the first six months in Penang with links to old posts for those looking to catch up or read more.