Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Pleasantville, Penang

Recalling my last visit to the California Department of Motor Vehicles a few years ago, Diane and I cringed as the expiration date of our drivers licenses quickly approached. Usually looking more positively on a root canal than a trip to any government office, we’re glad we decided to hold off on buying a car or motorbike. But even though we don’t have intentions of buying a vehicle in Malaysia, we do plan moving into a suburban house in Chiang Mai, Thailand next summer which makes walking impractical so we’ll need to buy a motorbike. Legally speaking, many nations allow you to drive with a license from your home country but usually only for a few months (although every Brit expat we’ve come across drives here on their UK license since it’s almost perpetual with an expiry date of your grandchild’s 80th birthday). Having looked into the rules for obtaining a Thai drivers license, we decided no sane person would even attempt the long and tedious procedure that includes having someone act as your translator. Fortunately, it’s legal to drive in Thailand with a current Malaysian or Singapore license and Malaysia offers convenient conversion of foreigners drivers licenses so we prepared ourselves mentally for the trudge across the bay to the local JPJ office (a Malaysian acronym for the Road Transport Department).

The JPJ office

The JPJ office

Back in the good old days of the MM2H Forum they had extensive posts and topics on the conversion process and they all made it sound complicated, frustrating and tedious. Recalling obstacles like non-English speaking government officials not understanding the process and long waits at the office, we anticipated the worst. But sometimes life throws you a curve ball and as it turns out, our trip to the JPJ turned out to be surprisingly pleasant and quick. Although we only received a receipt because it’s a two-step process for foreigners whose home country doesn’t have a bilateral agreement with Malaysia, the experience was anything but frustrating and in fact may have been the world’s easiest navigation of government bureaucracy. Unusually generous rules even allow holders of expired foreign drivers’ licenses the right to convert to a Malaysian license as long as it’s not been expired for more than three years. Thinking it might somehow be helpful to visit the office before the expiration date, we took up our neighbor’s generous offer of a ride and headed out for what we all thought might be an all day event.

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Malaysian Rain Dance

Having lived through the last four winters in California, I assumed moving to the tropics would surely eliminate the problem of drought. Unfortunately, my timing was horrible and here we are stuck in the middle of another severe day spell. Ironically, while California’s been blanketed with multiple large storms and received desperately needed rain this year, the strongest El Niño since 1997-98 is turning the rainforest into a dry forest. Although January through March normally marks the warmest time of year in Penang, it’s been over eight weeks without any rain and it’s blazing hot. Regularly climbing into the mid 30’s every day (mid 90’s Fahrenheit), high levels of humidity go with the heat making every day uncomfortable and way too hot to do very much of anything. According to Expat.go, it’s been the hottest winter since 1998 and schools are considering closing next week in parts of Malaysia.

imageExpat life without a car in a tropical heat wave means lots of excess dehydration for “type A” restless personalities like me that refuse to sit in he condo from sunrise to sundown. (Luckily for Diane, she’s perfectly fine relaxing with a good book all day on our breeze filled balcony). Even the locals agree it’s way too hot and anxiously await the return of cloud filled skies and afternoon thunderstorms. Without much else to do, we find ourselves hitting the air-conditioned mall quite often which gave us an opportunity to try the hottest new restaurant in Penang. Waiting to queue is something Diane and I rarely do and certainly not in Southeast Asia where abundant food choices makes it seem ridiculous to stand in line. Achieving Michelin star status, the famed Taiwanese restaurant Din Tai Fung opened a few months ago with daily lines that snaked half way around the mall. With Chinese New Year festivities finally over and everyone back in school, we decided to give it a try now that the excitement wore down a bit.

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Climate Change, Taxes, and Politics

Settling back into the hazy, lazy days of winter, it’s been three weeks since Diane and I returned from our Australian trip that featured our first-ever work exchange stint and some sightseeing in Melbourne and Tasmania. As Chinese New Year “officially” comes to an end tomorrow after the 15th day, things are finally beginning to return to normal. Unfortunately, statistics show February is the hottest month of the year with the most hours of sunshine and least amount of rain. While we expected that, we didn’t expect the odd phenomenon of a strong El Niño combined with Global Warming to make it even hotter than normal.

According to an article in The Washington Post making headlines, scientists using NOAA (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) data seem alarmed at the average temperatures in the Arctic during what’s supposed to be the coldest deep freeze of the year. Normally, those living in Malaysia would shrug and say “Yeah, so what?”. But looking carefully at the images depicting the level of abnormalities, I noticed that Peninsular Malaysia, Sarawak province and a small piece of Vietnam are the only places in all of Southeast Asia in dark red, designating temperatures from 2 to 4 degrees Celsius above seasonal norms. With daily temperatures hovering at 34 to 35 (94 to 96 Fahrenheit) and humidity that’s been hovering i the 70 to 85% range all day, it’s been hot. And uncomfortable.

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Normally, Westerners (myself included) love and worship the sun which makes the winter months an ideal time to visit Penang but when the sun gets too hot for sunbathing and walking means sweating profusely even in the shade, it’s time to start hoping for rain. Like ski resorts desperately waiting for a snowstorm in dry winters, local Penangites are talking about how hot it’s been. Combined with GST, a weak currency and the slowdown in China, most Uber drivers agree it’s been the quietest Chinese New Year they’ve ever seen. Based on the one night of festivities we saw for Hokkien New Year, this is actually fine by me but you’ll have to excuse us during these next few weeks if our posts make its seem like expat life in Penang is quite uneventful and boring.

Without vehicles, Diane and I usually supplement our shopping trips on the bus and Uber with excursions to local museums and other sites of interest, a day trip to The UNESCO area of Georgetown and hikes on the Batu Ferrenghi Aqueduct Trail that’s beautifully shaded, full of friendly monkeys and usually isolated. Taking advantage of a partly cloudy day last week, we hit the trail and reached the spot where the dusky leaf monkeys hang out. Normally very shy and timed, maybe the heat affected their mood as a large group of juveniles actually jumped down to the trees so close to us it almost seemed like they wanted to jump on us. Unlike the more personable macaques, dusky leafs are vegetarian and usually don’t approach humans. Adorably cute, they stayed around for about 45 minutes until the sun started to rise higher and the family leaders decided it was time to hit the other side of the path that’s more shaded and further into the jungle. Never tiring of monkey watching, I consider outings like this one of the best ways to see monkeys in their natural environment having fun.

Lately, however, I’ve been hitting the condo’s gym just before sunrise to avoid severe dehydration, writing a post and hitting the pool for the most of the day. Immersed in a period before traveling again, we’re also trying to save money after spending a bit more than planned in Australia (OK, way too much actually). With Myanmar next on the list, we’re expecting to spend a lot less but I’m still watching the finances carefully. On that note, let’s talk taxes !! As I’ve alluded to in my recent post, living below your means and sacrificing current cash for tax purposes can pay off handsomely and for the last time in the foreseeable future Diane and I get a five digit gift from the Federal government. Ironically, moving to another country after having worked a partial year in the USA usually yields large refunds, especially if you contribute as much as possible to a tax sheltered retirement plan while still working.

irsHaving worked for us three times, it’s not a great mystery. Payroll taxes are withheld by your employer at a rate that assumes they pay your full salary over the course of the entire calendar year. Even if you don’t cut your taxable income, you’d probably still get a refund due to over-payment of tax due. Of course, retiring means you’d have no other income for the year except for capital gains, bank interest (ha) and fixed deposit interest. Taking a sizable capital loss once in your life can’t hurt either since you’re allowed to carry over $3,000 every year forever until it’s all used up which reduces taxable income. Purely by luck, we took almost all our investment funds out of the market in 2008 to raise capital for a large down payment on our highly overpriced suburban Bay Area house. Getting most our cash into a mortgage, we missed most of the 45% drop that battered most portfolios and we started investing again in 2009 at the start of a new bull market.

uncle samThe biggest misnomer that people don’t know is the ridiculous rule about taxation for American citizens. Only the dirt poor nation of Eritrea and the USA taxes its citizens on worldwide income. Simply put, this means American citizens earning anything higher than the standard deduction amounts must file tax returns FOREVER no matter what country on earth they live in. Working expats get an exemption for about $90,000 USD but professionals often earn much more than that and it’s all subject to taxes. We’re also lucky enough to file something called a FBAR. Tracking every penny we own, Americans need to report ALL their overseas assets including bank accounts, trusts, overseas retirement accounts, real estate holdings, foreign brokerage shares and just about anything else that’s considered a tangible asset. Even if you’re lucky enough to earn too little income to file a tax return (often the case for middle class retirees), you still need to file this form.

And if you’re lucky enough to be wealthier than us in retirement, there’s a new form for complying with the evil FATCA legislation that Obama squeezed past everyone after years of delays during the Bush years that monitors high net worth people like a cat watches over a mouse. Usually too complicated to file yourself, most American expats use a cross-border tax firm that specializes in knowing all the gobbledygook and we’re no exception. Changing tax firms now that we’ve moved overseas, I promised my new tax guy a shameless plug. Probably one of the better firms around the world for filing US expat taxes, Greenback Tax Services deserves a first class endorsement. Having just contacted them in late December, they assign new clients a professional tax specialist who sends you an appropriate questionnaire and really gets to know you through email correspondence.

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Explaining our past situation took a few emails and some clarifications about why we’d be expecting a large tax refund given our modest means and status as early retirees earning no income. After explaining a lot of the concepts I’ve shared on this blog, our professional tax specialist understood and asked all the right questions before all of our 2015 tax records were available. Allowing for a simple and quick e-filing as soon as our last required 2015 tax form was available, his advance prep work helped make the process painless and simple. Uploading all your records on a secure server, it’s all very easy and priced according to what returns you need to file with no hidden fees of any kind. Our assigned specialist is Nicholas Roscher. Hailing from New York City and an expat himself residing in Spain, he sports a highly impressive profile on LinkedIn and answered all our questions in a very timely manner. Give him a shout if you find yourself needing an expat tax specialist.

Finally, on the political front, I always shy away from that topic when it comes to the blog. Making a rare exception, I will say that the world’s fascination with Donald Trump’s dangerous quest to become America’s new president followed us everywhere we went in Australia. Uttering more than two words to almost anybody from waiters to tour guides with my obvious American accent almost instantly morphed into a conversation about ” So explain America’s fascination with Trump”. Unwilling to lower myself to the level that’s become the 2016 Presidential Campaign, I won’t even dignify the topic with an answer. Rather, I’ll briefly explain my very non-partisan view on American politics.

trumpNeither favoring Republicans or Democrats, I’m in favor a complete and total overhaul to the fundamentals of what’s called “American democracy”. Completely broken, the political system in America started deteriorating in 1980 with Ronald Reagan’s election. Beginning with an overhaul of the old “progressive tax system” that favors the élite, Wall Street, large corporations, and a handful of industries like big pharma, food and oil, the wealth disparity in the USA is on par with third world African nations and dictatorships. Once a proud nation with a manufacturing based economy, the US economy runs only on over-consumption, consumer spending and a system that keeps 80% of a financially ignorant electorate sacked in debt, working until they die and unable to achieve what they once called “The American Dream“. This is not my opinion; it’s a statistical fact. Simply put, Americans never take responsibility for anything because finding a scapegoat is easier and Trump’s appeal takes full advantage of this by spewing off racist crap and blaming everyone and not addressing real solutions.

1860-mapSeveral solutions exist like establishing a practical third-party that can win an election without the billions of dollars donated by lobbyists and special interests. Another possibility is ditching the obsolete “electoral college”. Written for a 19th century nation of mostly rural uneducated farmers and created with the belief that citizens weren’t sophisticated enough to allow a popular vote as the last word, California’s vote hasn’t counted in decades despite its large number of electoral votes. Already decided by a few “swing states” where the candidates waste all their time coveting, West Coast voters needn’t bother voting because CNN already calls the election six hours before the polls close. But those two ideas will likely not be seen in my lifetime. Or will they?

To answer all the Australians that I offered no comments for and for the benefit of anyone who’s curious but unfamiliar with what’s really wrong with America, I came across an article the other day that addresses the fundamental problems I’ve mentioned but explains them a lot better than me. Bernie Sanders is a small potatoes senator that’s never had any other income other than his political salary. Advocating himself a “socialist” candidate even though most Americans have no clue how real socialist policies might affect their lives (sans expats that have lived overseas), he’s actually beginning to attract a large enough movement of the same frustrated voters smart enough to recognize Trump for what he really is (A Fascist with no political cause), I’ve been given a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, there might be some real alternatives to The Power Elite currently ruling the world. I highly urge every single reader to check it out.

Please click this link to read the article. And that’s all I’ll ever say about American politics because this is an expat blog about our experimental foray into early retirement overseas and not a place for Trump bashing (although it’s highly appreciated).

So for now we’re of to the pool.

Cheers from Penang and good luck to America’s citizens.

 

Our Holiday Message

Spending our first holiday season away from North America, Diane and I have a lot to be thankful for. Having successfully sold our house and almost all our possessions, we took a big leap of faith and followed a dream of early retirement in Southeast Asia. Having never even visited Penang or even peninsular Malaysia, the first six months have come and gone with only minor inconveniences. Always interesting, often frustrating and most certainly quite rewarding, expat life is nothing like anything we’ve ever done and differs greatly from vacations. Having said that and almost always avoiding political topics, I nevertheless feel compelled to share my take on the tumultuous times we’re living in. Saddened by the recent terrorist attacks in France, we’re greatly disturbed by the messages being sent to the voters in the supposed leader of the free world. Once a bastion of freedom and democracy, the hatred, xenophobia and racism spewing out of the mouths of almost every American political candidate running for president in 2016 is so offensive it makes me ashamed to be an American citizen.

hate_sucks_hoodieRecently, a letter to Donald Trump from Michael Moore entitled “We’re all Muslim” made the rounds on the internet. Normally not a fan, I read it anyway and it helped ease my concern that every American voter is so angry that they’d even entertain thoughts of “banning all Muslims” from the country founded on the principle of religious freedom. Before anyone sends me hate mail, let me clarify: I am a non-Christian agnostic raised without much religion and neither condone or condemn any religion as better than any other. Nobody denies there’s evil organizations out there and the threat is real. But allowing the 2016 election’s main agenda of a return to perpetual fear by an entire citizenry egged on by a far right contingent of conservative politicians fearful of losing power does a huge disservice to a generation tired of reliving the tragedy of 9/11 for an entire century.

Knowing most expat blog readers are open-minded, my holiday wish is a return of sanity to a political system gone horribly awry. Understanding I can’t pull the weight of MIchael Moore, I’m offering an Open Letter to the American Voters from a fellow citizen living in a peaceful Muslim nation. Basically there’s no “East Versus West” except in the minds of your idiot candidates and my proof is six months of residency in “enemy territory“. Sadly, I’m unable to share this on Facebook because most of my FB friends would immediately condemn me for speaking out against hatred and fall back some warped idea that respecting all religions is somehow unpatriotic.

Dear American Voter:

My wife and I voluntarily moved to Malaysia this year to begin our retirement. For many, your knowledge of this scenic and beautiful nation might be limited to CNN’s highly biased and mostly non-factual coverage of an airline that disappeared and a government too ignorant to figure out what happened. Others may be curious and even want to visit but you probably won’t. Despite no active warnings to Americans about terrorist related activities, you’re no doubt scared. Although the state we live in (Penang) is largely dominated by Chinese, the nation is a “Muslim country” and your government therefore discourages you from visiting. You’re told “they’re all coming to get you” and “another 9/11 is imminent”. At the risk of educating even one person, we’d like to share a bit of life in one of the most peaceful nations on earth. At the risk of shocking many of you, we took the picture below at a recent trip to the mall.

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Notice the young teens and their mother texting. Just like your kids. Contrary to popular opinion, Malaysians (Muslims) enjoy a middle class lifestyle like yours. They’re not “coming to get you. In fact, they know almost nothing about you and are all shockingly appalled and bewildered when someone tells them 300 million people hate them. They wear head-dress. Many of you wear your Sunday best when you go to church. So what? Historically speaking, Muslims lived peacefully with Christians, Buddhists and Jews in western Europe and everyone got along once until the Spanish Inquisition put a stop to that. Oddly enough, there are lots of churches in a Muslim nation. And more Christmas music than politically correct California. You see, people in moderate Muslim nations spend most of their time working and enjoy their holidays at the beach. Just like you. Malaysia encourages legal immigration and doesn’t even profile you at the airport for looking Christian. Imagine that.

My wife and I chose not to own a vehicle. Taking the bus allows us to integrate with the population that includes Muslims, Indians, Chinese and mostly European expats. This may shock you but the pictures below show how most Malaysian Muslims spend their mornings and weekends. They commute and sit in traffic. Just like you. Unlike most Americans, they give up their seat when an elderly person gets on the bus. And would you believe they even do this when a non-Muslim needs a seat? (Gasp). When we visit the mall, the mostly Muslim salespeople go out of their way to be polite and are probably less likely to commit a violent crime of any one than their expat counterparts. On weekends, they gather in the parks to play free concerts. They’re not organizing rallies to drum up the next terrorist attack against Americans. Believe it or not, Islam has nothing to do with holding back women’s rights. Governments and cultural norms control that, mostly for political gain, not religion. Everyone here works, schools are open to anyone that wants an education and they even occasionally hold hands in public. Yikes.

Malaysia’s population is almost 40 million. About 65% are Muslim. They’re overwhelmingly peaceful, law-abiding citizens that have better things to do with their time than follow politicians, right-wing radio hosts and media organizations that spread innuendo, lies and hatred. We know this not because we’re pro Democrat, left-wing or anti-Republican. We live it every day. With two billion Muslims on earth, the notion that “they’re all terrorists” is simply an outright lie. What passes as media in America is sinful and running an entire election platform on hatred instead of addressing real issues like bilateral cooperation of all nations to fight ALL forms of terrorism is an injustice. Even allowing Donald Trump to get this far is shocking to most of the world and hopefully sanity will prevail.

Of course Malaysia has problems and not everyone is a model citizen. Most of you knows for a fact that the ratio of Americans killed by gun violence outnumbers those killed by terrorism by an astoundingly ridiculous margin but that’s OK because the second amendment somehow means it’s OK to murder children in cold blood as long as it’s done by a white guy. I won’t argue gun laws here but will shock you one more time by informing you there’s NO GUNS PERMITTED in this Muslim nation except law enforcement and the military. So I’d like Mr.Trump to explain just what they’ll all kill us with. 

Imploring everyone to speak out against racism and return America to the proud world leader it once was, please share this letter to every presidential candidate. (except whatever idiot said “We’ll leave Malaysia alone”). Thanks for reading.

Peace, Love and Happy Holidays from us to you !!