Malaysian life pulling in Korea’s seniors
The couple are only two of the many Koreans who have retired relatively early and moved abroad. Countries like Malaysia offer a winning combination of a low cost of living and beautiful natural scenery.
In the past, few Koreans would have wanted to retire abroad, leaving behind their children and country. That began to change around three years ago, when Korean retirees began to flood the Philippines and Indonesia, eventually spreading to Malaysia.
Koreans living in Malaysia say the average cost of living is 40 percent lower than in Korea, and that gasoline costs a third of what it would here. The weather is particularly appealing to seniors: It’s warm year-round, though rarely sweltering. The average temperature in January is as low as 25 degrees in centigrade (77 Fahrenheit) and as high as 27 degrees, while August’s low is 27 degrees and its high is 29 degrees.
“At this age, I’m working actively, and nothing is uncomfortable. I’m living a very happy life here,” said Lee Jin-bok, 70, who lives in Wangsa, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur. When he was 58, Mr. Lee moved to Malaysia with the few dollars he had left after his divorce. He is now married to a Malaysian woman who runs a glasses store.
“I go to Korea once or twice a month for business, but I don’t feel comfortable there any more [because of the high living costs and hotel fees],” Mr. Lee said, explaining that he can’t meet friends in Korea without worrying about costs. A group of three or four people can easily spend 200,000 won ($211) to 300,000 won for a meal in Seoul.
“It costs about 100,000 won here in Malaysia if you stay in a really good hotel, a third of what it costs in Seoul. On a budget for three meals in Malaysia, I couldn’t even eat once in Korea,” Mr. Lee said.
“Malaysia is really cheap and there is nearly no crime. People are also nicer and warmer than Koreans,” he added.
Mr. Lee lives in a 132-square-meter (1,420-square-foot) apartment in a suburb 30 minutes from Kuala Lumpur. The house costs 50 million won. He spends about 2 million won a month with his wife, almost always having lunch and dinner in restaurants. Mr. Lee says he plans to spend the rest of his life in the country.
Malaysia has one of the best economies and infrastructure of any Asean member state. Even though the government rarely provides citizenship to immigrants, foreign residents can participate in the official “My Second Home Program,” which targets wealthy foreign retirees. The program offers a five-year visa to those over 50 years old who deposit $40,000 in a Malaysian bank or have a monthly income of over $2,500. The retiree can then withdraw up to $25,000 from their local account after living in the country for a year. Those younger than 50, however, must put $75,000 into their account or have a monthly income of over $2,500.
Ko Wui-hwan, 49, and Moon Hae-sook, 50, who runs a Korean restaurant in the Koreatown, moved to Ampang in June 2005, after losing his job in Korea. They live with their daughter, 24, and a son, 12, in an apartment, paying only 500,000 won a month in rent. The restaurant business is good, pulling in about 7 million to 8 million won a month in profit. The family’s living costs are about 1 million won a month, excluding rent and education expenses.
He said Malaysians are “really nice” and that the society is lawful and orderly, with a standard of living equal to Korea’s. Furthermore, the education for the 12-year-old son is much better than that in Korea: He can learn both English and Chinese, as most international schools also offer the latter.
Going to Mont’kiara International School, one of the most expensive and highest-quality international schools in Kuala Lumpur, costs about 1 million won a month. “Considering the cost of private education in Korea, 1 million won per month is not that expensive,” said one Korean parent who sends her child to the school. “On just that, the school takes care of my kid’s entire education.”
But Mr. Ko said he is afraid of losing discipline. “There’s no seasonal change here, so I don’t realize how much time has passed. I can wear a short-sleeved shirt all year. Koreans who have lived in Malaysia for years aren’t as ambitious as they used to be and live very slowly. Well, they’ve adapted. I’m afraid of living a lax life. How can I adjust myself to a fast-paced society if I go back to Korea?”
Mr. Ko is now planning to start a business related to Korea while staying in Malaysia for the next few years.
But not everything is great in living in Malaysia. The government may be secular, but the society is largely Muslim. There are few places to drink, something Koreans are famous for doing, and the Islamic cultural customs come off as stiff and conservative to Koreans. The weather is also humid. Most Koreans who live in Malaysia shuffle back and forth between the two countries, finding it difficult to stay there year-round.
That’s not to mention the difficulty of living anywhere as a foreigner, adjusting to the climate, struggling to communicate and adapting to new customs and systems.
“It’s important to understand the local environment before making a decision to emigrate,” said Yoo Il-hwan, president of Weatherman Investment, a consultancy of after-retirement-emigration to Malaysia.
by Choi Young-jae, Park Sung-ha