Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Annoying Astro

During the past couple of weeks or so it has been quite hot and humid here in Penang and perhaps I am a bit more irritable than usual. When I have settled down to watch a movie or one of my favorite programs I am subjected to inane ads for special movies on Astro First. A couple of weeks ago the ad was about a movie where the main character kept repeating the word "money". Now, and since last week the prevailing ad is for some childish appearing movie about some alien or other kind of creature. It is actually a small child painted green and made up to look like an alien. Very bad makeup to say the least.

These ads become extremely annoying when they are repeated every few minutes on every channel. What really gets me is that one of the movies was an Indian language movie and the other a Malay movie. The movies were to be broadcast on a non English language channel, but they were both advertised on all English language channels. I am sure that the non English speaking residents here are also subjected to English language ads plastered all over the non English language channels they watch.

This does not seem like smart marketing on behalf of Astro, since the advertising is wasted.  One would think Astro would make more money by advertising products like automobiles, Coke and other brand name products. At least this way there would be a variety of annoying ads instead of one annoying ad for one program being repeated ad nauseam on every channel.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

Thursday November 24 is Thanksgiving in America. I would like to wish all of my family and friends in the United States a very happy Thanksgiving. I would also like to thank everyone back home for giving us a wonderful trip back home. Someday we hope we will be able to celebrate Thanksgiving again with all of you in America. Don't eat too much and drive safely.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Farewell to Island Plaza Starbucks

When I lived in Boston I think I went to Starbucks only 3 or 4 times, even thought there was one in my hospital and several near my house. I preferred to go to Dunkin' Donuts, basically for the glazed chocolate sticks and donuts. I never really had the desire to go to a coffee shop and sit down for any length of time.

When I moved to Tanjung Tokong I discovered Island Plaza right across the street from where I lived. It had a grocery store for me to do my shopping, a nice small department store and a gym. I visited the grocery store just about every day and soon joined the gym. I go to the gym about 4 days a week, even though you can't tell by looking at me. I was invited to stop at Starbucks by a couple of friends from the gym. Soon I began to stop every day, after either the gym or shopping. I got to know many people there and enjoyed sitting, talking and drinking coffee. There was a good mixture of people including seniors, expats, young people and a variety of local residents. The young staff there were exceptional. They were very attentive, hardworking, friendly and genuine. Unlike some other coffee shops in the area they knew the meaning of customer service. Visiting Starbuck's became an important part of my routine.

Last Thursday when I went in for my latte I was informed that Starbucks at Island Plaza would be closed forever, on the following day. Needless to say I was shocked and saddened. Island Plaza has been undergoing renovation for the past  7 or more months now. Metrojaya department store is gone and Cold Storage has been remodeled, but not improved. The gym is there along with a very few businesses. The Plaza is like a ghost town most of the time, especially after the theater closed. During the renovation Starbucks remained open serving their loyal customers. This has been a very difficult time for the remaining few business at Island Plaza because very few visitors mean very few customers and no profit. They still had to pay the rent, without any profits coming in. According to Starbucks staff the company could no longer afford to stay there, so it decided to close for good.

Now when I go to the gym or Cold Storage I don't stop for coffee or conversation. I wish Oscar, Diana, Shanker, Josh and all of the employees the best of luck in whatever they choose to do. I would also like to thank them for their kindness and friendship. Island Plaza has lost part of its soul.

Monday, November 14, 2011

How I Moved to Penang, Malaysia to Live (Part 2)

In my last post I discussed the logistics of my move up until my experiences with the banks. I will now continue my story of my move to Malaysia.

I arrived in Penang on July 4th, 2008 to start the next chapter in my life. I had put money down and signed a purchase and sales agreement on a condo, in a complex I had seen before and liked. The unit was furnished and needed no renovation. It was also reasonably priced. When I first came here I lived in a service apartment for a month, which was a bit inconvenient. It was not near any shopping area nor public transportation, but it did have a nice pool and a great bar. It was also quite cheap to stay there. After only a couple of weeks the seller of my unit told me I could move in to the condo before final papers were passed, without having to pay any rent. I was extremely happy to say the least. At the end of August the move was accomplished. Shortly after my friend in Boston mailed my few remaining possessions, so I did have a little bit of home with me.

With my friend's help all of the utilities were set up and working. To give an idea of what the utility costs are I will share what I pay for mine. The amounts are in approximate US dollars. Satellite TV with premium channels comes to about $46 a month; electricity (includes washer, dryer, A/C all night in 1 room, 1 fan 24 hrs/day, TV with home theater system, 2 laptops, 2 aquaria , electric oven and a few smaller kitchen gadgets)averages out to be about $60 a month; water is $5 every 2 months; condo fees are about $160 every 3 months and finally taxes are about $300 per year. I have bottled gas which I pay about $16 every 6 months. We eat out most of the time because local food is so much cheaper than buying food and cooking at home. It may not be healthy, but it is good.

Once I moved in to my new condo, and had it painted with vibrant colors, instead of the all white walls, got some plants and hung pictures, I was all set. The move was officially completed.

I retired early when I moved here and did not receive Social Security until just recently. I applied for Social Security online with the US Embassy in Manila and the called shortly after they received my application to interview me. This took less than 15 minutes and was painless. I chose to have my benefits deposited into my account in the US.  I was reasonably concerned about filing my federal and state income taxes from Malaysia and had a great deal of trouble finding answers from the IRS or other government sites. If you look for information you only find results pertaining to people working and living abroad, not retirees. I did find out that you MUST have a US address to file electronically with Turbo Tax and other major commercial companies. I settled for a free site suggested on the IRS website, using a US friend's address. I have to file my Massachusetts tax using the the downloaded forms from the Internet.

If some Americans are reading this and contemplating moving here I would like to offer a few suggestions. If you decide to move here I would suggest to visit a couple of times and when you finally decide to move look for a nice rental place before you buy. Property here is nothing like in the US. When buying properties that are being built you will be paying so much until the building is completed. The price may sound cheap, but remember you will still have to pay between 10 and fifteen thousand to renovate to make it livable. Window and door screens that are standard in the US do not exist here, so you will have to get used to that. There is no central gas or hot water here either. You can  have small hot water heaters in the kitchen installed and the bathrooms have water heaters for a hot shower. Local people here do not wash dishes in hot water, but cold water. This goes for food courts, coffee shops, hawker stands and most restaurants.  Western style kitchens with ovens are becoming a little more common in the newer built condos. These are always electric. The stove tops are mainly gas and are powered by bottled gas, which is cheap and easy to get.
The hardest thing for me to get used to were the Asian style bathrooms. These bathrooms are small, with no electrical outlets. They consist of a sink, toilet and a hand held shower. When you take a shower, everything gets wet. And I mean everything. I found it quite annoying to walk in to the bathroom in the middle of the night and find a still wet floor. Using the toilet caused my pants to become wet, which really annoyed me. Many times I dressed to go out, including socks, and then had to use the toilet again. So I had to take my socks off, go to the bathroom, dry my socks off and put them back on. I have 2 bathrooms and I quickly got one converted to a Western style. Most newer units do have Western style bathrooms now. If you have to convert a bathroom make sure you go to a reputable contractor, as most local contractors do not understand the concept of a dry bathroom. Most condos do not have enough or convenient electrical outlets, so you may want to have more installed. This is not too expensive, but it is messy as the walls are all concrete.

These are only some annoyances or inconveniences you will either have to get used to or try to remedy. You must realize that  Malaysia is a country of only a little over 50 years of age and thus cannot be compared to the US and other developed countries. Malaysia has some beautiful buildings, beautiful scenary, great food and most of all beautiful people. If you move here don't make the mistake that many expats make by just sitting on your balconies drinking and enjoying the view and not getting to know the locals. If you want to just socialize with other Americans and expats and eat at high end Western restaurants, there is no since in coming here. Stay home.

Monday, November 7, 2011

How I Moved to Penang, Malaysia to Live (Part 1)

I just received a comment from a reader asking me to tell my story of moving to Malaysia. In his comment he stated that he couldn't find much on the web about Americans moving here, but a great deal about Brits who have moved here. I completely agree with him. So I will try to tell my story again in a summarized form. I originally started this blog on another platform, but because of the difficulty using that platform I moved my blog here. My original blog was started  in April of 2011 and can be found here. I actually took over a blog that had been dormant for some time. You can visit it to see more details.

When I decided to move to Penang I too had a great deal of difficulty finding information on exactly how to do it. I found little useful information on the web about retiring in Malaysia. Most of the information concerned moving to Central America and Europe. The expat websites that had information regarding Americans usually had one or two useless interviews with Americans living here. They were usually written by a bored housewife, who had to move here because of her husbands job. This information, I found, was not informative, usually inaccurate and of no help. There are a couple of blogs on American expats living in Malaysia, but they consist mainly of recipes and arts and crafts. No help to the potential retiree or anyone planning on moving here. The rest of the information in these expat sites is in regards to buying expensive real estate, advertising moving companies and selling books on how to move overseas.

I did find a site for Americans living in Kuala Lumpur, the capital. It is basically a site for wives of Americans working here. This site was useless. I contacted them, but never got an answer. There are many websites for British people living here, but their information is geared to UK citizens. You can make a post here, but you either won't get a response or more than likely they can't help with your situation. The reason for so many British sites is that Malaysia is a former British colony and many older expats here think it still is. British English is spoken here, they drive on the left side of the road and many British customs and mannerisms are evident here. So the transition form the UK is much easier than that from the US.

As I could find little or no information on Americans moving to Malaysia, I had to do everything from total ignorance. Luckily I had a friend, who is Malaysian and lived here, who was able to help. First of all I found the Malaysia My 2nd Home (MM2H) website which is run by the Malaysian Ministry of Tourism. Malaysia offers a long term (10 year renewable) social visit visa. The site can be found here. There are 2 options for applying to this program. One is a do it yourself plan and the other is to hire an agent. I went the agent route since I was 12,000 miles away and I would rather pay someone to do the legwork and make sure it was done right. The agency I used was Comfort Life and I was very satisfied with their services. In order to get my visa I had to place about $40,000 into a fixed deposit account in a major Malaysian bank. At the current exchange rate I believe that amount is almost $50,000. (When I use $ I am referring to USD). After 2 years you can take a large chunk of this for medical expenses, buying property or education). The MM2H site explains the other requirements.

Getting the MM2H visa was extremely easy. A very short time after I applied I received I was approved for the visa. I had 1 year to go to Malaysia to pick up my visa. At the time of my visit I was taken to the bank to set up my fixed deposit account. Once I got my visa the next step was to sell my house and move. Easier said than done.

I put my house in Boston up for sale in October of 2007 and I sweated, as the housing prices fell and the housing market went down the toilet. Finally I sold my house in May of 2008. I planned to leave for Boston on July 3, so I had a lot of work to do. I decided not to bring my furniture and appliances with me. This was costly and I was not sure if my furniture would fit in my new home, when I purchased it. The electrical system is very different here, so the electrical appliances could not be used. I decided to sell everything and buy everything new.

The biggest problem and by far the biggest source of anger and frustration was with the American banking system. Thanks to the Patriot Act, the banking system in the United States is like no other country in the world. It works against the customer instead of with or for the customer. My biggest concern about moving to Malaysia was being able to transfer money from the US to my accounts in Malaysia. I went to the big banks with branches in Malaysia. I remember seeing Citibank and Bank of America in Malaysia, so I naturally went to these banks in Boston. They both promised me I could easily transfer money to their branches in Malaysia. They both lied in order to get me to open an account with them. One bank required me to keep a minimum of $250,000 and the other $500,000, just to be able to make periodic transfers. I don't know how much most retireeSo that is what I am doing now. I use my bank's Internet banking system to pay bills back home or send relatives Christmas money. The only inconvenient thing about using your home bank in the US is that you can't have a foreign address. If you have a foreign address to have your statements sent, you will not be allowed to use Internet banking. The banks say that this is a rule of the Department of the Treasury. I checked this out and it is not true. The banks can allow foreign addresses as long as the make yearly reports of these addresses. This will cost the banks a little bit of money, so they naturally refuse to do it. Big banks only know how to take from the customers, not give in the form of services. On the subject of banking there is one inconvenient and highly unfair requirement the US government shackles expats with and that is the FBAR. This is the Foreign Bank Account Report, which has to be filed every year. This requires the expat to report all foreign bank accounts of over $10,000. These accounts include investment accounts, checking accounts, joint accounts of any kind or any other account with your name on it. If you had an account where the balance was $10,000 for just one day, you still have to report it. The penalty for not reporting or even reporting late is extremely and unnecessarily harsh. Groups like American Citizens Abroad are trying to repeal these draconian laws and hopefully they will succeed.

As this post is becoming quite long I will separate it into 2 parts. I will finish it in the next post.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Yet Another Update on the Missing Manhole Covers.

On October 2, I posted an update on the situation where 2 manhole covers had been missing since July 25th of this year. Between July 25th and October 2nd, The Star Newspaper carried an article on the dangerous gaping holes in the sidewalk in  the Tanjung Tokong area of Penang. The newspaper contacted MPPP in regards to this situation and was told that the matter would be remedied soon. Well today is November 2nd and here is what has been done by MPPP. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING. I am really surprised that there is such a lack of concern over public safety. It appears that there is not only a lack of concern for the well being of the residents, but also a complete denial of responsibility for maintaining public walkways. It must just boil down to incompetence.

Apparently the grids or covers were stolen for scrap metal value. There should have been replacements in place by now, if someone had taken the initiative. There was even a comment placed on the previous update post from a company that produces covers. They suggested that if any contractors were seen working on them, their website could be given to them. A wonderful idea, except for the fact that obviously no one cares enough about these dangerous conditions to even visit the area.  I am including some photos that I took today, to show how disgusting the area looks.