Moving To Malaysia

Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H)

Author: Jon Page 1 of 3

Claiming on my medical insurance

I had my first experience of being hospitalised and making a claim on my MM2H-mandated medical insurance policy earlier this year. I’m only writing about it now because, although my surgery was back in March, it has taken until September to wrap up the whole process.

Luckily it wasn’t anything too serious – but nonetheless a surgical procedure and an overnight stay in hospital were required.

Late last year I had started getting nosebleeds – starting out bad and progressing, over the space of a couple of months, to ridiculous (and quite scary), culminating in a trip to my local Accident & Emergency department. They patched me up but suggested I should see an ENT (Ear, Nose & Throat) specialist a few days later, which I duly did. He took one look and referred me to an ENT surgeon – Professor Dato’ Dr Prepageran at UMSC (University Malaya Specialist Centre), who as it turns out is one of (if not the) foremost ENT experts in the country. I certainly felt in very good hands with him.

Several consultations, tests and scans later, and it was established that I had a large growth that needed to be removed from the inside of my nose, complicated by a heavily-deviated septum. Surgery was arranged for a few weeks later.

The timing was fortuitous, as the global coronavirus pandemic was just starting to take hold and, in anticipation of hospitals being potentially overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases, it looked uncertain how much longer they would remain open for non-emergency surgeries. There was of course the concern that being in hospital would increase the risk of being exposed to the coronavirus, but after discussing this with Professor Prepa, and being satisfied that all the right precautions were in place, I felt it an acceptable risk – and better to get on and get the surgery done rather than spend the rest of the year (and maybe beyond!) dealing with regular severe nosebleeds.

My surgery went ahead uneventfully, and successfully, and I have to say that the care I received during my recovery in hospital was superb. Overall I was very impressed with the quality of healthcare here.

I then had several follow-up consultations over the course of the next few months until I was released from Professor Prepa’s care in June.

There was then the matter of the finances.

The way this works here in Malaysia, or at least with my insurance policy from Prudential, is that most of the expenses are “pay and claim” – I pay the bills and then claim them back from my insurer. The exception was the surgery itself, which they pay for directly (total cost, around 18,000rm). Everything else I paid for and then (eventually) got back – mostly.

Upon each doctor visit, you pay a deposit (300rm on the first visit, 200rm on each visit thereafter in my case). You then pay the balance after your consultation, before leaving – though I imagine you could just walk out and have them bill you, but I’m not sure how advisable that is if you want them to keep seeing you! Obtaining and safely keeping your receipts for everything is vital, as you will need them for your insurance claim. Malaysia is still a very paper-based country, and many of the things I used to take for granted as being done online, electronically, back home, here require reams of paper. I suppose it’s lucky that trees grow quickly in this part of the world…

Once I was discharged, back in June, I set about putting in my insurance claim to have my bills reimbursed. In theory, I could have claimed each bill as I went along, but I felt it would be simpler to wait until the end. And as it turned out, the process of claiming didn’t exactly go smoothly, so it was probably just as well I was only dealing with one.

Luckily, my Prudential agent is superb, and did a lot of running around to get everything sorted out. I’m not sure I would have been able to do it all myself.

The first step is to collate the original copies of all your bills – these need to be submitted to Prudential. I had been taking scans after each visit in any case, in order to have electronic copies for myself, and I’d highly recommend doing this, as you will very likely find yourself wanting to refer back to them later (I use CamScanner app on my iPhone rather than owning a physical scanning machine). I also created a simple spreadsheet, listing for each bill the date, deposit, balance, and total paid, plus brief description, and then giving me the grand total – a little over 7,000rm in my case. Later on, I would find this spreadsheet invaluable for trying to work out What On Earth Was Going On…

With the help of my agent, we filled in the claim forms and handed them in to Prudential, along with the original copies of all the bills. Then waited to find out whether the claim would be accepted.

And waited… Things move slowly in Malaysia and it was a good few weeks before I heard anything back, not helped by it taking a fortnight for a letter to reach me (I don’t know whether that was the fault of the postal service, the letter sitting in an outbox at Prudential, or perhaps it going into the wrong mailbox at my condo, but whichever, I got it just over two weeks after the actual date on the letter).

Prudential did accept my claim, but only paid out about a third of the amount initially. It turned out that, in order to consider the rest of the claim, they needed some further, quite technical, information that I was somehow expected to be able to provide. Now, the simplest way for Prudential to get this information would have been for them to pick up the phone, call the hospital and spend maybe two or three minutes talking to someone there. But no, cannot lah! Thankfully my agent did the heavy lifting here, and went to the hospital in person to obtain the answer and the necessary documentation. Meanwhile, further to a separate request from Prudential, I went back to the A&E department where it had all started in order to obtain various medical records that they needed – there is of course a fee for providing medical records (a few hundred ringgit) but Prudential did at least confirm these would definitely be reimbursed.

Some weeks later, Prudential paid out a further tranche of my claim, theoretically in “full and final” settlement, but still not the total amount I was expecting. I knew there would be some deductions per the policy terms – 300rm for the hospitalisation, plus the ‘administration fee’ (typically 10rm) levied on each visit. But that still left the reimbursement almost 700rm short.

I asked for a breakdown, by invoice and line-item, of what had been excluded, and why. I was sent a letter containing a brief list of bullet points, listing the excluded amounts. Except that very few of these tallied with what was actually printed on the invoices, and no sensible reason was given for their exclusion. After a few hours with my spreadsheet, going back through the invoices, and adding an additional column for administration fees, and splitting out some other details, I was able to – just about – make the numbers tally. I had to make some assumptions about what Prudential meant, and mess about a fair bit with the numbers, but I was eventually able to see how they might have arrived at the amount they were deducting. It was still 20rm off though, but close enough.

I did appeal their decision not to pay out the full amount and, after some runaround, did eventually get an explanation of why they still would not. What had happened was that, after my surgery, I started to get heart palpitations, which I mentioned to my surgeon and queried whether they might have been a side-effect of the general anaesthetic. He immediately sent me off to see one of his colleagues, a heart specialist, who in turn sent me for an ECG. After a thorough check-up, we established there was nothing physically wrong – and the palpitations did eventually go away, although it did take quite a few weeks. Whether or not they were related to my surgery or just coincidence, I don’t know. But Prudential declined to pay for that part of my medical bills, citing terms in the policy that state:

“We shall reimburse reasonable and customary charges incurred for medically necessary follow-up treatment on the life assured by the same surgeon or doctor.”

The key phrase here is, I think, “by the same surgeon or doctor”. Because I’d been referred to a different one, they wouldn’t cover it. I’m assuming there was no issue with it being medically-necessary, as my surgeon clearly felt it was indeed needed.

By the letter of the policy, fair enough. But by the spirit…. hmmmm. I suppose I can see why they might have that clause – perhaps in the past people have taken the p*ss and used the opportunity of a minor surgery to claim for all sorts of unrelated treatments and check-ups. But it strikes me as a little draconian, and something to watch out for. I mean, what happens if your surgeon is away from work, off sick let’s say, and delegates a follow-up consultation to a colleague? What happens if your surgery is complex and requires follow-up with a variety of different specialists? This seems like a pretty big get-out clause for Prudential, and could prove expensive for the customer who thought their ‘medically-necessary’ follow-ups were covered.

I’m not overly concerned about the money – it’s not a huge amount compared to the overall bill. But here’s the thing – for the sake of 700rm, Prudential could have won me over, left me with really good feelings towards them, had me thinking “Wow, Prudential really came through for me, good work”, kept me as a loyal customer for life, and made me a strong advocate for them. Instead I’m left feeling they’re a cheapskate, that they’ve nickel-and-dimed me, that any time in future I need to make a claim, I can expect to have to fight them every step of the way, check every last bit of paperwork, every last calculation, and hold them to the wall to get anything from them. Far from being a loyal wouldn’t-even-think-of-switching customer, I’ll now always have half an eye out for a better deal. That 700rm could easily end up costing Prudential tens, hundreds, of times that in the long run. Good work, Prudential. Not.

That 700rm aside, I got most of my money back, eventually. But coming from the UK, it really makes me appreciate the simplicity of the NHS, where one simply doesn’t need to worry about the bills – it’s all taken care of behind the scenes; “healthcare free at the point of need”.

Luckily my surgery was minor and I was fully recovered by the time I came to deal with the insurance claim. But I can well imagine that for someone with a more serious, or long-term condition, dealing with all this during recovery, or while still unwell, would have hugely added to the stress and worry.

I mean that as not so much a criticism of Prudential (though there is much they could do to improve their internal processes and customer communications – very much), but rather of the whole concept of insurance-based healthcare. Anyone who thinks this is the best way to do things (looking at you, America), has presumably either never had to actually make a significant medical insurance claim, or has never experienced a system like the NHS – which, for all its problems, at least shields the patient from the financial aspects of their care, leaving them to focus on their health and recovery.

Still, all’s well that ends well. And of course, as an expat here in Malaysia, insurance-based medical care is unavoidable. Although I would obviously rather not have had the health issue at all, I’m glad I had this experience now, early on in my time here, as at least I now know what to expect if I ever need to go into hospital again.

As with any insurance policy of course, the proof of the pudding is in the, er, claiming. Prudential could have done a better job. But then again, I’m not convinced they are any worse than anyone else. I think much depends on having a really good agent – so whichever provider you choose, once you’ve compared prices, benefits, exclusions, and terms and conditions etc, make sure your agent is someone you feel good about. They will be invaluable if/when the time comes to make a claim.

Perhaps one day Malaysia will go fully digital, and it will be simple and quick to make an insurance claim online oneself. But for now, it’s very much a manual, paper-based, and above all relationship-based process. In my case, I think it’s fair to say that my agent is the reason I stay with Prudential – if he ever moves to another provider, it’s highly likely I would switch too (which, to me, speaks volumes about Prudential as a business…).

Anyway, in summary, my main takeouts from all this are:

  1. Be prepared to pay your bills up-front, so keep plenty of cash reserves. You can of course draw down on part of your MM2H fixed deposit after one year for certain medical bills, though I didn’t do this so I can’t comment on how easy or quick that is – I suspect you will still need to front the bills then get the money back afterwards.
  2. You can pay your bills by credit card, but do take more than one card with you. Having your only means of payment declined at the payment counter before your appointment, even if it was the bank’s mistake and not your fault (yes, it happened to me) is stressful and embarrassing.
  3. Be prepared to jump through hoops, and do a lot of running around, and potentially some arguing, to get your claim processed.
  4. Check, double-check, triple-check even, everything your insurer tells you. Just don’t trust them, basically. Sad to say.
  5. Accept that you’re not going to get back the entire amount you’ve paid out, and probably less than you were expecting.
  6. A good agent is worth their weight in gold!

A lockdown holiday

My original plan on moving to Malaysia had been to use my new home of Kuala Lumpur as a base for exploring the wider region – there is so much within one-to-three hours or so of flying time: Singapore, Bangkok, Phuket and the various other Thai islands, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Hoi An and Danang, Yangon, Jakarta, Bali… And those are just the ones that come to mind and are already on my list of places to visit (or in some cases re-visit) – I know there are many more that merit research.

Plus not forgetting Malaysia’s own islands, Penang and Langkawi, the states of Sabah and Sarawak, and so on. So much to explore.

But Covid-19 has made air travel problematic. Not impossible, but not something I’m keen to do right now.

Malaysia has extended its ‘Recovery Movement Control Order’ (RMCO) until the end of the year. In terms of day-to-day life, this doesn’t make all that much difference – certain procedures are still in place and masks are mandatory in ‘crowded public places’ (the definition of which seems somewhat open to interpretation, but most people are getting into the spirit of it). But the main effect is that Malaysia’s borders remain closed. There are a few exceptions – Malaysians and holders of certain visas (MM2H now included, finally) can enter, albeit subject to two weeks’ quarantine on arrival (unless you’re a certain government Minister returning from Turkey… but maybe the less said about that the better!). And it is possible to leave the country, though for non-Malaysians, getting back in again may be a bit of a hassle, by the sounds of it – forms to fill in and permissions to be arranged etc. I haven’t delved into the rules too deeply, but my take is that unless you really (really really really) need to go somewhere, international travel from Malaysia is not worth the bother for the moment.

But on the other hand, that provides a great opportunity to explore what Malaysia has to offer domestically. And after five months of ‘lockdown’ I was ready for a change of scenery. Plus, with the daily new domestic Covid-19 case numbers having been pretty much in low single-digits for a good few weeks across most of the country (just a couple of clusters in Sabah and Kedah and some imported cases amongst arrivals from overseas to spoil things) I felt the risk was acceptable.

Flying domestically is possible, and encouraged even – lots of promotions on offer. But notwithstanding the much-touted precautions and procedures, extra sanitation, and compulsory mask-wearing on board (except when eating or drinking though), I’m not ready to get on a plane yet. If I’m brutally honest, the airport and airlines can take all the precautions in the world, but the problem is other people. There’s always someone who thinks the rules don’t apply to them, who doesn’t wash or sanitise their hands before touching overhead bins, seat backs, door handles etc, or who coughs into open air while not wearing a mask – and being stuck in a metal tube with them for an hour or two is not my idea of staying safe, no matter what the airline may say about their state of the art HEPA filters in the aircraft air conditioning system.

So that leaves road or rail. Exploring by train those parts of Malaysia that have railways is on my radar, perhaps for next year – I quite fancy the ‘business class’ service northwards from KL to Taiping maybe. But for this trip – a long weekend getaway for my birthday – I planned to go by road over to the east coast.

Roughly four hours out of KL is Tanjong Jara resort, in the state of Terrenganu, just outside the town of Dungun. I visited once before, many years ago, and have fond memories of it, so I fancied a return, for some peace and quiet and their beautiful beach.

I don’t intend what follows to be a review of the resort (plenty of those can be found via Google), but rather to give a feel for how the coronavirus crisis is (or perhaps, rather, is not, particularly) affecting one’s ability to take a holiday within Malaysia.

Tanjong Jara was much as I remembered it, with really the only noticeable impact of the government-mandated Covid-19 ‘standard operating procedures’ being the temperature check on arrival and requirement to sign in (as per all malls, shops, restaurants etc throughout the country) and some minor changes to the dining arrangements (primarily the need to pre-select your preferred dining slot, and everything being a la carte rather than any buffet options – which suits me fine as I’m not a huge fan of buffets… 😉

Breakfast and dinner were at the Di Atas Sungei restaurant, where service and food are superb and the ambience lovely. Lunch is at Nelayan, which has perhaps been more affected by the lockdown requirements – I recall it being a superb fish restaurant, but it now seems to have morphed into more of a simpler, bistro-style, Western-with-a-few-token-Asian dishes affair. Hopefully temporary, and understandable under the circumstances. That’s not to say there was anything wrong with it as such; service was good and the food was fine, just a little too Western and not enough Malaysian for me (lots of fries, burgers, paninis, pasta and the like – but I gather that’s what Malaysians on holiday tend to want, so fair enough!).

Why didn’t I have lunch elsewhere? Lots of places to choose from within a few miles of the resort. Well, I didn’t fancy leaving the resort really – I was only there for three nights after all, and wanted to maximise my beach and pool time. Plus I was on the (previously unavailable to me, but now that I live here) ‘residents package’ which not only comes with a 30% discount on the room rate but also includes all meals… And besides, lunch is just lunch, no big deal – and more than made up for by dinner at Di Atas Sungei, where Chef Anne still runs the show and delivers the most amazing Malaysian dishes.

But the absolute best bit about Tanjong Jara (for me, anyway) was the beach. Oddly, despite the hotel being at fairly high occupancy, about the only time I really saw anyone else was at the restaurants and, to a lesser extent, at the main pool (there is another, for adults only, which I don’t think I ever saw anyone using). The beach was practically deserted (maybe just five or six other people) the whole time I was there. Fine by me!

The beach is stunning. Long, sweeping, smooth golden sand (with some rocks at one end for clambering around on should you so wish), beautiful clear turquoise water that’s perfect for swimming or just lounging around in, and a pleasant refreshing sea breeze to take the edge of the tropical heat. You will need sandals or flip-flops though – the sand gets hot!

Empty beach at Tanjong Jara

The beach was stunning – and largely empty

Adults-only pool at Tanjong Jara

Adults-only pool at Tanjong Jara – which was pleasingly empty every time I looked

My room was at the far end of the resort, opening directly onto the beach at the rocky end (but only a matter of yards to the smoother swimmable bit) where almost no-one seemed to venture. I found a hammock strung between two trees just off to the left, so that became ‘home’ for much of the time in between meals – a wonderful retreat to relax, read, snooze and be away from the world. Exactly what I was after!

Perhaps the other lockdown-related issue to mention is masks. The government rule is that they must be worn in crowded public places. This being totally not crowded at all,  one can move about the resort freely without feeling the need to wear one. I did put mine on when interacting with staff, however (and they always wore them) and when arriving at or leaving the restaurants. Not everyone did this but I have to say that, unlike being in KL, this did not feel like an issue – I didn’t find myself feeling unsafe or getting annoyed with anyone for not ‘doing the right thing’.

Walking around at Tanjong Jara

It was easy to walk around the resort without bumping into anyone

Walking around at Tanjong Jara

It was easy to walk around the resort without bumping into anyone

Perhaps I might have felt differently if we were indoors in enclosed spaces, but here the whole resort is very ‘open’ – roofed yes, but not enclosed: air can blow freely through the restaurants and public spaces. From everything I have read and heard, the scientific consensus seems to be that being outside, or inside but with plenty of ventilation and freely flowing open-air, hugely reduces the risk of coronavirus transmission – in that respect, Tanjong Jara was perfect, and it certainly felt far far less risky than walking around the streets of Kuala Lumpur, let alone being inside a mall or supermarket. Not that those are, I think, overly risky, just that there are inevitably more people around and less ventilation, and I find there’s always an element of “being on one’s guard” – which can become psychologically exhausting after a while, so a holiday away from it all is very welcome!

Di Atas Sungei at Tanjong Jara

Outdoor dining at Di Atas Sungei – well-spaced tables and plenty of breezy fresh air

I did also very much feel that management were doing a good job of taking the Covid-19 crisis seriously (which isn’t a given everywhere) and implementing all the right precautions. It felt safe.

As did the journey there and back. It’s a long but fairly easy, if unexciting, drive across Peninsula Malaysia to the east coast, almost all of which is (if you want the fastest route) on the E8 East Coast Expressway (Lebuhraya Pantai Timur). This was relatively light on traffic (especially if you’re used to the motorways in, say, southern England) although what traffic there was didn’t seem to be overly concerned with speed limits or general rules of the road… But anyone who’s spent any time on London’s M25 in rush hour should find driving on the E8 a delightful experience in comparison 😉

There are tolls (if memory serves, it worked out at about 40rm each way) but note that not all of them recognise the new RFID system that Malaysia has been so keen to roll out in the last year or two – so you’ll need a preloaded Touch’n’Go card or SmarTAG device. Cash is no longer accepted.

Touch’n’Go cards can be obtained from, and topped up at, most Seven-Elevens and LRT stations, and some stores (Watsons pharmacy comes to mind) do co-branded versions. If you happen to have multiple cards, make sure you use the same one throughout the journey – it seems the system gets upset otherwise (think of it as tap-in-tap-out, as on the subway).

Despite the RMCO, interstate travel is allowed and there were no issues crossing state lines – no checkpoints or police roadblocks, and there is no longer any requirement to obtain permission in advance – though presumably that may change if the case numbers suddenly spike upwards, so do check before setting off!

There are rest-stops / petrol stations periodically along the route, most (but not all) of which have a food court and some basic shops, along with the toilets. They also have Touch’n’Go top-up machines, although the funds appeared not to get credited instantly.

Again, temperature check and sign-in are required (the MySehjatera phone app makes this easier and quicker) and seemed to be well managed and enforced. Except for once on the way back, there weren’t many people around, and even when there are, the open-air design makes it all feel pretty safe, and it’s easy enough to stay clear of the occasional non-mask-wearing cougher should you need to.

Four hours each way in the car is, I suppose, a fairly long trip. But it’s easy enough to stop for breaks along the way. And it’s not really any longer than you’d spend on a journey involving even a 45-minute flight, by the time you allow for getting to the airport at one end, checking-in and clearing security, then waiting around before boarding, and finally getting from the airport to your destination at the other end. Plus not having to worry about baggage weight, or liquids and carry-on restrictions, or having your checked luggage potentially go missing, etc etc, was a pleasant change.

Very much worth it for a few days away from the city, on an almost deserted beach!

Boris Johnson and the air-rage incident

On December 3rd 2014, Boris Johnson was widely covered in many of the UK’s national and London newspapers, for having helped to ‘calm down’ a drunk and abusive passenger on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH2 from Kuala Lumpur to London the previous night.

I was on that flight. In fact, I was the first person to get involved and, along with a couple of other passengers, spent a large part of the flight with the crew, either actively assisting, or discussing the situation with them, or generally ‘keeping an eye’ and being ready to step in again should the need arise. Boris’s actual contribution amounted essentially to wandering into the galley while we were all in there trying to calm down the passenger from his gradually-escalating air rage, mumbling something to the effect of “I say old chap, if you don’t calm down, you’ll be arrested when we land in London”, and then wandering off again.

Pretty much everything Boris got credited for was actually me – but hey, I don’t have a PR team working for me, able to fire off a press release almost as soon as the wheels hit the runway at Heathrow… 😉

Anyway, here’s my recollection of what happened.

Malaysia Airlines flight MH2 on the evening of Tuesday December 2nd 2014 was operated by an Airbus A380. Due to depart at 23:55, the flight was, as I recall, on time and so we would have been boarding perhaps 30 or 40 minutes prior to that – so sometime after 11pm.

My seat was 10G, on the upper deck, on the right-hand side of the centre pair, near the front of the second of two Business Class cabins, with a galley and toilets located between them, forward of my seat. I boarded, and as I sat down, I saw a familiar face walking down the aisle, from the front, towards me.

“Oh, hello Boris,” I said, more out of surprise than any particularly considered greeting.

We’d never met before of course, and he didn’t know me, and I only recognised him from television and newspapers, but I imagine as Mayor of London he was probably quite used to random strangers saying ‘hello’ – or worse! He gave me a cheery “Hello!” and continued on past to his seat – which was a window seat on the right-hand side, a few rows behind mine, perhaps 13 or 14K, I think.

As he passed, someone else evidently recognised him, because I heard a very loud “Boris Johnson!” called from somewhere behind me but close by. It wasn’t aggressive, but neither was it friendly – it was said in the sort of way one might greet an old acquaintance upon an unexpected chance encounter, but when that acquaintance might equally be a good friend or a hated adversary. Hard to tell which it was in this case, but it certainly felt like there was some history there. I do recall thinking “Oh here we go, they’re going to be yacking away for the whole flight.” Little did I know what was to come…

Anyway, we pushed back, taxied out, and took off without incident, until about an hour or so into the flight. I think it was shortly before the meal service began, but it could have been afterwards. I became aware of, and then increasingly distracted by, someone behind me and to my right, shouting loudly. I looked around a few times and established that it was a man (a Westerner, not Malaysian, and no, it wasn’t Boris!) in seat 11K. He had his airline-supplied noise-cancelling headphones on and appeared to be having an argument with whatever movie he was watching.

After a while of this, and seeing that other people nearby were getting equally as irritated as I was, I got up, turned back to his seat and got his attention. I gestured to him to remove his headphones and then, with my best polite voice, said something to the effect of “Really sorry, but could you keep your voice down please?”

He was actually very apologetic and promised to do so. I did not get any sense at this point that he was drunk. I returned to my seat and settled down to watch a movie.

Not long afterwards, I became aware of shouting from the galley in front – over the sound of my movie, playing through my Kliptsch earbuds which usually do a pretty good job of blocking out external noise. I paused my movie, removed my earbuds and listened for a while. I caught the eye of another passenger diagonally opposite me a row ahead. He looked concerned, and I daresay I looked the same to him.

At this point, a male cabin crew member came running forwards – well, maybe not running, but certainly walking quickly, towards the galley. I stopped him briefly and asked “Is there anything you can do to stop that racket?” Which in hindsight was probably not the most constructive thing to say! But it served a purpose, because as he turned and replied “We’re trying, we’re trying,” he looked seriously worried. I mean really worried.

“Let me know if you need any help,” I said.

“Thank you,” he replied. “We will.”

He continued on to the galley. But the shouting did not stop.

I again exchanged glances with my fellow passenger in front, then I got up and walked forward.

“I’m going up there,” I said to him, and continued on past.

“I’ll come with you,” I heard him reply.

I went through the curtain into the galley and saw, if I remember correctly, two or possibly three stewardesses and the male crewmember I’d seen go past moments previously, being shouted at by the passenger from 11K, who I’d earlier asked to quieten down. This time he was far more aggressive, and shouting words to the effect of “Get me an [expletive] drink! I want an [expletive] drink!”. The crew were asking him to calm down, but evidently not succeeding.

“Mate,” I said, standing directly in front of him and using that general, all-purpose, good old British greeting that conveys goodwill but not necessarily friendship, and being class-neutral, implies nothing about one’s relative social standing and therefore offers nothing at which offence might be taken.

Keeping my voice deliberately calm and level, I continued: “You’re making a lot of noise. Causing a disturbance. There’s a lot of people back there trying to watch their movies or get some rest, and you’re disturbing them. You need to calm down.”

Which, in hindsight rather astonishingly, is exactly what he did.

Now, my memory of the sequence of events from here is a little hazy, although the actual individual events themselves remain very clear. I’m convinced in my mind that there were two separate incidents in the galley, with Mr 11K having returned to his seat in between the two. But it’s possible that it was all one single incident. So here’s what I believe happened, but with the caveat that things could have unfolded the other way around.

As I recall, at this point he went back to his seat. Albeit not before having leaned forwards and given me a hug – which took me by surprise and did cause me a brief moment of concern as I thought he was about to headbutt me (which becomes significant later on, because he actually did headbutt someone else a few hours later). But no, he hugged me, said sorry, went back and sat down.

I stayed in the galley for a while, chatting to the crew. I remember one of the ladies asking me if I was a police officer. Not guilty!

One thing that is of significance here, because all the subsequent reports were that he was excessively drunk: when he hugged me, I did not smell any alcohol on his breath, nor did I personally see him consume any alcohol. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t drunk of course, but that – and the fact that, as I will come to shortly, far from passing out as drunks tend eventually to do, he kept up his shouting for a good ten or eleven hours – makes me suspect alcohol may not have been the problem. A different drug perhaps, or maybe an unexpected side-effect of some medication or other that doesn’t mix well with altitude. Who knows.

Anyway, I returned to my seat and resumed my movie, but sometime afterwards, noticed the man once again heading towards the galley. I felt sufficiently concerned that I sat up, put my shoes on, and got ready to follow him should the need arise.

Possibly he went to the bathroom because initially there was no obvious disturbance. But that didn’t last long. Shouting soon ensued. I went up.

I arrived in the galley just in time to see him throw a glass at one of the stewardesses. I think I may have grabbed his wrist, or blocked his arm, but I’m not completely sure. In any case, the glass missed, luckily. Another passenger came in from the forward cabin – a tall Westerner with rugby player physique – and between us and the crewmembers, we surrounded the aggressor.

It’s funny what you notice in these situations, and the little details you remember. I recall seeing what struck me as a military-style tattoo on the man’s arm, and thinking “Uh oh, is this guy a soldier?” I remember noticing a watch on the galley floor, knocked from someone’s wrist during the scuffle. I remember a crewmember retrieving it, while another was on the intercom to the flightdeck, I assume getting permission to use the restraints, or possibly calling for assistance from crew in other parts of the aircraft.

The restraints were not used immediately, as the guy appeared to calm down. It was at this point that Boris Johnson turned up, gave his “I say old chap…” line, and then wandered off.

With the aggressor now seemingly more relaxed, we shepherded him out of the galley and back to his seat. If I remember correctly, by this time another male crewmember had arrived and taken up position to block the aisle aft of his seat, so that he couldn’t make a run for the rear of the aircraft.

I recall that once he was back in his seat, I and my two fellow passengers – the ‘rugby player’ and the chap I’d first exchanged glances with – huddled at the front of the cabin for a chat.

“If it comes to it, are we ready to take this guy down?” I asked. Which sounds preposterous now, but perhaps gives an idea of how we were feeling at the time. I think we were all concerned that the situation might escalate into something far more dangerous. I suppose my own thinking was to check that, if it really did become necessary to physically restrain him, it wouldn’t just be one of us on our own.

I think probably we were all also concerned about whether the crew alone would be able to restrain him. To be fair, the crew were superb and handled the whole thing very professionally, but the fact remained that this guy was bigger than all of them, well built, possibly with a military background, and possibly ‘on something’. And on top of that, once in his seat, the shouting and swearing resumed.

“Absolutely!” came the reply from my fellow passengers, which was at least reassuring, even if in practice there was probably not a lot we would really be able to do, and as we found out later, the crew were more than capable.

We returned to the galley and spent quite some time – a few hours I think – chatting with the crew and with another passenger who came to the galley – one of Boris’ entourage (they had all been on a government trade mission to Malaysia), who happened to mention that Boris was travelling without any security detail. I think we’d been discussing how come his (assumed) bodyguard or some such hadn’t got involved. Turned out he didn’t have one. Ordinary man of the people etc…

Boris himself came into the galley at some point, on his way to the bathroom. We chatted for a few minutes before he wandered off. With great prescience as it turned out, albeit perhaps it wasn’t any great leap of imagination to predict, someone said “That’s the future Prime Minister there.” This was well before Brexit was on the radar (let alone the current coronavirus crisis) and of course none of us could have known the lengths Boris would go to in achieving that position. I do remember forming the impression that his public ‘buffoon’ persona was all an act – he was clearly a very smart, knowledgeable and intelligent man. If there was any indication of him being a brazen, duplicitous liar, he hid it well.

Now, while we were in the galley chatting with the crew, and regularly peeking out to check the cabin, the shouting from Mr 11K continued. But I think we’d all concluded that we weren’t going to be able to stop it, and at least he was sat down and not physically trying to punch anyone. I think everyone else had decided that any hope of sleep was a write-off, so headphones and movies was the best option. I did feel rather sorry for the petite Chinese lady who had the misfortune to be sitting in 11H though. Particularly with what happened next.

At some point, Mr 11K got angry with his TV screen and evidently decided that a return to the galley was in order. I don’t know whether he physically punched the screen – I do have a vague recollection of him going for the window – but he stood up suddenly and promptly fell onto the lady next to him and then rolled into the aisle.

We all ran down and surrounded him. Meanwhile, he’d managed to get up and promptly headbutted one of the crew. That pretty much lit the fuse, and the crew decided they’d had enough. A sort of slow-motion organised chaos ensued as the crew basically dragged him to the ground, pinned him down, applied the restraints to his wrists, and gaffer taped his ankles. He was then literally thrown back into his seat and buckled in, his hands wedged behind his back.

I don’t know what happened to the Chinese lady. I assume she was re-seated as I didn’t see her again. I hope she was ok! For the rest of the flight, a male crewmember took her seat.

I wish I could say that was the end of it all, but it wasn’t. The shouting resumed, the swearing got worse, and on top of that, it all got a bit racist. The poor crewmember sitting next to him had to endure repeated observations of “You’re a brown bastard” and the like. To be fair, he took it stoically, and did a very good job of remaining calm and professional. I think he could easily have been forgiven for planting something very heavy and/or sharp in the guy’s face.

This continued for quite a few hours. I don’t recall Mr 11K ever actually falling asleep during the flight, though he may have done briefly. I know I didn’t get any sleep, and I’m not sure anyone else did. I tried, but I found myself constantly on the alert in case it all kicked off again.

Eventually we got into the last few hours of the flight, and the crew started preparing for the breakfast service. I assume the crewmember who had been sitting in 11H got called away to help with the service, because the next thing I knew, Mr 11K had somehow escaped from his seat and, with his arms still handcuffed behind his back, and his ankles still gaffer taped together, was shuffling his way up the aisle towards the galley.

No doubt we were all thinking “Oh here we go again!” But by this point the breakfast service had started – the tray tables were out, and the first course was being served. I looked around, and I think a few of us were considering whether we needed to get up. I did briefly push my table aside and get ready to go, but it fairly quickly became apparent that intervention wouldn’t be needed. He was still shouting a fair bit, but now it was more along the lines of “I need the bathroom” and begging to be released from the restraints, rather than anything directed at the crew.

The crew were having none of it, and I think had decided (quite rightly) that they’d rather leave him slumped in the aisle – and if necessary let him wet himself – than risk removing the restraints. Despite the right-side aisle now being blocked, they very calmly and professionally continued with the breakfast service from the left aisle.

Once that was all over and the trays had been cleared away, two or three crewmembers turned their attention back to him and, without any great fanfare, simply picked him up and carried him back to his seat, and buckled him back in. As before, a crewmember sat next to him.

I think he must have been sobering up (or coming down, perhaps) by this point, because the shouting had subsided and been replaced with something more like whimpering.

We landed without incident and everyone was asked to remain seated while armed police came on board. First Boris was escorted off – I think accompanied by the rest of his party, but I’m not sure about that – and then the police turned their attention to extracting Mr 11K from his seat and carting him off to the police station. Everyone else was then allowed to disembark (at least from the upper deck – I don’t know whether those on the lower deck had been made to wait, or had left the aircraft as soon as the doors opened. I’m not certain they would even have been aware of what had been going on upstairs).

I and the other passengers who had been involved stayed behind to give statements to the police, which was done downstairs in the First Class cabin (bigger tables and more space to sit facing the officer taking the statements). My main recollection from there is that the cabin smelled extremely badly of stale farts!

I then proceeded on my way.

I was pleasantly surprised in the following weeks at how much the police stayed in touch, and kept me (and I assume the others) informed about what was happening with the case. Mr 11K was apparently arrested and charged, and subsequently pleaded guilty in court and received a six-month prison sentence.

I have no idea what happened to him after that, or indeed what had caused his prolonged air-rage. The official account is, I believe, excessive alcohol consumption. I still find it hard to believe that someone can get so drunk and still stay awake – and be aggressive – for eleven hours…

Meanwhile Malaysia Airlines sent me a nice bottle of champagne and some chocolates to thank me for my help. I didn’t expect or ask for any reward (though perhaps other passengers sought compensation for the disruption to their sleep, I don’t know) but I thought that was a very nice gesture.

The crew, I have to say, were absolutely superb throughout, and a credit to the airline. As for Boris Johnson – well, he got the headlines of course.

One year on

Today marks exactly one year since I left the UK for a new life here in Malaysia. What a year it has been!

I spent probably the first six months ‘finding my feet’. Despite already being very familiar with Malaysia from my numerous visits over the preceding years, and having many friends here, there is much that you just don’t discover until you actually live here.

From the relatively mundane logistics of settling into a newly-rented apartment and sorting out utilities and internet etc, and grappling with trying to make services like Amazon Prime and BBC iPlayer work (I eventually gave up on the former and cancelled my subscription; the latter I have intermittent success with, despite being covered by a TV licence back in the UK, largely depending on whether the BBC or my VPN provider are winning their interminable battle on any given day of the week; most of my TV viewing now comes courtesy of Netflix); to getting set up with bank accounts and credit cards; to the little tips and tricks of knowing where best to buy what, signing up for the innumerable store and loyalty cards that are a fact of life here, and learning to cope with the horrific user experiences (at least to Western sensibilities, and to my eyes as a former user experience designer – but perfectly normal and accepted here) of the otherwise incredibly useful shopping apps such as Shopee and Lazada (and not forgetting Shopback of course), not to mention the ubiquitous go anywhere, get anything delivered, pay for everything Grab app; to working out what my bills would be – and being pleasantly surprised that in general they were a lot lower than expected; to settling into a fairly relaxing daily routine, a world away from the hectic, stressful, working (but not living) in London lifestyle.

Along the way we had the ‘excitement’ of UK politics leading up to the December 2019 General Election, followed by the big B-day/bidet of the UK’s departure (albeit in name only for now) from the European Union – which I was very happy to watch from afar, having spent several years working inside the British government in the run-up to my departure (which was actually one of the reasons for my leaving – I was involved in designing the UK’s post-Brexit Trade Tariff Management System, and became acutely aware of just how big a clusterf*ck Brexit was going to be; although of course that may well be moot now, in light of more recent events – I would not be at all surprised if Brexit falls by the wayside, at least for the next several years, but we’ll see…).

We had our own little bit of political intrigue here in Malaysia too, with the resignation of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad and his (some would say surprising) replacement by Muhyiddin Yassin after a veritable soap-opera-worthy round of, shall we say, party-political shenanigans. For us foreigners living here, I suppose domestic politics doesn’t really affect our day-to-day lives particularly (at least until such time as the government decides we’re not wanted, perhaps), so it’s ultimately largely only of academic interest; it’s also a condition of our visas (at least for those of us on MM2H) that we stay out of politics, so I won’t make any comments – but I will say that it’s fascinating to watch!

I also had my first experience of the Malaysian healthcare system, as an in-patient undergoing a minor surgery. I’ll write more about that another time, but for now, suffice to say I was very impressed (although of course I should qualify that by saying that I had the benefit of private medical insurance – another visa condition – but still, the buildings, facilities, quality of equipment and staff etc were all the same as would be available to anyone, just with a longer wait if you don’t have insurance or other means to pay for a faster service).

Then of course came COVID-19. Obviously that has had a massive impact on pretty much everywhere, everything, and everyone. The world, and daily life, changed almost in an instant. I have to say that, notwithstanding ongoing rumblings of doubt over its legitimacy, the newly-installed Malaysian government has, I think, responded superbly to the crisis and has not shied away from doing what was necessary. 

A ‘Movement Control Order’ (widely referred to as lockdown, though strictly speaking not quite that severe) was imposed very quickly, basically requiring everything except essential businesses and certain public services to close, and everyone to pretty much stay home. The initial two weeks was extended to four and then to six (and I suspect will be extended again to see us through to the end of Ramadan in late May – I doubt that will be popular, but it is almost certainly necessary). With each extension, the Prime Minister has been on television to explain the rationale and urge everyone to comply – which for the most part they seem to have been doing.

At around the same time, a huge stimulus package for Malaysian citizens and businesses was announced. Daily SMS blasts are sent to every cellphone in the country with updates, information and advice. Counselling is available for those who may be struggling with the lockdown. Price controls are in place on essential items, to ensure no-one takes advantage of the situation.

We’re not strictly in complete lockdown because we’re not totally confined to home, although we are encouraged to be. We can go out if the journey is essential – so a visit to a doctor or hospital, pharmacy or supermarket is allowed. Strictly one person in a car (or two for taxis, including the driver). And yes, there are police roadblocks and checkpoints to enforce that. And indeed a police helicopter that periodically does the rounds overhead, complete with spotlight at night (I’m not entirely sure what they’re looking for, but I daresay when they find it they’ll release the attack droids or some such). No going for a run around the block, or going for a walk, or sitting in the park. If you must go out, make it quick – and wear a face mask.

(As a side note, a minor observation: in the West, people tend to wear face masks when they fear catching something from others; in Asia, people tend – in general, even before the current crisis – to wear them to reduce the risk of them passing an illness on to others. Communal-interest rather than self-interest.)

The country’s borders are more or less closed. Non-Malaysians can leave (though Malaysians cannot). Malaysians overseas can return home, and foreigners with certain work or residency visas (but not MM2H holders) can enter Malaysia, but all must serve two weeks’ quarantine upon arrival. This is paid for by the government and by all accounts takes place in good quality hotels in and around Kuala Lumpur (although individuals apparently have the option of paying a modest top-up fee to serve their time in four- or five-star luxury). Three meals a day, water, and care-as-needed, are all provided. Processing on arrival is also reported to be extremely efficient and compassionate. The Malaysian government would appear to be doing a very good job of looking after its own – as of course is the job of any government. Quite the contrast to what I’m hearing from back home in the UK.

Inevitably there are some grey areas of course, and some people have unfortunately been caught out. We hear stories of expat families here whose children cannot return from (now-closed) schools overseas, for example. MM2H holders who live here but happened to be overseas when the MCO came into force would find themselves unable to return home to Malaysia. Hopefully that position may change soon – I gather the British High Commission here in KL (and I assume probably other countries’ equivalents) are working with the Malaysian government on this.

Overall, these measures, strict as they are, do appear to be working. We have not had anything like the exponential growth in new cases that would otherwise have been expected and, while the numbers are going up, they are doing so in a steady linear fashion, and remain relatively low overall. Hopefully we’ll see them level off and then decline in the coming weeks.

All this is of course in stark contrast to the responses of, say, the British and United States governments. I feel very glad to be here in Malaysia rather than back in England – though not only because the government here appears to have a much better handle on the crisis than the shower of incompetents currently in charge at Westminster. It occurs to me that had I not moved here when I did, one year ago, I would now be in a rather tricky situation back home. 

Firstly, at least up until the British government finally implemented its own lockdown, I would very likely still have been making a more-or-less daily commute to London, on overcrowded trains, thus increasing my risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus. 

Secondly, as a consultant/freelancer rather than employee, I would probably now be out of work and, as a Director of my own one-man company, falling through the gaps in the financial support available from the British government. 

Thirdly, I would still be living in my house in England, rather than it being rented out as it is now. So I would have no income and much higher outgoings than I have here in Malaysia. 

(As it is, I was due to spend most of March 2020 in Dubai on a consultancy assignment, and also had some potential projects in Hong Kong and Singapore; all now cancelled of course. But my costs here in Malaysia are far lower than in England, and I at least have my rental income – although there’s always the possibility that my tenants will get into difficulties I suppose, but as people-in-employment they will hopefully be better placed to get financial support from the government.)

And finally, if my plans had been to move today rather than this time last year – if my bags were packed, my house was rented and the tenants set to move in, my apartment in KL arranged, and my flight booked… I would now be in limbo, unable to enter Malaysia (even if my flight was still operating at all) and with nowhere to live in England… I have heard stories of others who are indeed in that exact situation now. There but for the grace of god etc.

So all in all, a well-timed move to Malaysia, as it turned out. And notwithstanding being more-or-less stuck in my condo – wherein all the facilities: pool, gym, sauna etc, are closed by order of the government – life here is pretty good. I have a balcony I can sit on for fresh air, with a fantastic view over one of the last remaining ‘green lung’ areas of jungle in Kuala Lumpur; I have fast fibre broadband internet for video calls with friends and family; pretty much anything I need can be ordered online and delivered quickly (sometimes even within half an hour); and between books, Netflix, and my guitars, I keep myself entertained.

On top of that, the effect of the lockdown on the environment, living in the middle of a big city, has been wonderfully positive. With very few cars on the roads these days, or planes in the sky, the air is amazingly clear (what a contrast to a six months ago when we were in the middle of one of the worst haze seasons for many years – though the mask-wearing hasn’t changed!). From my balcony I can regularly see out to the hills and mountains in the north towards Genting Highlands, where before I would only have seen a grey fog. With the myriad construction sites shut down, along with the vastly reduced traffic, the city is almost quiet, dominated more by the sounds of nature than those of human endeavour. There’s less dust, less pollution, the air feels lighter, less thick, easier to breathe. 

Long may that continue! It would be lovely if, well after the coronavirus crisis has passed, we have become used to doing more from home, less dependent on private cars, perhaps more willing to use taxis or other public transport instead, happy to order online rather than go out shopping, equally fulfilled by a video call as an afternoon in a cafe or hanging around in a mall. But then again, this is Malaysia. I daresay there’ll be a traffic jam within minutes of the lockdown being lifted 😉

Going into lockdown

On the evening of Monday 16th March 2020, the Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced measures, in response to the novel coronavirus crisis sweeping the world, that were widely reported as putting the country into lockdown.

I’m not sure that’s really quite the right term. Essentially all they are really doing is formalising (or enforcing even, if you like) much-needed social distancing. But lockdown is the word being used. The steps broadly amounted to two weeks of:

  • Preventing large public gatherings;
  • Shuttering non-critical places of work;
  • Closing schools, colleges and universities;
  • Blocking international travel.

I think on balance this is a sensible and measured response. Whether it will be enough remains to be seen.

On the same day as this announcement, it was also reported that Malaysia’s number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases has risen to 553, up 125 from the day before. Over the weekend, the number had in turn jumped by 190, all believed to have arisen from a single large gathering on Friday 13th March. These increases meant Malaysia’s numbers were pretty accurately following the predicted pattern of doubling every three days. Left unchecked, this exponential growth would be expected to result in 800 cases by Wednesday (when the lockdown takes effect – so we will likely still reach that number), 1600 on Saturday, 3200 next Tuesday, 6400 next Friday, and so on, up to well over a million by the middle of April. And that’s just the reported cases. Globally, the total cases is generally thought to be anything from ten to fifty times higher. Malaysia’s population is around 30 million.

Social distancing was desperately needed, and evidently the government decided this couldn’t be left to the public to do on their own voluntarily. That’s perhaps not surprising, particularly given that (as even the most casual observer may notice) many Malaysians are not in the habit of practicing good personal hygiene – while certainly not unique to Malaysia, spitting in the street, coughing forwards into thin air, and not washing hands properly or even at all, are all widespread behaviours here. Whether that will change remains to be seen – old habits die hard and I’m not sure the message of why they need to change is getting through; but at least for a while they’ll mostly now happen in private. 

What the measures mean in practice is that, for starters, no-one’s getting in or out of Malaysia. Well, that’s not quite true – there will be Malaysians coming back and foreigners getting out, but essentially Malaysians are not allowed to leave, and foreign visitors and tourists are not allowed to enter. Foreign holders of work, residency, or social visit passes are a bit of a grey area – one would hope they’ll be treated in the same way as Malaysians coming in and foreigners going out. But note that anyone arriving will be expected immediately to spend two weeks in self-quarantine.

Within the country, all but essential shops – supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores and the like – are closed. Similarly restaurants, bars, clubs and similar venues are all shuttered. Food deliveries are apparently permitted though, so hopefully that might help some restaurants stay in business.

Large events, conferences, religious gatherings, and such like are suspended. Mosques, churches etc are closed. Friday prayers are off.

Business premises are closed, unless they are deemed critical infrastructure or essential services. Utilities, transport, food and healthcare supplies, and the like. 

Not sure which side of the fence hairdressing, beauty salons and massage parlours etc come down on. I dare say we should take heed of the story of the Golgafrincham Ark Fleet Ship B (and the eventual fate of the remaining Golgafrinchans arising from the absence of telephone sanitisers) in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy…

I suspect the big winners here will be GrabFood and Netflix…

But the ‘lockdown’ does not mean you’re confined to home and can’t go out at all. You’ll still need to go shopping for food and essentials, and will be able to, though perhaps many will now choose delivery instead. I see nothing to say you’re not allowed to visit friends and family (though not for large social gatherings, and we should probably all reduce social contact as possible; definitely no hand-shakes, hugging or kissing). And of course if you’re employed in one of the businesses allowed to stay open, you’ll still need to go to work. Just take sensible precautions and practice good hygiene. But obviously do isolate yourself if you know or suspect you’re coming down with the virus. 

So it’s not really a  strict lockdown. More of a plea to be a good citizen and do the right thing – basically, keep your distance. 

And wash your hands. Carry hand sanitizer. Cough and sneeze into a tissue or your inner elbow. And stop spitting. (And get a haircut! Wear a tie! Get a proper job! You’ll never amount to anything dressed like that! Oh wait, sorry. Bit of a flashback there.)

Obviously this is going to have some huge effects on some businesses, but also perhaps some opportunities.

A lot of food & beverage, retail, entertainment, leisure, and consumer-discretionary businesses are at risk of failing. A lot of jobs will likely be lost, especially at the lower-paid unskilled or semi-skilled levels (I’m thinking waiters and waitresses, bar staff, tourism and hospitality roles, shop assistants, taxi drivers and the like). It’s not going to be pleasant.

But perhaps some businesses, maybe those in the creative or professional service sectors, might find that actually they can still operate pretty well remotely, once they get past the initial transition. Maybe they won’t feel the need to return to big expensive offices.

Aviation in Malaysia is already in trouble. Malaysia Airlines has long teetered on the verge of bankruptcy and even the huge goodwill and love for it that Malaysians have may not be enough to save it this time. There are rumours of Air Asia being in difficulties too, and potentially a merger with Malaysia Airlines – much as it’s hard to see how that could work in practice. Talk about a clash of business models, target customers, brands, cultures… Around the world, airlines are massively cutting back their schedules, temporarily or even permanently grounding aircraft and laying off staff. Chances are, more than a few will not survive and the aviation landscape will look very different this time next year.

On the other hand, Malaysia Airlines had for many years a world-renowned Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facility; it paused that a few years ago but as of last year had plans to bring it back in a big way. Could be a huge opportunity there. Now is arguably a perfect time for airlines to carry out work on their fleets – assuming they have the cash of course. Malaysia Airlines should be well-placed to serve that need. Their MRO schedule ought to be overflowing.

As an aside, I personally think IAG is the logical home for Malaysia Airlines if it can’t survive on its own. If the mooted deal with Air Asia doesn’t happen (and to be honest, I really hope it doesn’t), that’s the direction I’d be looking in. We’ll see, I suppose. 

I wonder whether the huge shopping malls so prevalent all over Kuala Lumpur and other cities might become a thing of the past? I suppose it depends how long the situation goes on for – I’ve seen murmurings that back in the UK it could be eighteen months. But if people get used to staying home, shopping online, and having everything delivered, perhaps they will come to value the convenience above whatever pleasure they get from physically visiting real-world malls? Habits may change. Which of course creates opportunity for online retail, logistics and delivery services. We have pretty good high-speed internet connectivity here (which quite frankly puts the UK to shame). Perhaps, notwithstanding the “Digital Malaysia” marketing one can see dotted around KL, Malaysia really will become a truly digital nation…

Will it be enough? It’s only two weeks. And if the virus’ incubation period really is up to 14 days, and potentially asymptomatic for some of that time, surely we’re going to need more like four weeks of social distancing to have any confidence that we are indeed slowing down the spread? It wouldn’t surprise me if the measures get extended through April…

Ultimately though, this short-term inconvenience might bring about long-term changes that are actually quite positive. 

If businesses do find they can operate quite well with their staff working remotely, then employees may find their work-life balance much improved. That should lead to fewer people commuting to work, and hence less traffic and congestion on the roads, fewer road traffic accidents, less pollution, better air quality… People might live longer. 

Maybe people will find themselves weaned away from spending their lives and money in malls, and will choose to buy less, be less consumerist, and in turn perhaps find they don’t need to earn quite so much money, or work quite so many hours. Maybe people will find themselves with more free time, and learn to enjoy it. Slow down. Spend more time with and for each other.

Perhaps aviation will stop being a race to the bottom, competing on lowest-possible price, and always verging on bankruptcy. Maybe it will reduce in size but become a more viable, sustainable business. The environment will be grateful, I’m sure. Perhaps flying might even become a pleasant experience again – for those who are able and willing to pay for it (and let’s face it, much as I hate to say it, flying needs to get more expensive, for all sorts of reasons). Maybe people will travel less but value it more when they do?

Of course there is also the potential for some negative consequences too. The global economy is (temporarily, one hopes) in tatters. Locally, one can easily imagine demand for commercial property – retail and office space in particular – plummeting. Quite possibly, Malaysia’s much anticipated property crash may finally come to pass. But in the long-term, would that really be such a bad thing? Arguably there’s a already far too much construction going on in KL, and far too much jungle being lost. Might be good to pause for a while and take stock of what we really need.

If the outcome of this is that we all become a little more socially and environmentally conscious, perhaps slow down our pace of life a little, and maybe realise that economic growth is not the be-all and end-all of our existence, then maybe the world after this (hopefully) short-term individual inconvenience and (admittedly severe) economic shock might turn out to be a much better one for us all?

Shopping, Malaysian style

Malaysians love to shop. And they love store cards and loyalty schemes. These bring all-important discounts, coupons and rebates and the like. But more importantly, they give you status, and that matters more than anything else on the entire planet. In fact, pretty much your entire social and personal self-worth is encapsulated in those little plastic cards.

Most Malaysians, at least in Kuala Lumpur, have big wallets. Very big wallets. The type that the rest of us would probably consider only as an occasional-use travel folio, when we need more space for our passport, travel documents, cash or traveller’s cheques and so on. Not here. Big wallets are standard. Big, book-sized wallets. And we’re not talking about an average paperback.

It’s not so much that they need a large wallet to carry around a lot of cash and myriad credit cards – although they do that too – but rather because the average shopping trip will require instant access to at least four or five store cards, not to mention the other seven or eight that must be carried ‘just in case’. And then some.

Every major store, supermarket, coffee chain or restaurant will have its own loyalty card. To name a few: Aeon, B Infinite, BHPetrol, BonusLink, Coffee Bean, Genting Rewards, IKEA, Isetan, Juice Works, Kim Gary, Metrojaya, Parkson, Petron, Petronas, Pinch of Salt, Robinsons, Senheng, SOGO, Sunway, Sushi King, Tesco (yes, Tesco Clubcard is in Malaysia), Uniqlo, Watsons… and of course Starbucks. Starbucks is notable because they regularly bring out new card designs, and for any self-respecting Malaysian coffee drinker, it’s very important to own all of them. And keep them all in your wallet. Even though you’re only going to use one of them at a time.

You’ll also want to carry your Touch’n’Go payment card, of which you may have several varieties, used for public transport and toll roads, and accepted as payment in some stores.

Then there’s your airline frequent flyer and hotel loyalty programme membership cards. Obviously you’re not likely to be using them on a typical shopping trip (although some have negotiated shopping perks for their members, and of course it’s not impossible that a shopping trip can occasionally lead to an overnight hotel stay, or even to a flight if it turns out that pair of shoes you wanted is actually a teeny bit cheaper in a whole other country), but it’s important that people see them whenever you open your wallet, to make sure they know just how IMPORTANT you are, so you must carry them at all times.

You’ll of course also want some extra space for practical things like your medical insurance card, driving licence and/or ID card, and RFID access keys for your condo, office, car park and/or gym. And you’ll need somewhere to put your car key. Or keys. If you’re particularly wealthy, you’ve probably got several cars dotted around town, some of which you may have forgotten where you parked. Or even that you own.

You’ll need to learn how to do all your shopping one-handed, since your other hand will be permanently occupied holding on to your mahoosive wallet. And holding on tightly due to an abundance of paranoia, I mean caution, about moped-based snatch thefts, because having your wallet stolen and losing all your loyalty cards would be quite literally the end of everything.

On the plus side, you could use your wallet to save yourself some time at the gym later by doing bicep curls with it while you shop.

Then there’s GrabPay, the one scheme that is purely app-based and doesn’t have a physical plastic card (so you’ll need your phone – but you’re probably carrying at least two phones with you anyway).

GrabPay is rapidly taking over the world, or at least the digitally-enlightened of Southeast Asia. Having started out as a cashless way of paying for taxi rides (Grab began life as a ride-hailing operation), GrabPay is now accepted by myriad stores and other businesses, and can be used to pay for restaurant meals, takeaway food, mobile phone top-ups, bills, and money transfers between friends and family (handy for that all-important conundrum of how the restaurant bill should be divided up) – and probably much much more by the time you’re reading this. It is incredibly convenient. And best of all, it has (for now) a very generous rewards scheme – which is a sure-fire way to get Malaysians on board.

I don’t know what Grab’s actual business plan and long-term strategy are. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they have more to do with financial services and payment aggregation than transport and logistics…

Now if only they could integrate all those store cards into their app…

Getting connected

Broadband was a bit of a revelation in Malaysia. Back home in the UK, 50Mbps is considered ‘superfast’ and the height of modern sophistication. Not to mention expensive. In Kuala Lumpur, several companies offer fibre broadband in packages with speeds of up to 1Gbps, at similar or lower prices than you’d pay for far less in the UK.

One of my first priorities, even before arriving in Malaysia, was to ensure I would have internet connectivity as soon as possible after moving in to my new home. So about a week before my arrival, with my landlord-to-be’s permission, I made arrangements to have TIME install their 500Mbps broadband package at the apartment I would be living in. Installation took place the day after move-in so that I was up and running with minimal delay.

All went very smoothly, with the only negative really being that TIME’s online booking process leaves something to be desired, and could have been a lot better at confirming that my installation had indeed been booked in. But the installation itself was fine.

In reality, you don’t get the full quoted speed, of course, and especially not over WiFi. But I did some speedtests over the following weeks, and these showed that I was often getting 400Mbps, typically about 300Mbps, and very rarely below 100Mbps. All for 145 MYR a month (approximately £27).

I could equally have got similar fibre broadband from Unifi, Maxis or Astro, but their packages did not seem quite as good as TIME’s, for my needs – your mileage may vary, of course.

By opting for fibre broadband, I was committing to a 12-month (or 24-months had I so chosen) plan tied to that specific apartment. I was comfortable with that, as I didn’t anticipate moving out sooner, and in any case my tenancy agreement was for 12 months. But I could alternatively have bought one of those little MiFi routers and taken a mobile broadband plan from Maxis, Celcom, Digi or Yes. The speeds wouldn’t have been quite so good (albeit theoretically up to 300Mbps is available), and of course you’re at the mercy of network coverage, but you get the flexibility of being able to take it with you wherever you go. But that’s what your phone’s for, isn’t it? 😉

On which subject, shortly after moving in I also switched my Maxis Hotlink Pay-As-You-Go package (which for the last few years has seen me regularly buying bundles of top-up vouchers on my trips to Malaysia to ensure I could keep my number alive from back in the UK in between trips) to a post-paid contract. 60 MYR (£11.50) per month for a SIM-only 10Gb data plus unlimited calls and texts package seemed pretty good to me.

I didn’t bother with a home phone line – I just use my mobile for local calls, and voice-over-IP (FaceTime, WhatsApp, Skype) for international. I’ve yet to have any problems with coverage here in Kuala Lumpur – I’m told Maxis is the best for that, so I can’t comment on whether other providers have drop-outs or dead spots, but so far so good.

NB possibly worth noting, as this may be different to what you’re used to, depending on where you’re coming from: the prices you see advertised in Malaysia for things like phone and broadband contracts are typically net of sales taxes (currently 6%), so you’ll always pay slightly more than the price they tempt you with…

Also, when taking out a contract, do check that they have correctly applied any offered discounts, and removed any options you don’t need. For example, you will typically be charged a few ringgit for paper billing, and no matter how many times you tell them you don’t want it, you will very likely find it included on your first month’s bill… One of the frustrations that you’ll just have to get used to in Malaysia is that things are rarely done right first time, and you’ll probably have to follow up at least twice before getting what you want. But with a bit of gentle persistence, they do get sorted out eventually.

A final observation: when you have multiple chat apps on your phone, say, WhatsApp, iMessage, Facebook Messenger, and maybe a few others, no need to pick your favourite. It’s fairly common, and perfectly acceptable, for a single conversation to take place across all of them simultaneously… 😉

Utility bills

The main utility bills for most residents in Kuala Lumpur are electricity and water. Gas is sometimes used for the kitchen hob, but is not mains-supplied – you buy / refill bottles, just as you would for a gas-fired barbecue back home.

When I first arrived here, I didn’t really know what to expect in terms of the cost of my utility bills. I knew that they would probably be lower than back home in the UK, though.

Coming from a colder country where almost no-one has domestic air conditioning and instead has (usually gas-fired) central heating, to a hotter one where everyone has air-conditioning but no heating and, in most cases, no gas, I had very little experience or point of reference to go on.

I reckoned the biggest expense would be the air conditioning. It’s fairly easy to calculate a rough cost, based on the horsepower of your a/c units – typically, a 1-horsepower unit is going to use approximately 0.75 kilowatt-hours (kWh); domestic electricity in Malaysia is charged in tiers, starting at 0.218 MYR per kWh for the first 200kWh per month, then 0.334 MYR for the next 100kWh, and rising in tiers up to 0.571 MYR for anything over 900kWh. But I had no idea how much air conditioning I would need to use – would it be perhaps a few hours each day, or 24/7? 

To give myself a rough budget, I assumed I’d have one unit, in the bedroom, running for eight hours though the night and, allowing for me not being at home all day every day, I estimated I’d have two units running for perhaps six hours during the day. So twenty hours total per day, giving a cost of around 4.4 MYR (a bit under £1) per day for the first ten days of the month, 6.7 MYR for the next five days and around 10 MYR per day for the rest of the month – so about 225 MYR per month, or roughly £45. 

Obviously on top of that there’s the cost of running lights, fans, kitchen and other appliances, TVs, computers and so on. But most of that lot I reckoned would be pretty trivial in the scheme of things, aside perhaps from the fridge and the (electric) kitchen hob.

So I estimated I’d spend maybe 300-350 MYR, or roughly £60-70 per month on electricity. This is about £20 a month less than I was spending at home on gas and electricity combined. But of course, that was just an estimate – the reality might turn out to be a lot more!

Water I had literally no idea, but I had been told it was ridiculously cheap. Unlike electricity, which is billed monthly, water is billed every four months, so it would be a while before I got my first bill.

For the first month or so, I kept a close eye on my electricity meter and was quite careful in my use of air conditioning, water heaters, electric hob and so on. I experimented with using fans rather than air conditioning at night (conclusion: you need the aircon), and as it turned out, I hardly used the water heaters – in this climate, I’m finding cold showers are infinitely preferable to hot ones! (Although probably worth mentioning that the water isn’t exactly cold in any case…).

I needn’t have worried. I found my daily use was around 10 kWh when I was being conservative with the air conditioning, and only went up to about 14 or 15 kWh when I was making much more use of it. So far my bills have worked out at around 150 MYR (roughly £30) per month.

One thing to note though, and a good reason to keep an eye on your meter. I’m not sure yet whether this was just a one-off, or something that happens widely (though I have seen quite a few complaints online). On my first couple of electricity bills, my meter was under-read quite substantially – meaning I appeared to be using less than 200 kWh per month; this was then corrected on the next bill, and so far appears to have been fairly accurate since.

But the upshot of that of course is that, if as a result of under-reading, you’re not making full use of the cheaper tariff bands, then you’ll be making heavier use of the higher bands when the billing catches up. The difference isn’t likely to be much, perhaps a few tens of ringgit by my rough calculations, but if the electricity company (NB there is only one – no market competition here) does that to all its customers once or twice a year, that adds up to a lot of extra revenue for them… Of course, I couldn’t possibly comment on whether that’s happening deliberately, or whether it’s common. I’m sure it’s just an honest mistake. Ahem. Cough.

Water, as it turns out, is indeed cheap. But note you will get two bills, which threw me at first. One is for waste water, which is issued by the water company and in my case worked out at about 8 MYR (roughly £1.60) per month. The other is for water consumption, and is issued by your condo management company (assuming you’re living in a condo!). I’m apparently using two-to-three cubic meters of water per month (that’s two-to-three thousand litres), at a cost of roughly 6 MYR (about £1.20).

So in total, my utility bills so far are working out at a little under £35 or so per month. Makes a change from paying almost £100 a month back home! 🙂

Living in the haze

It’s haze season. At first you think it’s just a bit of morning mist, except that instead of fading away as the sun climbs into the sky and the air heats up, it stays and in fact gets thicker. 

Some days it’s just a mild fuzziness in the air, barely noticeable to the nose. Other days it’s thick, almost fog-like, with a bitter, acrid taste as you breathe. Much like standing downwind of a garden bonfire. Except this comes from hundreds of miles away in Indonesia and covers thousands of square miles.

After a few days of it, your throat may start to feel slightly sore – nothing too bad, but you find your voice becoming raspy and that little itch in the back of your throat makes you cough a little more often than usual. You may find yourself coughing up big gobs of phlegm here and there.

There’s not a lot you can do about it. The general advice is to stay indoors and, if you must go out, wear a face mask. These range from simple disposable surgical masks of the type people wear to avoid spreading germs when they have a cold, to more substantial reusable ones designed to keep fumes out, often used by city cyclists even in the best weather. Very few people here seem to bother though.

I find NeilMed SinusRinse helps. I’ve used it for years in any case, to help keep my sinuses clear and avoid post-nasal drip. It also helps keep your nasal passage clear of dust and pollen, thus reducing susceptibility to hayfever and the like. I’m not sure it does much to mitigate the effects of breathing in what is basically poison (that’s where masks come in) but it does at least do wonders for getting rid of all the crap left behind in your nose. Highly recommended (once you get used to the initially strange sensation of squirting warm water up your nose…).

As I understand it, there are two ways of measuring haze levels – the Air Quality Index (AQI) and the Air Pollutant Index (API). I’m not entirely sure what the differences are and they both seem to be measured on much the same scale:

  • 0-50 Good
  • 51-100 Moderate
  • 101-200 Unhealthy
  • 201-300 Very Unhealthy
  • 300+ Hazardous

At ‘moderate’ level, you notice it, if you pay attention – the air feels thicker. At ‘unhealthy’ you know you’re breathing in something you shouldn’t be. I’ve yet to experience ‘very unhealthy’, and hope I never will.

Kuala Lumpur seems to have ranged between around 80 (moderate) to 200 (unhealthy) for most of August and September, and even now as I finish writing this post in mid-October, I’m still regularly seeing 60-70. I’m told it doesn’t usually last this long – this is an exceptional year.

I’m not sure what normal is here as I never bothered to check the AQI/API readings until the haze appeared, but I’d like to think it’s well below 50, notwithstanding that KL does suffer plenty of traffic pollution and construction dust. Outside of haze season, the air doesn’t usually feel too bad, and certainly looks a lot less dirty than it does now.

August / September is probably a good time to be somewhere else.

For reference, the sites I use to check the air quality are:

https://aqicn.org/city/kuala-lumpur

https://www.airvisual.com/malaysia/kuala-lumpur

https://blissair.com/api-my

Register to use the e-gates at KLIA

Once you have your MM2H social visit pass in your passport, registering for the automated electronic immigration gates (e-gates) at KLIA is wonderfully simple and quick.

When returning from your next trip out of Malaysia, go through arrivals immigration as usual. Then immediately turn left, and at the far end of the duty free shops turn right towards the baggage reclaim hall. Directly in front of you, you should see a small blue kiosk, immediately before the porter assistance booth.

Simply hand over your passport at the kiosk. They’ll check you have an appropriate visa (MM2H or other long-stay pass, or a work visa etc) then scan your passport. You’ll be asked to scan your finger prints (exactly the same as when you pass through immigration). Assuming all is well, they’ll afix a sticker on one of the pages of your passport and hand it back to you.

All done. Took me about thirty seconds, and no queuing.

According to the sign on the window, the kiosk is open almost continually – aside from a couple of hours a day, between 8am and 9am, and 8pm to 9pm.

As an aside, you may notice you got a different stamp in your passport when you came through immigration. Instead of the usual “permitted to remain for 90 days” tourist visa stamp, you’ll now get a “permitted to reenter and remain until…” stamp with a date written in by the immigration officer, matching the expiry date of your MM2H visa.

I’m told your passport will still be stamped on every exit and re-entry to Malaysia, even after you have your MM2H visa, if you use the manned immigration counters, but not if you use the e-gates. So registering for the e-gates should not only save you some time on your future trips, but also some space in your passport.

Well worth it for the sake of a few seconds on your next arrival!

 

Update, November 2019

Having now made a full in-and-out return trip from Malaysia with my newly-registered passport, I can confirm that the e-gates are indeed very simple and quick to use – though I won’t quite say easy; it takes a bit of faffing around to get your passport aligned correctly so that the machine can read it. But still quicker than using a manned immigration desk.

One thing worth noting: there are two sets of e-gates at KLIA, one for Malaysians and one for Foreigners. As a foreigner, your passport will not be recognised by the Malaysia-citizens e-gates. Look for the “Foreigner e-gates” signage in the immigration hall. Outbound, it’s the second set of gates on the right as you come down the escalators into the hall – so further in toward the centre. Inbound, it’s just to the right of the fast track lanes.

On arrival back into Malaysia, the e-gate will print out a small arrival slip. I’m not sure what this is for exactly, but I assume it might be prudent to keep it somewhere safe!

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