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 😉