The gleaming spires of the 88-storey Petronas Twin Towers pierce the sky in Malaysia’s capital city of Kuala Lumpur, while cars and motorbikes race by on multi-lane streets below.
Nearby, on the 14th floor of one of the city’s many luxury “resort-style” residential high-rises, lives Australian expatriate Miranda Free. The 58-year-old artist spent most of her life working and raising a family in Australia, but relocated from Perth to Kuala Lumpur (known to the locals as ‘KL’) two years ago with her husband, who works for a multinational company in the oil and gas industry.
“Here we live in a massive three-bedroom unit that’s twice the size of anything we had in Australia,” Ms Free tells The New Daily.
“Immediately we can have a much more luxurious lifestyle for the same amount of money.”
Malaysia is the first location in The New Daily’s five-part special series, Trading Places Global. From Kuala Lumpur to Paris, The New Daily takes you around the world to look at what life’s like for the more than one million Australians living, working and retiring abroad.
From its modern capital city – which ranked 85th on Mercer’s 2018 Quality of Living index – to the former colonial island port and epicurean haven of Penang, Malaysia is already a popular destination for Australian tourists, university students studying at one of the three Australian universities with Malaysian campuses, and expat workers.
In 2017, 380,000 Australians visited Malaysia, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which doesn’t release figures on the number of Australians living abroad.
A recent report by PwC estimated that 450,000 Australians will be living and working in Asia by 2030.
Increasingly, Malaysia is also seen as a destination for retirees looking to enjoy a more comfortable retirement than their incomes allow for in Australia.
“Lots of people do retire here, mainly because it’s cheap. It’s cheaper to eat out than cook for yourself,” says Ms Free, who plans to retire in Australia next year.
“We like it here, but we’re looking forward to going home. We love Australia. It’s the best country in the world.”
Culture and lifestyle
Expat workers and their partners commonly enjoy luxurious lifestyles with packed social calendars. Regular meet-ups are organised on dedicated Facebook groups with activities ranging from games of Mahjong – a traditional Chinese tile game – to dining at the city’s many culinary hotspots.
“What surprised me when I came to KL is how easy it was to make friends. It was far easier to meet people here than when I first arrived in Perth,” Ms Free says.
“You take your life in your hands crossing the road.”
That frustration was echoed by Georgina Scambler, 40, who moved from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur with husband Mark – an engineer in the pharmaceutical and food industries – and their two young children in 2017.
“Often I’ll be out walking or running and there is either no footpath or one that is uneven,” she says.
“I’ve also noticed the accessibility issues in KL when we’ve had visitors with mobility problems or babies in strollers.”
Adapting to life as an Australian family in Malaysia has otherwise been surprisingly simple.
“KL is so multicultural, and almost everyone speaks English so there’s no language barrier,” Ms Scambler says.
“Living in a tropical climate is something we really enjoy, compared to the four seasons in one day of Melbourne – it’s nice knowing every morning when you get dressed it’s going to be warm.”
Her visa prohibits her from working, so Ms Scambler instead volunteers as a magazine editor for the Malaysian Australian New Zealand Association (MANZA) and is heavily involved with her children’s school. The melting pot of cultures and traditions means life in Malaysia is never dull.
“Our family loves the cheap and delicious food of Malaysia, so eating out is definitely a highlight. On the whole the cost of living is much lower here,” she says.
“I also enjoy being able to observe and participate in the many different religious and cultural celebrations here like Hari Raya, Deepavali (Diwali) and Christmas.”
Healthcare in Malaysia operates as a two-tier system, with subsidised public hospitals and services for citizens, alongside a more costly user-pays private healthcare system.
Private health insurance is essential for anyone wishing to access top-tier care on par with that available in Australia, without being stung by huge out-of-pocket costs.
Ms Free has used the private healthcare system in Malaysia, and describes the quality of care as “very good, if you have the money”.
Australian expats in Malaysia can save a significant amount of money on rent, food, and everyday basics. According to crowd-sourced data site Numbeo, cost of living in Malaysia is 45 per cent lower than in Australia.
“Most expat families have a helper or cleaner, which in my experience was a huge luxury back in Australia,” Ms Scambler says.
Staying on top of finances while living overseas isn’t always as simple, though.
“Tax can be tricky, sorting out returns in two countries and staying on top of investments back home,” Ms Scambler says. The couple are also renting out their family home in Melbourne, which “can be difficult when issues crop up”.
“We have to place a lot of trust in our real estate agent,” she says.
When it comes to retirees, the Malaysian government doesn’t tax foreign pensions or superannuation, and 10-year visas for over-50s are available under the Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) program.
However, applicants must prove they have sufficient funds to support themselves for the duration of their stay, either by opening a local fixed-term deposit bank account with a minimum of MYR350,000 (around $115,000), or by receiving a foreign-government pension of at least MYR10,000 (around $3300) a month.
What to know before you go
- Tax: If you’re living overseas but are considered an Australian resident for tax purposes the ATO will tax you on your worldwide income, which you will need to declare at the end of each financial year.
- Super: Expats can make contributions to their superannuation fund while overseas, and apply for release of their savings once eligible. It’s crucial to note, however, that released funds will be taxed twice for residents of countries such as Italy that have a Double Tax Agreement with Australia. Self-managed super funds are more tricky, however, and generally not advisable for expats.
- Age pension: Australians are generally eligible to continue receiving the pension when they move overseas, though the process can be complex. Centrelink provides a breakdown of pension rates for those living outside Australia.
- Student debt: If you’re a student or former student with a HECS-HELP or TSL debt living overseas you’ll have to declare your worldwide income to the ATO or lodge a non-lodgement advice, even if you’re considered a non-resident for tax purposes each year.
- Visas: Beware of visa scams and unscrupulous operators. Use a registered migration agent where possible.
- Safety: Visit the Australian government’s SmartTraveller website for more information on how to protect yourself while living and working abroad.