Letter: Coming Home to Retire

With reference to your cover story on “Revealed: Why is Ipoh the Best Location to Retire in Malaysia” (Issue 314, October 16-31, 2019).

I have a different perspective from most would-be foreign retirees because I was born in Ipoh and had my secondary school education there. And even after spending the past 30 years in Northern California, I never lost touch with my hometown because I went back every year to visit.

Let’s start with an aspect which you haven’t listed below. The weather. I think westerners’ first reaction would be to cringe at the prospect of hot humid weather. I cringe at freezing my butt off in the winter, even mild winters in California; or melting in 115 deg F in the summer in Arizona and Texas. People say, oh, but you don’t have seasons. Seasons are overrated. Even spring. The hay fever makes me sneeze my head off the whole time.

In Malaysia, because of the heat (it’s really not that hot) and humidity (yup, it is that), the country is green. Love that.

I love that I can always feel the ocean (Ipoh is near Pangkor, a nice place, not world-class, but the ocean nonetheless). I love that there are hills (hate that they are being damaged) and mountains.

I haven’t lived in Ipoh for long stretches for many years now, but I have seen how members of my family, and some friends, live. They seem very content. My brother can go home for lunch, take a nap and get back to work in 10 minutes. In the US? Or even in KL, good luck doing that. I guess I would call that pace of life, and for a retired person, that is perfect.

My brother is a doctor in internal medicine, specialised in dealing with old people. Like me. LOL. Of course I will like that. But other than that? I think the doctors are very good – for the longest time, the top students in places like Scotland and England’s postgraduate medical schools were from Malaysia. Of course, they speak English. But perhaps most telling is this statistic: a heart bypass in the US costs $80,000-100,000. The same in Ipoh would be $12,000.

Rentals are cheap in Ipoh. Cheap cheap cheap by Northern California standards. An 1800 sq ft duplex apartment in a top-class development will be $500 (I know because I am going to live in one). In the US, the same will get you a converted room in someone’s garage.

The apartment has pools, gym, (probably) tennis courts, and is right next to the golf course.

The cost of living for a retiree is perfect. If you have to send children to overseas colleges, not so much. But I assume people thinking of coming to Ipoh to live won’t have that issue any more. Eating out is crazy good and very cheap – reason – labour, rent, is so much cheaper than in the USA.

But here is the MOST telling number. 1 USD = $4.18 Malaysian ringgit. Before you say, wait, wait, maybe it’s expensive in local currency to live. No. A cheap meal is MYR 5 – at least for me, I will choose this over McD’s (USD10) any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Nice sit down dinner in Ipoh is maybe MYR15.

Americans on just Social Security in California would starve to death. If they went to Ipoh, they would have a very decent life.

As regards the people, one thing that would happen in Ipoh that won’t in all other places that I lived in? You call a bunch of people, say, hey, let’s go grab dinner tonight, and they will all show up. Enthusiastically. Here in the US? “Oh let’s make an appointment . . . maybe in November. Oh no, Thanksgiving. OMG Christmas next. Has to be January.”

What I am saying is, people are warm. And I feel they are also welcoming. Unless you are a jerk, you’ll find people will accept you.

As for the traffic, I only worry about traffic if I have to go to work. If I am retired, there is no such thing as a commute. After having said that, Ipoh is getting busier, and the roads are not great, and parking can be a problem in some places, but not all places. You can always get Grab. I hear now that there are outfits that deliver food from the restaurant of choice and speed it to your home. So when you think it’s a mess, just don’t go out at peak times. But overall, the only people who complain about Ipoh traffic are older Ipoh people who don’t know what traffic is, and who pine for the days where the roads were empty. Yeah. They are always whining about that.

In terms of shopping, if you’re looking for Coach? Versace? Ferragamo? Good luck. Other than that, it’s reasonable. You don’t want to have your retirement place be a shopping paradise anyway. It would get expensive.

As to food in Ipoh: superb local food, inexpensive. What is so nice for me is the different kinds of cuisine to choose from in Ipoh. Chinese, Malay, Indian, and in the past several years, a lot of fusion (I don’t like but you might) and Western. You can get all kinds of food at the supermarkets, cheeses, meats, sausages that westerners like. Love the local fruits but they are pretty sweet. Be adventurous. You will be rewarded. You can get SeeFoon’s great Foodie Guide too, that would lead you to the best places to eat. No shortage. Like coffee? You will like the Ipoh White Coffee. Ipoh people would drive a long way out just to try a place to eat. I find that to be a great hobby LOL.

In terms of activities and things to do, Ipoh has grown a lot in the past several years. Maybe not things like Disneyland or anything. But places like bookstores (I saw one converted from an old bank vault), nice coffee shops in restored old buildings, more and more food and handicraft fairs – many along the Kinta River, which bisects the town). Lots of buzz around places like Concubine Lane.

And there is always the limestone cave temples. Oh, there is a place called Lost World of Tambun which is very nice, and if your grandkids are visiting, it would be perfect. I first thought it would not be good, given that weird name, but I have been there three times and I would go again. They have tigers there and you can watch them getting fed!

But when I choose Ipoh, I am also choosing Malaysia and Asia. Penang is a great place, and you can get there in a little over an hour from Ipoh. KL is not that far, neither is Pangkor and Cameron Highlands. Taiping is a little short trip, very nice. And more smaller day-trip places are getting developed and accessible. People are talking about Ecotourism, trekking.

Then there is Vietnam, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, if you want to travel. Close by and not very expensive.

I like golf. It’s hot, mind you. But you can play in the morning, then eat, nap, and play again in the evening.

I do want to get involved in some kind of community service. I heard of a food fair where people sell their stuff and give proceeds to charity. I think being a small place, a well-meaning person could make more of an impact. Malaysia is needful in many areas, and one weakness is the lack of exposure to ideas from more developed places. Foreigners who might want to get involved can make an impact.

Getting around in Ipoh, unlike in some other Asian cities (like Jakarta), driving around will not seem like you are taking a huge risk. People generally obey traffic laws. Grab is a popular option. Bus service to KL and Penang is efficient, and the railway is making a big comeback. Air service has improved, with daily flights to Singapore.

Overall, even for me, going back to my homeland, it will be a big adventure. Which is actually part of the excitement. I keep asking everyone if I will fit in. But really that is just being overly antsy. I will. You will too.

Foo Joo Wai
Ex Ipohite and soon to be Ipoh Retiree

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One Comment

  1. You don’t happen to be Foo Joo Wai of Anderson School Ipoh, Lower Six 1974, do you?

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