Traditionally, an expat posting in Malaysia involves a professional being transferred to an international office by their company with a lucrative package of incentives to sweeten the deal.
Most come and go within a few years but as it turns out, not everyone leaves.
Whether by choice or design, a small minority decide to live away from home for a decade or more.
They are the long-term expats of Malaysia.
Unlike traditional expats, the long-term expats are likely to have wheeler-dealer-type jobs. They own restaurants, open tuition centres, are life coaches and have indeterminate roles in hastily created import-export businesses, financial consultancies and start-ups.
They see themselves as entrepreneurs.
Long-term expats claim they choose to live in Malaysia because they love the sunny weather and rich culture. However, most stay for one reason and one reason only – it is financially viable. Kuala Lumpur, George Town and Johor Bahru are among the cheapest cities inthe world for expats, according to a recent international survey.
Long-term expats want to live the dream: children in private schools, Sunday brunches, afternoons lazing in bars, weekends playing golf and maids named Angeli.
They especially like that their social background, accent and university pedigree do not matter here.
But life is getting increasingly tough for the long-term expat. Like Malaysians, they have been facing tighter finances with a weaker ringgit and slower economy. More often than not, away from the safe perimeters of a 9-to-5 job, the long-term expats’ businesses flail and flounder. Even the long-term expats who own multi-million ringgit homes are kept awake at night by money worries.
“I know of at least five couples who are forced to remain together because they can’t afford to separate,” whispers one.
Those who own properties are trapped in Malaysia because they cannot sell their homes in a weak market. Even if they get the asking price, they know it won’t go far in their own countries.
Those renting are moving to areas they would never have considered five years ago.
Others are sending their children to less well-known international schools.
Which may be one reason why long-term expat wives always look sad. Their husbands don’t suffer as much from expat burnout – they still feel there are financial opportunities in Malaysia.
The wives, on the other hand, are bored.
The initial feeling of exhilaration when they moved to a new country has long passed.
And they are tired of feeling they are a passenger in their husbands’ adventures.
It is just not marriages that get affected. The longer they live in Malaysia, the more they realise they have nothing in common with their friends who would merely have been acquaintances in other circumstances. Inevitably, this leads to a lot of drama as friends fall out of favour.
The long-term expat wives hate that they are drinking too much and that they are increasingly finding local people annoying. Personal space, please!
So most are determined to improve their situation. Unable (or unwill-ing) to work, they start doing volunteer work, take art classes or train for 10km runs.
When these roles start getting less fulfilling they enter the next phase, alternative healing. Perhaps reflecting their own mental state, it is now fashionable among long-term expat wives to delve into alternative cures such as Bowen Therapy and Cranio-Sacral Therapy.
Some long-term expats realise their time in Malaysia has come to an end and return home – even if they don’t know what they are going back to. Many more stay. One thing you can say aboutlong-term expats is they never stop trying.