Malaysia My Second
They call Malaysia 'home'
By Elizabeth Tai, The Star (October 9, 2006)
There are many foreigners who make their homes in Malaysia: from Middle Easterners and South Koreans to Americans and Filipinos. ELIZABETH TAI discovers what draws them here.
KUALA Lumpur has always been rich in ethnic culture, what with traditional ethnic enclaves in places such as Chinatown on Petaling Street and Little India in the Masjid Jamek area.
However, with more foreign workers and expatriates coming to live here, Kuala Lumpur is increasingly more diverse.
Jalan Silang, Kuala Lumpur, looks like many of the streets around the Masjid Jamek LRT station that is full of old shop houses. Yet, among the mamak shops and Chinese grocery stores are mini marts which cater to people from Myanmar and Nepal. As you walk down this busy street, you can hear Burmese and Nepali spoken; it is no wonder this place is nicknamed "Little Nepal and Myanmar".
At Kedai Eaindra, one of the many "exporter and importer and general trading" stores, you can find newspapers such as The Myanmar Times and Nepal Sandesh National Weekly tucked between wares, like baskets of vegetables and spices.
A shop worker followed me around the store. He seemed proud to show me the various Myanmar spices and snacks in the store.
"Myanmar", he said as he showed me a small container of dried ikan bilis. "Myanmar," he said as he gestured towards a row of VCDs.
Meanwhile, away from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, residential areas such as Sri Hartamas and Mont Kiara have become quite an international neighbour hood, thanks to the international schools in the area.
One such area is One Ampang Avenue where it is not unusual to see stores bearing signage in three languages: Bahasa Malaysia, English, and Korean.
Here, in an enclave that is now called "Little Korea" - thanks to the large South Korean population here (about 3,000 strong) - there are restaurants, salons, Internet cafes and a supermarket selling varied things like South Korean-produced detergent, imported soda drinks, magazines in Korean and Koshihikari rice. Outside the supermarket is a wall where notices - many written in Korean - advertise services, rented apartments and second-hand cars.
Son Byung Ho owns Bee Won, one of the many Korean BBQ restaurants in the area.
He greeted this reporter with a smile, saying proudly that his restaurant offers great Korean cuisine like spicy soup, marinated beef ribs and bool kogee (barbequed seasoned beef).
Although Son runs a Korean restaurant, he also tries Malaysian cuisine.
"The spicy food in Malaysia is similar to Korean food. I like bak kut teh and satay", he said.
Son moved to Malaysia in December, after spending a few years working in a Hyundai branch in Sri Lanka.
After retiring, Son couldn't decide which country to settle in, but when he visited Malaysia last September, he made up his mind.
"Many South Koreans do not know Malaysia well, but once they come here, they are surprised to see how developed it is. Everything is okay; the living cost is very low.
"I like it here in Malaysia. There are many Koreans here, it's quiet, the security is good and the education is good", he said.
Educating his children well is very important to Son, who has four children who are studying in international schools around One Ampang Avenue.
In fact, many South Koreans are sending their children to Malaysia to study. The reason why One Ampang Avenue is such a popular spot for Koreans is because it is close to many international schools such as International School of Kuala Lumpur, St Paul, Sri Utama and Fairview, said Lee Kwang Sun, chairman of the Korean Society in Malaysia.
"English is very important to Koreans now. So is the Chinese language. Many Korean companies are, after all, trading with China", said Lee Jeong Rim, Secretary General of the Korean Society in Malaysia
Many South Koreans are also moving to Malaysia under the "Malaysia My Second Home" programme.
"The first time they come to Malaysia, they may not understand Malaysian culture", said Kwang Sun, who has lived here for 23 years and was a Business Administration graduate from Universiti Islam Antarabangsa.
"In Malaysia, there are many mosques. In South Korea, there are many churches. In fact, we only have five mosques in South Korea", said Kwang Sun, who is a Muslim.
However, living in Malaysia has its share of problems. The Korean Society not only organises activities and charity events; it also helps the South Korean community with problems such as lobbying for an overhead bridge so that residents can cross the street safely to Ampang Point, handling car accidents for members (as many can't speak Bahasa Malaysia or English) and other complaints.
One complaint they have received is the difficulty that some South Korean residents face when they apply to open a savings or current account - apparently due to their not having a working permit or proper visa.
On a busy Sunday, many Arab tourists mingle with local shoppers in the malls around the Golden Triangle or nearby Suria KLCC. However, in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, there is a street dubbed "Ain Arabia" which many Arabs patronise because it's a little piece of home away from home.
The place is located at Jalan Berangan, Kuala Lumpur, and one can find a mini market called Naab, a laundry and dry-cleaning service and, most importantly, there is the restaurant Sahara Tent, arguably the centre of Arab Street, which overlooks an Arabian-themed garden. (Incidentally, one can also find an Arabian perfume store at the LRT station next to Lot 10.)
Five years ago, Aladdin H. Salih decided to open a restaurant at the foot of Fortuna Hotel because he saw the potential: there weren't many services for the Arab tourist, and he dreamed about creating a community for them in Malaysia.
Over the years, the restaurant - called Sahara Tent - has become the focal point of the tiny Arab enclave. The restaurant, with its Moorish arches and tinkling fountains, often draws Arab patrons (though the restaurant is also popular with the locals). Many can be seen dining in the restaurant's lush carpeted interior (with privacy booths for veiled women to dine in private) or smoking pipes outside.
Aladdin, or "Ala" as he is called, led me upstairs to the conference room, which is covered with ornate, plush carpets and textiles. There are also privacy booths which look like the tents used by the Bedouins.
"This is the only restaurant where we have a proper Arab chef who has been cooking for years", he declared.
The restaurant offers Middle Eastern food, that is, Iraqi, Egyptian, Iranian and Yemeni cuisine. Many of the ingredients are imported - Ala is very fussy about quality, which is probably the reason why Sahara Tent was voted the Malaysian Tourism Board's Best Middle Eastern Restaurant in 2001.
The peak season is in June and July when Arabs flock to Malaysia as it is the school holidays over there, said Ala. It is during these months that Sahara Tent becomes a beehive of activity, so much so that the staff sometimes cannot cope with the influx of customers.
Many Arab tourists travel to Malaysia also to escape the scorching summer heat.
"At least here it is less hot. But not all Arabs are rich. That's absolutely the wrong idea", he said. "But it has become a habit and part of the culture to travel."
Which is why he finds it disheartening that many merchants overcharge Arab tourists.
"Almost 100% of taxis do not use the meter when they pick up Arab tourists. Some hotels give Arab tourists different rates", he said.
Also, he said that the Bukit Bintang area should be better policed as he has witnessed several Arab tourists getting robbed by snatch thieves.
Marybeth Ramey, an American who has lived in Malaysia since 1998, also laments about the taxi drivers.
"I am blond-haired, blue-eyed and, anytime I am in Kuala Lumpur centre and hail a taxi, they attempt to rip me off. Or, they snarl that if I don't know how to get to my own destination, then get out. Or the taxi cab smells so bad with body odour one wants to throw up. In the taxi driver's defence, there is not much respect given to them as an industry", she said.
Ramey, who is the editor of The Expat, a magazine that caters to the Malaysian expatriate community, said that most expats agree with local sentiment that littering, dirty toilets, unscrupulous taxi drivers, air pollution, fear of break-ins and snatch thefts are drawbacks to living in Kuala Lumpur.
"However, most expats come from a large city to begin with, so we are already cognizant of this as a global problem and not inherent just to Malaysia. I find it much safer here than in Bangkok", she said.
After nearly eight years here, she regards Malaysia as home and even wants to live here permanently. She believes that her children have benefited greatly from their immersion in Asian culture and values.
For one, Ramey said that her 19-year-old son, who has lived in Malaysia since he was 10, is unlike most American teenagers.
"His parents are much more important in his life than are his peers. Family first. I love that. We don't see this much anymore in the United States", she said.
Based on the surveys conducted by the magazine, many expats like the very low cost of living in Malaysia.
"Everything imaginable is far cheaper than at home. They resoundingly love the choices they have for five-star cuisine, world-class shopping, the wide use of English, the top quality of the international schools, the amenities such as air-con availability, ability to hire very cheap staff for themselves and family, like maids, drivers and helpers. At home, these are unheard-of luxuries", she said.
"Expats who are English-speaking tend to congregate in three areas: Bangsar Baru, Mont Kiara and Sri Hartamas, and the Bukit Bintang area, all in Kuala Lumpur. Some new areas are Heritage Row in Kuala Lumpur", she said.
She believed that they like to go to these places because they can find like-minded companionship, shared interests, and outlets that cater to their taste in music and alcoholic beverages. It helps that English is widely used in these areas.
"And most have touches of home that expats find comforting", she said.
"The only nationality that tends to stay together and only among themselves are the Japanese. They are friendly enough, but fear showing too much of themselves to be more open and so prefer to congregate together. The South Koreans are much more integrated and quickly pick up the language even", she said.
There are also white-collar workers from India and Pakistan coming to Malaysia to work, mainly in the ICT fields.
"We are seeing a new trend in the past three years - more singletons are coming here. These are the twentysomethings that are looking to broaden their horizons and to live an expat existence for the adventures and the stretching of their minds", she said.
And as Kuala Lumpur welcomes people from around the world, Malaysians will be further enriched by their presence.