Foreigners who retire in Penang, Malaysia, can enjoy a high standard of living for a much lower cost than in their own countries. (AFP)
They are scattered all over Asia and come from all socioeconomic backgrounds. You will find them in places like Chiang Mai and Phuket in Thailand. They can be found in the Philippines, Malaysia and Bali, Indonesia. You can even find them in Cambodia, Vietnam and China.
They are foreign retirees ― mainly Australians, Europeans and North Americans fleeing cold winters and the prospect of spending their twilight years in a nursing home.
Although small in number, they are a growing minority in a region ―stretching from Japan to India ― where retirement has become big business.
As Asia’s economic prosperity has grown, so too has its ageing population.
The Manila-based Asian Development Bank (ADB) has estimated that Asia’s elderly population will reach 922.7 million by the middle of this century.
The United Nations estimates that in India the number of people aged 60 and above will rise from the current level of around 8 percent to more than 18 percent by 2050. In Southeast Asia, the number will rise from 8 percent to 22 percent and in China from 12 percent to over 33 per cent.
According to the ADB, Asia is on track to become the oldest region in the world within the space of just a few decades.
The multilateral lender says the “policies and systems of governments in Asia are hardly prepared for this vast demographic shift.”
Even so, some governments ― those of Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines ― are cashing in on retirement, or the “silver economy” as it is now being called.
According to Singapore-based Ageing Asia, a marketing consultant that specializes in ageing in the Asia-Pacific region, by 2017 there will be more than 118 million people aged over 60 in India, 30 million in Japan, 217 million in China and 24 million in Indonesia.
The business of ageing ― from developers building retirement villages for foreigners or locals, to medical care and companies specializing in holidays for the elderly ― is expected to be worth more than $3 trillion in Asia by 2017, according to Ageing Asia.
John Harvey, a former partner with the global accountancy firm Ernst & Young, spent more than 40 years in the region. But rather than return to his homeland of the United Kingdom he chose to retire in Malaysia.
“It was an easy decision to make,” he tells China Daily Asia Weekly.
“I wanted a place which had a pleasant climate, with a reasonable cost of living, where English is spoken and where the medical facilities were first class … Malaysia ticked all the boxes,” he says.
Harvey lives in a condominium complex on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur.
“It is within easy access of everything I need,” he adds.
Malaysia actively encourages foreign retirees as part of a government development program which is tied in with its growing medical tourism sector.
Under the Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) plan, visas are valid for 10 years depending on whether or not retirees can meet set financial requirements, which include having at least $47,500 in a Malaysian bank account or a pension of at least $3,160 a month.
Thailand offers a similar deal, while Singapore actively targets the high-end retiree.
In the Philippines, some 160,000 foreigners have received special residence visas for retirees. This does not cover those who have retired on investor or tourist visas and those who opted to marry locals.
No government agency in the Philippines has comprehensive data specifically on foreign retirees. Of those with retiree visas, the top nationalities include Chinese, South Koreans and Japanese.
They can stay in the country so long as they pay a cash guarantee of $5,000 and have at least $1,500 in monthly pension income.
“No one knows with any degree of certainty how many retirees there are in the region,” says Rhenu Bhuller, senior vice-president for healthcare with global consultants Frost & Sullivan.
She explains that in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia (mainly Bali) “we have been seeing growth of around 10 to 12 percent over the last two years,” adding that “Like the millions of tourists who visit the region each year, retirees are drawn by the lifestyle,”
Retirees have flocked to beachfront locations like Phuket, in southern Thailand. Others enjoy the relatively cool and compact city of Chiang Mai, tucked away in the hills of northern Thailand where, according to retirement and investment services group Boutique, some 30,000 foreigners have already settled.
Bhuller says many retirees are initially looking for an escape from the dreary, cold winters in the northern hemisphere.
“Many come for the winter months then go back home, but after a few years they come back for good.
“They find life more affordable, property cheaper and a lifestyle they never had back home.”
A recent report in the Bali Advertiser, a publication aimed at the expat community, said the popular Indonesian tourist destination had become a “hot spot” for retirees seeking a higher quality of life for a much cheaper rate than in their home countries.
The report said: “A growing colony of retirees are now able to call Bali ‘home’ thanks to a retirement visa available to Westerners aged 55 or older who can fully support themselves financially. The one-year visa, which costs US$1,000, can be extended every year until five years has elapsed, at which time they can apply for a permanent stay permit.”
The standard and quality of healthcare in the region are becoming more important for retirees.
Bhuller says medical services have improved “enormously” in recent years, with around 27 hospitals given accreditation by the internationally recognized Joint Commission International, an organization that monitors the quality of medical services globally.
Strategy consultants Roland Berger said in a report earlier this year that health expenditure in Southeast Asia has increased two and a half times between 1998 and 2010, reaching nearly $68 billion. Private insurance, however, accounts for only 4 percent of this total.
“Three major factors are driving this development: Steady population growth, steep increases in medical costs, and ― most importantly ― increases in per capita consumption of healthcare services,” it claims.
It also states that the maturity of the healthcare market varies widely across Southeast Asia.
“Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar are still at an early stage of development, while Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines provide basic healthcare services to their populations. Malaysia and Thailand are at a more advanced stage of development and now focus on providing high quality care,” the report adds.
The most advanced market is Singapore, which promotes private contributions to the financing of healthcare.
Healthcare services tend to be highly important for retirees, with many of them living within easy reach of major hospitals.
Forbes magazine, in its annual “The 10 Best Countries to Retire to” list, placed Malaysia in third spot globally and Thailand in ninth place in its survey.
Healthcare is a major concern for retirees, and Forbes reported that Malaysia’s strong reputation for medical tourism is an added advantage.
“You can count on excellent care that’ll run you less than half of what you’d pay in the US,” said Jessica Stevens, executive editor of International Living magazine, which has found that Malaysia is a favored retirement destination for people from North America.
While familiar enough in some respects ― for example, English is commonly spoken in these countries ― Southeast Asia is still exotic enough for active retirees to enjoy exploring.
Some cities in China have also become known as retirement havens. Suzhou, Hangzhou and Zhuhai are among the popular destinations. These cities are known for their scenic landscapes and laid-back pace of life.
Some older Southeast Asian people of Chinese descent have been returning to the villages and towns where they or their ancestors had come from to stay for extended periods.
Singaporean Koh Hak Kin is in his 70s and serves as an example of this trend. Born in Chaozhou, he came to Singapore with his father when he was a young boy. He was subsequently sent back to China for his education before World War II broke out and then fetched back to Singapore again.
Now retired, Koh splits his time between Chaozhou and Singapore. He spends at least two to three months at a time in his home village, where he still has relatives.
“It feels like home,” he said. “I know this place, I know the people, so I am very comfortable here.”
By Karl Wilson and Jaime Koh