Making Southeast Asia your second home

In this picture taken on May 26, 2004, pedestrians walk on a zebra crossing in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. (AFP Photo/Jimin Lai)

Sandy white beach, clear blue skies, exotic architecture, colourful language and culture, warm and hospitable people, as well as spices that would introduce you to a wide range of flavours you never would have experienced anywhere else on this planet – what is not to love about Southeast Asia?

In the statistics released by ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the organisation revealed that tourist arrivals in the region have increased steadily between 2011 and 2015 – within those five years, tourist arrivals increased from 81.3 million to 108.9 million people. While ASEAN countries made up 42.2 percent of the total tourist arrivals in 2015, 17.1 percent of them were from China followed by European Union (8.8 percent), South Korea (5.4 percent) and Japan (4.3 percent). Australia, the US, India, Taiwan and Hong Kong rounded up the top 10 list of countries or region where visitors to ASEAN were from.

Between the exotic cultures, mouth-watering local cuisine, natural tourist attractions, foreigner-friendly society and low cost of living, it's no wonder that many tourists have fallen in love with the Southeast Asian region.

While Thailand may be one of the most visited countries in the region and is better known among foreigners, Malaysia is actually one of the top global retirement destinations. According to The World’s Best Places to Retire in 2017 from Live and Invest Overseas and the most current Best Places to Retire Abroad list from International Living, Malaysia were one of the few countries that are ranked within the top 10 of both lists. The nation was also the only Asian country included in the rankings.

In order to understand the nation's success in becoming the top Asian destination for retirees, we must first look at its policy, namely its MM2H (Malaysia My Second Home) programme.

Launched in 2002, the MM2H programme allows foreigners who fulfil certain criteria to stay in Malaysia for as long as possible on a multiple-entry social visit pass that is valid for 10 years which can be renewed. Based on its official website, the programme is open to all countries recognised by Malaysia regardless of race, religion, gender or age and applicants are allowed to bring their spouses as well as children below the age of 21 along with them as dependants. They are also entitled to benefits such as the ability to purchase any residential property within the country that costs more than 119,000 dollars (MYR 500,000) or to purchase a vehicle.

The Malaysian government revealed that the MM2H programme has managed to attract more than 33,000 foreigners from 126 countries to settle in the country since its inception. Sourced from a local daily newspaper, the Malaysian Tourism and Culture Minister, Nazri Abdul Aziz said, "the collection from visa fees alone is MYR 7.5 million (1.79 million dollars) annually and fixed deposits stands at MYR 4.9 billion (1.17 billion dollars) and car purchases of MYR 148 million (35.25 million dollars)."

Up north, the Royal Thai Government through the Ministry of Tourism had issued several 20-year visas to foreign buyers who have purchased a unit in a condominium development situated in Pattaya, Thailand. According to the press release, this partnership between the Royal Thai Government and a private property developer was akin to Malaysia's MM2H programme and it was the first initiative of its kind in the kingdom.

Down south, the largest ASEAN country by total population – Indonesia – had made land ownership exclusive to Indonesians for the longest time. However, Indonesian President Joko Widodo signed a government regulation – the Government Regulation No. 103/2015 on House Ownership of Foreigners Residing in Indonesia – which allows foreigners who are residing legally within the country to purchase landed residential property on a 80-year lease.

While the ASEAN nations are slowing warming up to foreign ownership of land, there are much to be done in terms of policymaking and government initiatives in transforming Southeast Asia into a favourite retirement destination globally.