By Reme Ahmad
MALAYSIA last year attracted a record number of wealthy foreigners who set up second homes here under a special retirement scheme backed by the government.
A total of 701 well-heeled foreigners were given entry visas in 2002 under the Malaysia, My Second Home programme, statistics received by The Straits Times showed.
This figure is slightly lower than the 800 people who joined the scheme over a period of 14 years - from 1987, when it was launched, to 2001.
The number of high-nett-worth individuals and their spouses, who decided to retire in Malaysia last year, was more than double the 313 figure recorded in 2001 and 276 in 2000, according to Immigration Department data.
Officials and the scheme's private promoters said the jump was due to more relaxed rules introduced last year and more regular promotions conducted by the Tourism Ministry in the targeted countries.
Malaysia wants its tourism industry to boost foreign exchange earnings to take up the slack from the main manufacturing sector which is hit by the global economic slowdown.
Previously called the Silver Hair programme, the Malaysia, My Second Home scheme allows retired foreigners to live in the country with a visa of five years.
This is an improvement over having to get annual visa renewals before the amendments were made early last year.
The retiree and the spouse must have a joint monthly income of RM10,000 (S$4,700), or a fixed deposit of RM150,000 in a Malaysian bank. Previously, the retiree alone must have had at least a monthly income of RM10,000.
Under the revised rules, foreigners are also allowed to buy two properties worth above RM250,000 without approval from the Foreign Investment Committee. Previously, they had to seek government approval for any property purchase.
Surprisingly, the biggest number of applicants was from China - 254 people, with another 12 from Hong Kong.
'Although China is a big country, a lot of people are trying to find an alternative home, a second home, outside the country,' said Ms Candy Yap, director of the scheme at Country Heights Holdings, a private firm that actively promotes the retirement product.
The big Chinese inflow was followed by 74 people each from Britain and Singapore. Also, there were 37 rich Indians, 34 Japanese, 28 Taiwanese and 17 Americans who made a beeline to Malaysia last year.
A Tourism Ministry official said Britain and Japan were the two main markets targeted under the scheme this year due to indications of strong interest.
Lower living costs, a mix of major Asian cultures and food were among key factors that make Malaysia attractive, says retired Hong Kong lawyer Edward Woo.
'Some places are too crowded. Here, the stable economy, retention of Chinese culture, the infrastructure and the fact that we speak English and Mandarin all help,' the 65-year-old told The Straits Times.
Property developers are happy at the rising number of wealthy retirees heading in as they can help churn the high-end property market, though the inflow is still tiny.