GEORGETOWN, MALAYSIA – Like many Japanese mothers, Ritsuko Kawasaki fretted over the health and safety risks of remaining in Japan after 2011’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disasters.
So in August she and her two boys moved to the Malaysian island of Penang under a government long-stay program that aims to lure foreigners — and their money — to the country.
“I don’t think I want to return to Japan. Life here in Penang is so comfortable,” said Kawasaki, age 43.
With its warm climate, political stability and modern economy, Malaysia has drawn 19,488 foreigners to settle in the country since launching the Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) program 10 years ago.
MM2H and similar schemes in Thailand and the Philippines have traditionally targeted Western retirees in the hope they will settle down and boost the economy. But program officials say Asians are now the typical applicants, led by postquake Japanese and increasingly affluent Chinese.
A total of 2,387 MM2H applicants were approved in 2011, and the government is targeting 3,000 for 2012, officials say.
The Malaysian incentives include a 10-year multiple-entry visa, tax exemption for remittances of offshore pension funds, the right to open a business, tax-free purchases of locally made cars and other enticements.
Applicants, meanwhile, must deposit a certain amount of money in a local bank account — $50,000 for MM2H — in return for a life under the sun.
For Britons Keith and Adrienne Francis, sunshine was the clincher as they mulled whether to settle back in England after Keith’s 2004 retirement from 35 years in the Hong Kong police force.
“Look at the U.K., it is dull and cold,” Adrienne said as the couple sipped sweet milk tea in an Indian restaurant in Georgetown, Penang’s British colonial-era capital.
Their other options had included the Thai resort of Phuket.
“I didn’t like Phuket because of the bars,” she said of its bawdy nightlife.
The couple said Muslim-majority Malaysia was attractive due to its high living standards, lack of political upheaval seen often in its neighbors, quality medical care and widely spoken English.
Under MM2H, retirees can also own freehold property and land — although some restrictions apply — a key factor for the Francises, who shuddered at the thought of a costly and cramped retirement nest in Hong Kong.
Home is now a spacious 232-sq.-meter seaside Penang condo they bought in 2004 for $182,000.
But increasingly it is Asians, and particularly Chinese and Japanese, driving the so-called silver market — business opportunities linked to seniors — says Janice Chia, managing director of Singapore-based consultancy Ageing Asia.
She said by 2050 Asia will account for an estimated 63 percent of the world’s senior citizens, who will become increasingly important to economies, especially as medical advances extend life spans.
“Traditionally, MM2H has attracted Western retirees, but there will be greater movements of Asian retirees to Southeast Asia,” where they “can stretch their retirement dollar,” Chia said.
Siti Nani Shaarani, director of MM2H, said its applicants are now led by China, Japan, Bangladesh, the United Kingdom and Iran.
The Philippine Retirement Authority cites a similar mix of origins for the nearly 21,000 people now in its retirement incentive program, led by China, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.
England, America and Germany still top Thailand’s long-stay scheme, which approved 35,488 applicants in 2011, according to Thai immigration figures.
Coming to Malaysia was a big leap for Kawasaki, who speaks only Japanese. She likes that her two boys, 9 and 3 years old, are learning English in school.
But Malaysia’s relative safety appealed to her the most. The country is seismically stable and free of the typhoons that annually rake East Asia.
“A month later (after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami in 2011), I visited Miyagi Prefecture to witness the damage. I was totally shocked by the extent of the destruction,” the former career consultant said.
Jessie Ong, director of Overseas Living, a firm that helps MM2H applicants settle in Malaysia, said incoming Japanese typically claim they are “being driven out by last year’s tsunami and nuclear fears.”
Whatever the motivation, Japanese led the pack of new applicants for 2012, with 558 as of August compared to 195 for all of 2010.
Shigeru Tanida, 65, has lived in Kuala Lumpur since 2006, drawn by the year-round sunshine and far lower living costs than in Japan.
He considered Spain, Thailand and the Philippines after retiring from Japanese electronics giant Panasonic, before settling on Malaysia.
He now teaches karate and plays golf far more cheaply than he could at home.
“Living costs here are a third lower than Japan and the weather is good,” he said.
MM2H participants Bernd Freytag, a German, and his American wife, Kimmie, complain about the choking traffic of Malaysian cities such as Georgetown and Kuala Lumpur, and the country’s often haphazard development.
But Freytag, 70, says that he will never leave.
“I told my kids, when I go away, just throw my ashes in the sea off Penang,” he said.