Posts Tagged With: Malaysia

View From the Expat Window


The view from my office

Expat life involves so much learning about your host country. All kinds of basic things that we take for granted at home seem unfamiliar here. I was reminded this morning of how off balance we were our first year in Malaysia, how we never knew when the holidays were. I was working in a round-the-clock NGO, and the husband was working from home, so neither of us was in a 9-to-5 world. Add to that our complete ignorance of Muslim and Hindu holidays, and, well, we were always the losers at the expat parties who had no idea there was a three day weekend coming up. I thought about that this morning when Himself texted to say there was no one in his office and he had no idea why. Oh, here we go again…

In Mongolia we both are in offices with mostly regular schedules, but because of our work, we get quite particular views of the country. The husband is working in local government to improve city services. He knows all about garbage collection, the city’s centralized heating system and how people get water — stuff that most expats and plenty of locals never think about. As mentioned earlier, I’ve been researching access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR to its friends), and I’ve learned that one of the biggest obstacles for people is that this is a small country. Not small geographically, because another obstacle is having to travel a long way to a clinic, but small-town small. As in: you go in for birth control or some kind of checkup, and the doctor is an old friend of your granny’s and the receptionist dated your brother. It’s VERY awkward for people, especially teenagers. And I find this a fascinating little cultural nugget.

On the other hand, taking taxis is still really stressful for me because I can’t always describe where we live. I’m going to an NGO fundraising event tomorrow night and was actually discouraged from making a donation — huh? Daily office life is full of little surprises because I don’t understand what’s being said around me. And the husband’s office was mysteriously empty this morning.

What we do know is weird stuff.

Here’s another example from working in children’s rights in Malaysia: There’s a Malaysian island called Pulau Ketam (“Crab Island”) that I heard about early on as a notorious drop-off point for human traffickers and as a site where dogs were abandoned. Horrifying, right? It was at least a year later that I found out the island actually is famous as a day excursion for the food — crab, duh. You’d think I’d have picked up the food connection, but I had no idea that normal people just go there to eat.


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Pondering Development in Mongolia

IMG_0787“International development” is hard to define, but generally refers to programs funded, and often undertaken by, international organizations to strengthen institutions of a country such that poverty is reduced, health is improved, rule of law is followed, and civil society is strengthened. The government of the country is involved by necessity at least minimally. Ideally, development priorities and programs are established with cooperation and input from international organizations, governments and civil society organizations, so that each perspective is included.

LOTS of international organizations are working here in Mongolia: the UN agencies, such as UNICEF, WHO, UNDP, UNFPA; the World Bank; the Asian Development Bank; international NGOs, such as Save the Children, Mercy Corps, The Asia Foundation. In addition, there are government-linked volunteer programs. The Peace Corps is very active here, with up to 140 volunteers placed in towns and rural areas, and there Australian Civilian Corps volunteers working in Ulaanbaatar, many placed in Ministries and departments of the Mongolian government. Aid funding comes from big international donors, such as the EU, USAID, Australian Aid, JICA and KOICA (from Japan and Korea), Swiss Aid, plus small grants from the embassies and consulates here. I’m sure I’ve overlooked some, but you get the picture.

(Disclaimer: while both the husband and I are working in the development field, we are relatively new to this work. I don’t pretend to have anything like a full view of what’s happening in Mongolia, nor do I have any idea what development is like in other places. All I’ve seen is a tiny bit of two countries. So, these are just my limited impressions.)

I’m researching the state of sexual and reproductive health and rights in Mongolia, which means going through a lot of data. And I’m astonished at the amount and quality of information that’s available, both data and analysis. All the UN agencies and the World Bank produce papers and short overviews describing the areas in which they’re working: the situation for children, economic growth, the environment, human rights, maternal health — you name it. The Mongolian government cooperates in compiling this information, through the National Statistics Office, various Ministries and the universities. Mongolia also has signed on to 40+ international treaties, many of which require regular reporting on implementation.

This is really different from our experience working in Malaysia, where the big international NGOs were basically kicked out in the 1980’s and civil society is weak. The remaining UN agencies keep a very low profile, mostly trying to support local NGOs to do direct service and policy advocacy work. Focusing on the small NGOs means there’s very little good data and analysis, however, because the local NGOs have neither the expertise nor the resource to do that kind of work. It’s good to build capacity, of course, but in the years it takes to build that capacity there is no quality information available.

I look at Mongolian version of reports I, personally and collaboratively, worked on for Malaysia, and the contrast is stunning. Why is UNICEF Mongolia able to produce a comprehensive, 100 page, easy-to-read analysis of juvenile justice — complete with the legal framework, solid statistics, analyses of each component of the process, and actual child participation? Whereas in Malaysia it seemed we just chased our tails, sniped with UNICEF and couldn’t get government to talk to us, much less contribute in any way.

Personal feelings aside, there are bigger questions here. Is this what happens when a government welcomes international assistance? Mongolia has a welcome-all-comers attitude, including “warm” relations with North Korea, whereas Malaysia is very much aligned with Southeast Asian and Islamic countries and chooses friends based on those alliances. How does a country know when it’s had enough help? Because it’s easy to make the wrong decision, relying too heavily and not developing local skills, or relying too little and not developing local skills. And obviously data and analysis are nothing without the leadership and political will to make decisions based on information rather than the temptation of short-term political gains.

I feel like Malaysia has chosen the wrong path at this intersection, and I don’t know how things will progress in Mongolia. Being here now is fascinating because we are watching, and participating in our small ways, real-time choices and progress.

Please do comment if you have experiences or thoughts about the development field (or even if you don’t — we’re welcome-all-comers at this blog, too), especially if you’re Mongolian or have worked in Mongolia. This is a big topic, and I expect to post again about it.

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Contest Entry: Top Tips for Moving from Malaysia to Mongolia


I entered this blog in a writing contest for expat blogs, where we were asked to write a list that would be helpful for people to know about our country. The number of people moving from Malaysia to Mongolia is so small — though we do know a few — that I had to go a bit tongue-in-cheek with my list.

A Three-Month Retrospective: Some Things to Know in Case You’re in That Tiny Group of People Who Move from Malaysia to Mongolia:

1.    Forget the calendar — no matter that it may still be warm in much of the northern hemisphere — and put those sandals in storage. Hide your cotton shirts and “sweaters” too. When you see them in the drawer, they’ll either make you feel cold or sad.

2.    Pack plenty of spices and chilies. Not only in your shipped luggage for your own kitchen, but in little packets to keep in your purse or pocket for everyday. You will understand why, and thank me, when you start eating Mongolian food.

3.    The language difference is profound: Malay is much easier to pick up than Mongolian, and you can find lots of English speakers in Malaysia if you need help. This is not the case in Mongolia.

4.    Counter to the Asian stereotype, Mongolians will say no and are generally much more direct than Malaysians. This can be refreshing, but it may also feel a bit abrupt.

5.    Relatedly, Mongolians are much more open about bodily functions, especially sexuality, than most Malaysians, and all of it is fun to laugh about.

6.    If you move with your overfed American cat, he or she may well exceed the airline weight limit on all possible routes, and you will look like a freak for travelling with a cat in the cabin. Just smile and assume there are some animal lovers among the airline personnel – it’s just a matter of finding them.

7.    Mongolians, unlike Malaysians, aren’t interested in what religion you are, nor will they ask you about it.

8.    The good news is that you can let pedicure maintenance slide (see #1 above). The bad news is Hat Hair.

9.    You will miss the lively political discussions you used to have with Malaysian taxi drivers.

10.    In Mongolia, there is no such thing as too much moisturizer. In Malaysia, there is no such thing as too many umbrellas.

11.    If you’re American, you will be surprised and a bit embarrassed at how many more of your fellow countrymen and –women have heard of Mongolia than Malaysia.

12.    Mongolians don’t talk about their president’s wife. I’m just saying.

13.    There is no escaping big, dumb American action movies. Same goes for Pringles.

14.    You will remember that seasonal change means much more than just how many times a week it rains. And you will learn that seasonal change in Mongolia does not mean getting to put your coats away.

15.    Alcohol is MUCH cheaper in Mongolia, which can be good until some drunk guy bounces off you on the sidewalk.

16.    Consider either Mauritania or Macedonia as possible next expat stops, because it will seem as if you’ve made random moves until people work out the alliteration.

17.    Note that diplomacy between the two countries has been a bit dodgy, and you may want to google “Altantuya” to find out more about this history.

18.    Durian is much more appealing than mutton. Scientific research data backs me up.

19.    Re: #18 above, Malaysia totally kicks butt in the Quality of Life Category – Local Fruit, but Mongolia has the edge in Quality of Life Category – The Unexpected. Anything can happen here.

20.    Regardless of which place you’re living, you are an outsider and thus an object of curiosity. People will stare at you. It doesn’t matter.

21.    (I won’t repeat the platitude about maintaining a sense of humor, but if I were to do so, it would be here at #21.)

Thanks to all of you who commented and shared this contest entry.
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Context: Not Everything, But A Lot


Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar

I’m still working through these ideas, so bear with me.

We learned pretty early on in Malaysia that the context within which everything — government, civil society, business — operates is post-colonial, Islamic (and very religious no matter what your faith) and about balancing the needs, rights and wants of three ethnic groups. For example, in my previous work, we always knew that while we didn’t have to have certain ethnicities in certain staff positions, it would behoove us to do so. Holidays are a careful mix to be sure each religion has its days, and each state also has its own day every year. And nearly three generations after colonial rule ended, I felt that the Malaysian government was still trying to work out what to keep from the British and what leftover bits undermined its credibility. Some of this was more noticeable, some less, but these issues were the context/atmosphere/underpinning/you name it for whatever work we were doing.

(Americans have a version of this with our stories of struggling for independence and exploring the frontier, as well as our idea of the country as a melting pot. These shared ideas explain a lot, for example, about the role of the individual in our culture, compared to the role of family or community.)

Already, Mongolia feels very different. For one thing, religion is much less present; I can’t tell how important Buddhism is to the Mongolians I know, and that lack of awareness says a lot. What people do reference is being post-socialist or post-Soviet, and that change has happened just in the past twenty years. Much of the architecture seems Soviet, much of the food seems eastern European, and I’ve had Mongolians tell me they identify more with Europe than Asia. (That’s a statue of Genghis Khan above, but it could have been Lenin in another era.) Go a bit deeper, and the ways that democracy is developing here have to do with moving away from centralised planning, rather than obedience to autocratic royalty. For both of us working here, one in government services and one in human rights, this is a very interesting difference from Malaysia.

We’re still brand-new here, so, really, I don’t know anything yet. But this is a powerful first impression that I’ll be checking again regularly as we go.

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Moving Brings Out the Crazy

Now that it’s over, I’ll say that the move itself was pretty entertaining, spread as it was over several days and modes of transportation. We’d tried to sort and discard as much as possible to prepare for the day the movers came, but there was still a mortifying amount of stuff. Plus, it’s really embarrassing to have strangers see exactly what one considers worthy of moving across a continent. Pounds and pounds of coffee beans, for example, and Phil:

Phil, our Komodo Dragon

Phil, our Komodo Dragon

Never having used professional movers before, I was unprepared for how thorough they would be. Everything not specifically designated Not to move was packed, which sounds obvious, and is, but I expect we’ll open boxes to find empty plastic bags, stray paperclips and little shards of soap in with what we wanted to move.

Bringing a cat across international boundaries is now familiar to us, so I should have been more relaxed about how our overfed American pet exceeds the in-cabin weight limits. (5kg/11lbs for both the animal AND the carrier?) I’m really bad at lying to authority figures and dreaded a confrontation at the check-in counter. But Malaysia Boleh: they just asked to see her, so I hoisted the carrier up, saying, “Comel, eh?” And that was enough.

Here she is in the carrier and under my coat during our layover in Seoul:IMG_0628IMG_0615

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