Malaysia-bound Part 3: the role of expats as consumers

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By end of the first month living in a new country, you’ve got your accommodation sorted, largely figured out the public transport system, and know where to go for what. Who knows, maybe you’ve even made a few friends?

Being one month in, you’ve stopped frequenting the vapid tourist traps (as much as I love tissue box covers with pleather LV monograms and overpriced beers), and your spending habits have begun transitioning from “YOLO it’s cheap so whatever” to food and other essentials.


In Malaysia, I am a (comparatively) well-paid foreign expat and I am aware of the privileges this brings. Given the elevated position I am afforded, I’ve been pondering whether there is any obligation on me to contribute to the wider community I live in – if not volunteering my time at soup kitchens or something, at least with how and where I choose to spend my money. As the saying goes, put your money where your mouth is, right?

I just got back from iSetan (a Japanese chain department store cum upscale supermarket) this afternoon having stocked up a few provisions, and I realise almost everything I purchased was imported. The butter is from Denmark, the coffee and the olive oil is Italian, the pesto is from Spain, the Camembert is French, and the strawberries were imported from the US (and priced accordingly). It’s not that I don’t like the local fare – it’s just that I miss the foods that I enjoyed back in New Zealand, so I purchase these things occasionally to supplement the stir-fries, curries and noodle soups.


Brunch today. It was actually the best meal I’ve had all week. DAT Danish butter tho.

The same goes for clothing (the other big expense item for me). I would have loved to have seen (and invested in) some local Malaysian designers, but it doesn’t seem like there are any. Head to the fancy malls and you’ll see the same big-label flagship stores you see along the Champs-Élysée – head to any of the others, and you’ll just see the same fast-fashion international brands you fcan find anywhere – Nike, Uni-Qlo, H&M, Zara etc.

I don’t place an inherent value on brands, or the country of origin for any given product; however you’d be hard-pressed to find any of the food items I mentioned above locally produced, and I’m not aware of any contemporary Malaysian designers at all – in that respect I’d be limited to batiks (traditional attire made of wax-dyed cloth typically worn by Malays on special occasions).


This is Nu Sentral – my local mall. The diverse range of “local offerings”

Ideally I would like to support the development of promising local businesses with ethical practices that have a positive social and environmental impact on the communities in which they operate but they either don’t seem to exist, or don’t produce the foods or goods that I want.  Is it enough for me to be able to say that Malaysia doesn’t make Gruyere, and doesn’t have designers that make perfect shirts (*cough* Prada) to justify the bulk of my spending going directly overseas?  I’d love to hear your (i.e. the 2-3 readers who frequent this blog) thoughts.

What about Malaysians?

From my observations and from asking some colleagues, what I understand is that most Malaysians don’t consider the impact of their consumption beyond the immediate utility the derive from it. The consequences and flow-on environmental damage cause by the copious amounts of plastic used in packaging, takeaway drinks, and in giving out plastic bags for every single purchase ever doesn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind (btw – NO ONE recycles here. Ever. >_<).

Similarly, you can tell easily enough if foods are halal, and very occasionally you can find organic foods if you go to some seriously upmarket grocery stores (i.e. stores for white people), but I am yet to see labels certifying cruelty free farming for meat, cage-free eggs, bio-degradable products, or recycled packaging.

So I doubt Malaysians would really care where I spend my money, but it’s not the scrutiny of others that makes me uneasy.

Woah, this is a heavy post. I am planning on visiting the Pudu wet markets tomorrow, so I’ll be taking my camera to see if I can get some pictures, or maybe even make a video.  This has been churning in my mind so it’s cathartic to put pen to paper (so to speak). The next one should be a little lighter.

– Chris.

Author: Chris Park

One half of the Park Brothers. Purveyor of banter, curator of misc. Manage comms for @BuoyandMine. Read More

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