When even RM12,000 a month isn’t enough to get by in Malaysia

How much does it take to have a decent life in Malaysia? That has been the top question in the country in the past few years and a greater concern in 2014 as electricity rates and transport costs go up and subsidies go down.

While Putrajaya talks up proposals to help the people mitigate rising prices with cost of living labs and possibly even more targeted subsidies, most Malaysians are looking at the prospect of expenditure exceeding their monthly salaries.

One of them is Caroline Wong, who believes her combined household income of RM12,000 is not enough to sustain a living in Penang, famed for its beaches as much as it electronics manufacturing sector.

The 34-year-old clerk lives with her husband, a sales manager and their young daughter are starting to feel the pinch despite earning an income that was once sufficient to live comfortably.

“We are always eating in at home now and we can no longer afford to buy goods like branded clothing,” Wong told The Malaysian Insider in Penang's capital city George Town.

According to Wong, every month the couple have to fork out RM4,000 for the house and car, RM1,500 on food and another RM1,500 on daycare, baby food and milk for their child.

On top of that, there is RM750 on insurance and a family medical card, RM700 on petrol, RM600 on phone bills, WiFi and broadband, RM120 on Astro, RM140 on water and electricity bills and RM110 on a weekly housekeeper.

“We put aside RM500 every month for road tax and car insurance. Come May next year, we will have to spend another RM1,500 a month on our second child when it arrives,” Wong said.

Her tale is just one of many who are living in Penang, the country’s most expensive city.

As 2014 begins, Malaysians will be facing a new challenge in dealing with the rising cost of living as the price of goods and services is expected to go up.

A poll by The Malaysian Insider found that Penang, a popular tourist destination, is more expensive to live in than Kuala Lumpur.

The cost of living survey conducted in December covered Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Johor Baru, Kuala Terengganu, Klang, Kuching and Alor Star.

The survey compared prices of necessities, such as chicken, vegetables (mustard greens and red chillies), fish, house rental and the minimum wage in a month.

“Prices of goods are determined by the market and it depends on consumers to control their expenditure,” said Datuk Paul Selvaraj, secretary-general at the Federation of Malaysian Consumers Association (Fomca).

“It is the responsibility of the Government to minimise the impact on consumers, but in some situations the responsibility falls on the individual.”

Critics have complained that the slow rate of increase in household income would not be able to cope with the recent slew of price hikes of items, such as electricity tariff, toll, school bus fares and assessment rates.

An individual would require an income of RM4,000 to survive on Penang island, given its high rental and expensive daily goods.

Trailing closely behind Penang are industrial cities Bintulu in Sarawak and Paka in Terengganu.

However, prices of goods in Penang are much lower on the mainland in places such as Seberang Prai.

The lower cost of living has made nearby mainland towns a sprawling suburban neighbourhood with heavy traffic flow daily on the connecting Penang Bridge.

The poll conducted in December found that a kilogramme of chicken cost RM9 in George Town, while it was only RM7 in Kuala Lumpur and RM6.50 in Klang, Selangor.

In Kuala Terengganu, prices of daily goods are comparatively higher despite its lower cost of living.

A kilogramme of chicken cost RM7.50 while fish, such as mackerel at the Chabang Tiga market cost between RM10 to RM15 depending on the quality.

The cost of seafood there is also not cheap although it is located near fishing villages.

However, low rental rates and toll-free roads have kept the cost of living relatively low in Kuala Terengganu.

With an income of RM2,500 a month, a family can own a car and rent a home.

In the same state of Terengganu, some 120km away, the cost of living in towns like Paka and Kerteh are much higher since they are home to employees from the oil and gas industry.

Locals have to bear the brunt of high expenses since industrial employees receive higher salaries.

The same is happening in the Sarawak towns of Bintulu and Miri, where oil and gas firms have set up base.

As a result, locals are also witnessing a stark increase in the prices of goods and rental rates.

Rental rates in Penang are soaring high with a single-storey three-bedroom home in Tanjung Tokong costing RM1,000 a month.

Rental rates are, however, cheaper in Batu Kawan or Nibong Tebal with rents hovering around RM500 per month. – December 29, 2013