As the Eastern & Oriental Express chugged along its journey from Singapore to Bangkok, in the process passing through the west coast of the Malaysian peninsula, Heinz Bongers spent most of the time on the outside platform of the train taking in the sights of lush forests, rolling green hills, vast acres of plantations and little villages.
“I would have loved to step out to explore all these places, but the train kept rolling,” the German recalled, laughing.
The train adventure more than twenty years ago was part of a honeymoon package that Bongers and his newly-wedded wife won in a bridal magazine’s crossword puzzle contest. The prize took the couple to Bali, Singapore and the E&O experience to Bangkok.
“It was my first trip to Southeast Asia and needless to say, I was fascinated – by the friendly people, culture, nature, beautiful beaches, and many more. The sights from the train ride stayed in my mind for the longest time,” Bongers admitted.
Fast forward to 2011, an opportunity arose for the mechanical engineer to relocate to Malaysia to head a manufacturing plant. “The factory in Sungai Siput, Perak, was a sister company to the one I worked for in Emsdetten, so the vacancy was announced within the worldwide group of companies. At the time, I was busy with restructuring, outsourcing or moving production to other countries, selling used machines and renting away idle factory space.
“For your information, labour and production costs are very high in Germany; many products cannot be produced at a competitive price. Most companies have permanent cost saving and restructuring activities in order to be sustainable. Malaysia, on the other hand, is a better country for manufacturers and the overall business climate is more positive. In Malaysia, many companies plan expansions rather than cost savings.
“Anyway, when the chance came to me to move to Malaysia in 2011, I had just become single again after 20 years of marriage and I was ready for a new adventure. Besides, I wasn’t moving to just any country but to Malaysia, a country that I had wished to revisit! Everything just fell into place,” Bongers shared.
Despite living in his dream country, life wasn’t all that rosy for the 50-something. He recalled, “In my first year, I had to stay put in Ipoh during Christmas time. I wasn’t very happy about that as it is the German tradition to see the family during this time of the year. I was afraid that I might feel very lonely and get homesick during the coming Christmas days. Just a few days before Christmas, I met a few golfers who were having dinner at the Meru Valley clubhouse, right next to my table. They invited me to join them and we soon became fast friends. They also helped me to organise a Christmas Eve open house at my place, and my six-year-old neighbour assisted with decorating my small plastic Christmas tree. I did not feel lonely at all.”
Indeed, Bongers has made plenty of friends, both locals and fellow expatriates. It is also in Ipoh that he met his new wife. They got married in 2013. “Annie is originally from Sarawak and works as a merchandiser in Ipoh. I fell in love with her when I heard her sing this sad song, ‘Tiada Lagi’ by Mayang Sari. When she sings it again these days, I ask her to change the title to ‘Ada Lagi’ instead. Most Germans can’t carry a tune and we don’t have karaoke bars. Since meeting Annie, I have started to enjoy singing, too, and in public!” he seemed surprised by his own bravery.
Even after six years living in tropical Malaysia, Bongers continues to feel as though he is on a long-extended summer holiday. Most weekends see Bongers and his wife exploring the many attractions not only within Perak but also neighbouring states and East Malaysia, where his in-laws live. “For a German, warm weather is a luxury, as is wearing no jacket or raincoat when leaving the house. However, also because of the hot sun, I am forced to give up my Sunday afternoon hikes. Nobody seems to take long walks in Malaysia except the tourists. I still do enjoy the heat, but try to avoid direct exposure to the sun,” he explained.
Three years ago, Bongers established his own business, in partnership with a local businessman, to import Western machinery and offer local services to the plastic industry. It isn’t as simple as it sounds because Malaysian entrepreneurs do not want to take the risk of getting a loan for big machines, unlike the West, where they procure the most sophisticated machines to rule the market and push competitors out.
“To cater to Malaysian businesses, we import smaller units plus spare parts and other high quality items. We also have some parts locally assembled to save costs, making it more attractive to our clients,” Bongers imparted.
On Monday evenings, Bongers busies himself with teaching German at the YMCA, a challenge that he took on recently: “Many local friends have asked me if there is anywhere in Ipoh that offers German classes. I looked around and found none. It is not surprising because there are only a handful of Germans living in Ipoh. I found it interesting that there are people who want to learn my language.”
Bongers teaches basic conversational German in preparation for the A1 exam and welcomes anyone keen to learn German to drop by.
Note: An edited version of this article [Starting life anew in Ipoh] was published on 23rd September 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.