When I arrived in Malaysia a year ago, each Malayan ringgit was traded at 4,140 rials. Older migrants would tell me that in a not too distant past, it was even traded at 3,000 rials. They even told me of a time when, at 2,500 rials for a ringgit, Iranians found the green tropical jungles of Malaysia to be their paradise.
Malaysia was not a place where a newly arrived Iranian would feel homesick. In every shopping centre or street in Kuala Lumpur, and even in other Malayan states, Iranians had a significant population. At times, special Iranian events would take place, and the crowd would give you the impression that you were still in Iran, and every time the elevator door opened you could expect to see an Iranian compatriot.
In some apartment buildings, Iranians could outnumber native-born residents. They said 60,000 Iranians lived in Malaysia. Some came to study in public and private universities in Malaysia, where the tuition fees were lower than at Iran’s Open University.
Others had chosen Malaysia as their second home where they could invest and enjoy social freedoms and a higher standard of living. And a third group had chosen Malaysia for business purposes. The large number of Iranians in Malaysia created the opportunity of at least attracting the Iranian market, even if they could not assimilate into the country’s mainstream commerce.
There were all kinds of businesses related to Iranians: hairdressing, bakery, restaurants, therapists, dentists and various service and commercial companies.
Now, one year after my first days in Malaysia, everything has turned upside down. The exchange rate for a ringgit is constantly fluctuating, and currency traders do not make public announcement of the rate anymore; you have to call them in person: 11,000 rials.
I call a few friends to say goodbye but their telephones are off. I found one or two of them in Tehran. One says they had packed up and returned to Iran before the start of the children’s school year. They say staying was not possible for them because they could no longer handle the expenses. Their family of three had needed a budget of 15 million rials to get by each month, but that was suddenly increased to 50 million rials or more, so they could not afford it. They provided for part of their expenses by renting their home in Iran so they were left stranded. Their daughter, who had been studying at an international school for the past three years, now had to return to an Iranian school.
That evening, I met some of my neighbours; they had gathered in the shade of the high-rise tower where they live to discuss possible future plans. One was saying that he might have to leave his wife, who was studying, and return to Iran in order to reduce the expenses and work in Iran. The other, who had started a business in Malaysia two years ago, was also thinking of returning: his customers were all Iranians, which meant that his business was tumbling by the day.
A young woman says that she cannot ask her father for more money because her family had budgeted their lives on a specific amount for her living and studying expenses, which no longer even paid for her food. Since the government had stopped providing foreign currency at an affordable exchange rate for students, her dreams have been shattered.
The Iranian restaurant of Mrs. Sh., in a cozy spot in one of Kuala Lumpur’s high-end streets, is where Iranians could eat fresh juicy kebob. Eight months ago the restaurant remained open until midnight and still you could not find an empty spot. In those days, two people could eat there for an equivalent of 25,000 rials, but now the same bill would be 60,000 rials.
I meet a friend there; all the tables are empty and the few customers are non-Iranians. They are Malayans who have come to smoke some hookah. Mrs. Sh. arrives and the first thing she informs us of is the exchange rate for the dollar and says: “We want to reduce the price of our Iranian menu and we are preparing a Malayan menu. We have to begin targeting the local customers; we cannot count on Iranian customers anymore.”
Mrs. Sh. must have heard that one the most famous Iranian restaurants in Malaysia has shut down; a restaurant where they celebrated all Iranian events and it was always packed.
Mr. A.’s supermarket in a Kuala Lumpur neighbourhood of high Iranian concentration used to be a large store with many rows of Iranians goods and food items. It was so busy that all Iranians would put up flyers for their own businesses and services on its walls. He has now reduced the store to half of what it was before.
Many food items are being offered at discount rates, and half the shelves are empty because they are not going to import more goods. Meanwhile, Afsaneh, the store’s employee, is facing an upheaval in her life. She had come to Malaysia after her divorce and had managed to set up a good life in the past three years. She says: “The store is going to close down and I am going to be out of a job. I can’t even return to Iran so I really don’t know what’s to become of me.”
Among the Iranians who have come to Malaysia for studies or the entrepreneurs who have come for investment, there is only a handful that have been assimilated into local companies and are now making their income in ringgit, but the well-known Iranian businesses are currency exchange and immigration service companies that are now facing difficulty. When the businesses close, all the Persian-language publications and magazines that used to be published under the name of these companies will also be discontinued, ending the various economic and cultural activities linked to them.
The sad end to the tropical journey
I pay a last visit to a few shopping centres and there is no sign of the usual Iranian hubbub. There are very few Iranians left in supermarkets, McDonald’s and Starbucks stores.
Many apartments have been left vacant in our complex due to Iranians leaving the country. The departure of Iranians from Malaysia is more than just the packing of suitcases and the taking of keepsake pictures. The fall of the rial against the dollar and ringgit has crushed the dreams of many students and young people who had planned their studies in Malaysia, as well as the retirees and entrepreneurs who saw Malaysia as a land of peace and security, and the business people who thought they had found a profitable market. Iranian students have left in the middle of their studies, families with children have had to reconsider their future plans and leave their homes in Malaysia bearing heavy losses, and thus, all forms of unfulfilled investments have been left up in the air.
The lush and green beauty of Malaysia has turned into a nightmare for Iranians, and many now describe it as the green hell. The journey that had started out full of promise, has now ended, and the suitcases have been lined up for the return.
[translated from the original in Persian]