Dateline: Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia
Southeast Asia is one of the most popular places for backpackers, travel bloggers, and digital nomads to travel, play, and even start a location independent business.
However, I’ve been noticing a trend among business owners I meet here: many of them tend to think you can’t run a “real company” here because so many people are running their blog or small business from Bangkok or Hanoi.
There’s no doubt that the low cost of living in Southeast Asia has made it an attractive place for those just starting up. I’ve repeatedly suggested that students consider spending a year on the ground here in lieu of attending university to see just how many opportunities exist in this part of the world.
Yet, while Southeast Asia does attract plenty of start-ups and lifestyle entrepreneurs, it is also a dynamic region teeming with opportunity and lifestyle benefits for owners of larger businesses that aren’t as concerned with finding the lowest cost of living.
Here are six reasons to consider Southeast Asia for your personal or business base of operations:
1. Quality of life
Southeast Asia has some of the top amenities expats cite when looking for a new home overseas: good weather, shopping, quality food, and interesting culture.
Weather in much of the region is excellent year-round, with high temperatures during the day, pleasant temperatures at night, and plenty of humidity. The region is home to some of the best malls, and all sorts of food are widely available.
For entrepreneurs seeking a fast-paced environment with lots of hustle, Hong Kong, and to a lesser extent Singapore, fit the bill. More laid-back environments can be found in the Philippines, Indonesia, and here in Malaysia.
I sometimes call Malaysia “the United States of Asia… in a good way” due to its diversity. You can find anything you want here.
2. Ease of visas and taxes
A lot of countries worth doing business in make obtaining a visa relatively easy these days. Europe is full of countries that offer entrepreneur visas for people starting companies there.
Asia is even more open to businesses, as well as those who merely wish to live here without actually running an Asia-based company. Location-independent business owners with companies incorporated outside of Asia can easily live here while paying taxes overseas or running an offshore company.
Malaysia, Cambodia, and Vietnam, in particular, offer friendly tourist visa regimes for perpetual travelers who want to come and go. While Vietnam requires a visa, it’s easy to get and is good for 90 days. Malaysia offers the same 90 days visa-free to most nationalities and is one of the easiest countries to enter.
If you’re feeling a bit adventurous, Cambodia offers the ability to extend a tourist visa to a one-year business visa for $300, allowing you the opportunity to come and go as you please.
And if you want to settle down in one place, Malaysia’s MM2H visa program is among the most straightforward on earth. Singapore also offers qualified business owners the chance to become resident there and even work toward citizenship, although you will be required to pay taxes to qualify.
3. Access to wealth havens
Hong Kong and Singapore are two of the world’s greatest wealth havens, and living in Southeast Asia puts you within close reach of both of them. Flying from Hong Kong to Singapore takes about four hours and is relatively inexpensive; flights to either city from within the region are prevalent and cheap.
Hong Kong is a great place to set up an offshore company if you run a business whose customers demand a world-class image. While many digital nomads can get by with a company in a tax haven like Belize, many larger businesses have reasons to consider planting their flag in a more stable place.
Living in Southeast Asia means you’ll have easy access, not only to your company’s registered offices if you decide to incorporate here, but also to your bankers. Hong Kong, Singapore, and Labuan are world-class banking hubs that offer excellent banks and great peace of mind.
Similarly, if you are seeking to raise capital, you’ll have access to those wealth hubs as well as be within striking distance of India and China. Southeast Asia also has its own small, but growing VC scene that some on-the-ground entrepreneurs can take advantage of.
4. Greater personal freedom
At this point, I’ve spent so much time in emerging markets that going back to the “first world” is always a bit of a shock. When I see friends of mine in the United States complaining about getting a ticket for jaywalking, I can’t help but think I’ve made the right decision to be here.
Personal freedom in the western world is on the decline. In a recent podcast interview, a US expat living outside of London complained about all of the surveillance cameras in the United Kingdom. Imagine a place with less privacy than the country that invented the NSA.
While I find Thailand to be a police state in the most populated areas, the rest of Southeast Asia is wide open. Sometimes it’s even hard to find the police, let alone find police harassing people for no reason.
If you want to be left alone without the threat of being ticketed or arrested for something as innocuous as not pulling over far enough, Southeast Asia will suit you well. While not technically part of Southeast Asia, Hong Kong was recently rated the country with the greatest personal freedom.
5. Easy international travel
Kuala Lumpur is not only one of the most affordable cities from which to travel, it’s also one of the best connected. Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia are both based here and fly practically anywhere you want to go in the region or internationally. New service is constantly being added, such as ultra-cheap, non-stop flights to Seoul and non-stop service to London.
Additionally, Middle Eastern carriers like Emirates, Qatar Airlines, and Turkish Airlines offer frequent service here at reasonable (and occasionally dirt cheap) prices.
Elsewhere in the region, Singapore offers excellent connectivity as well. Singapore’s Changi airport is one of the most efficient in the world and has just about every airline on earth flying there. Singapore is also home to low-cost airlines like Scoot and Tiger Air that serve regional destinations.
Additionally, Bangkok serves as a hub for Thai Airlines as well as Air Asia Thailand. It is also a Star Alliance hub that sees frequent flights from airlines like Lufthansa that cooperate with Thai, making regional and international flights easy.
Even Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City offer decent connectivity. I’ll be flying from Hanoi to London on Vietnam Airlines and have high hopes based on excellent experiences with them in the past.
6. Proximity to new markets
I have a friend in venture capital in Hong Kong who loves to repeat the statistic that half of the world’s population is just a four-hour flight from his office. If your business has any interest in Asia’s emerging markets, practically any location in Southeast Asia puts you within a stone’s throw of it all.
While Africa will likely be the most interesting emerging market story in the latter half of this century, its 1.1 billion-strong population is dwarfed by Asia’s 4.43 billion people.
From the frontier markets of Myanmar and Cambodia to emerging markets like Vietnam, to middle-class and wealthy nations like Malaysia and Singapore, it is hard to find more potential in such a diverse region. There are companies here that are literally copy-and-paste western business concepts, namely online businesses. There are still many businesses like this that you can start and then watch as they take off.
So if you imagined that Southeast Asia was only for the $1,000 a month crowd, think again.