Boaz Boon believes that living a semi-retired life is not just for the very rich in Singapore. He sees it as something within the reach of most Singaporeans. In fact, based on his estimates, one can live quite comfortably on a monthly income of $1,500 — by stretching the dollar across the Causeway.
“At $1,500 a month, one can barely make ends meet in Singapore,” says Boon. It amounts to just 55% of the median monthly income from work per household member in Singapore, which, according to the Department of Statistics, was $2,699 in 2017. A monthly income of $1,500 in Singapore would mean living in “relative poverty”, as it is less than 60% of the median income, going by the definition of the United Nations Department Programme.
Boon: At $1,500 a month, one can barely make ends meet in Singapore, but one can live comfortably across the Causeway (Credit: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
After spending 15 years with CapitaLand, where his last position was head of research, Boon left and founded Thred in 2016. The firm specialises in real estate and design thinking. Boon is also a director of VestAsia, where he heads the real estate advisory business.
On his decision to give up his corporate job, he says: “After I turned 50, I decided it was time to quit the rat race.”
Boon spends part of his time in Johor Bahru, in a newly completed semi-detached house on Jalan Bijaksana, an established upper-middle- class housing estate.
The rebuilt semi-detached house in the established estate of Jalan Bijaksana, Johor Bahru, is inspired by the colonial black-andwhite
bungalows in Singapore (Credit: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
In Singapore, he and his wife live in a comfortable executive apartment in Choa Chu Kang that they purchased in 1998 and designed to suit the needs of the family. Boon and his wife have two adult sons.
According to Boon, driving time is just 25 to 35 minutes door to door from his home in Singapore to the one in Johor Bahru. He likes the flexibility of taking off to Johor Bahru for a short break and returning to Singapore for meetings and business engagements. And he does not have to give up holidays in Europe either. In fact, he now has more time for holidays.
The house in Johor Bahru is Boon’s childhood home. His parents purchased the property in 1965 for just RM18,000. After Boon’s father passed away in 2006, he tried to persuade his mother to move into a condominium, but she refused. “She has known the neighbours for many years and they are also retired,” says Boon. Across theroad is a retired doctor who has been a neighbour and friend for decades.
The enclosed patio of the house has white brick walls and terracotta floor tiles (Credit: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
Since she did not want to relocate, Boon persuaded her to let him rebuild the house to suit her lifestyle and needs. The entire process — from tearing down to rebuilding and furnishing the interiors — took nine months. The house was completed in time for Christmas in 2016.
The new four-bedroom house sits on a freehold site of over 4,000 sq ft. Boon engaged his Johor Bahru childhood friend, who is an architect, to design the property. His sister in Kuala Lumpur, who has experience working for a construction company, also helped in supervising the construction and paying the contractors.
The kitchen island has become the favourite gathering point for the famiy (Credit: Samuel Isaac Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
“The inspiration for the house was the colonial black-and-white bungalows of the past,” says Boon. It reminds him of the colonial house in Ulu Tiram where his parents first lived and where he was born. To create a harmonious streetscape, the authorities had stipulated that all the houses on Jalan Bijaksana have to be single-storey. However, the architect created more space by adding a mezzanine floor at the rear of the house.
This allows Boon’s nephew to have his own apartment on the second level of the house — complete with its own living room, master bedroom with en suite bathroom and walk-in wardrobe. It also allows the addition of a fourth en suite bedroom and a family room, which can be turned into a bedroom when there is a spillover of house guests. The creation of the mezzanine floor means the first level enjoys a double-volume ceiling. Having a pitched roof added to the colonial feel of the house. A skylight was included to bring natural light into the middle section of the house.
The reception area and living room is separated by sliding glass doors (Credit: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
The house was extended outwards to accommodate a bigger living area and patio. The kitchen has also been extended to create a dry and wet kitchen, as well as a spacious utility and laundry area.
On the first level of the house are three en suite bedrooms. The windows on the mezzanine level feature plantation shutters, similar to those of colonial bungalows and conservation shophouses, Boon says. To complete the colonial black-and-white bungalow look, the whole house — both its interior and exterior — has been painted white, with black trims. Even the bamboo chicks are painted in black and white stripes. All in, Boon estimates that he spent less than $400,000 in redeveloping the house. “What’s important is that my mother enjoys the house and there’s enough space for the entire family to gather together during festive celebrations such as Christmas and Chinese New Year,” he says.
The gramaphone table (above) in the living room that has been restored and repurposed (Credit: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
Many of the pieces of furniture in the house have been restored and repurposed. These include an old gramophone table, a Singer sewing machine, a coffee table and Peranakan display cabinets. “Furniture restoration in Johor Bahru is extremely inexpensive, and the guy is so good, I call him the ‘resurrector’,” says Boon.
Furniture shops that Boon discovered in Johor Bahru include Actally, Commune Furniture and Kian Contract. He purchased several lounge chairs and the entire dining set from Kian Contract after he learnt that the company had designed all the furniture for Pollen, a restaurant at Gardens by the Bay.
A statement piece is a chandelier Boon purchased from a shop in Balestier. He got the inspiration from the cylindrical lights he saw at the Colony restaurant at luxury hotel Ritz-Carlton Millenia Singapore.
The 'Colonial style' lampshades that were made in Johor Bahru grace the side tables at the reception area of the house (Credit: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
In the reception and living areas are table lamps purchased from Lim’s Art in Singapore. As Boon could not find the lampshades he wanted, he tried to get them made. “In Singapore, the art of lampshade-making is gone,” he laments. He chanced upon a shop selling lampshades while at Holiday Plaza Mall in Johor Bahru, located just a five-minute drive from his home. He showed the lady at the shop a picture of the lampshade he had in mind — “something colonial”, he said. It turned out that the shop made lampshades for the British India lifestyle brand and was able to create the ones he wanted.
Boon’s house has two 10-blade ceiling fans, smaller versions of the ones at MRT stations in Singapore. “The guy at the shop said they were very expensive, but I was prepared to pay,” recounts Boom. “He told me they cost RM1,000 ($335) each and I said I would take them.” He had them installed at the reception and living areas, and they are ideal, as they are quiet and effective in cooling the space, he explains.
“It’s amazing what you can find here, and they are all at a fraction of the cost in Singapore,” says Boon.
Double volume ceiling and skylight (Credit: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
Boon reckons that some locals have returned to Johor Bahru to start their own businesses after having worked in Singapore. Some Singaporeans have also been lured by the cost-savings of starting a business across the Causeway. These entrepreneurs have rejuvenated many of the older neighbourhoods in the city, such as Taman Molek, which is near Boon’s home.
For instance, the Yummy Nasi Lemak restaurant in Taman Molek is operating in a converted office building. It serves not only nasi lemak but also traditional Nonya kueh, and even has space for cooking classes.
Chef Toast in Taman Molek looks like a typical shophouse unit from the outside. The proprietor was trained by a German pastry chef when he was working for a hotel in Singapore. Later, he decided to return to Johor Bahru to start his own business. Besides coffee and toast, he also makes all kinds of artisanal bread, which go for RM5 a loaf. “It’s interesting to find these hole-in-the-wall places that offer great food at such attractive prices compared with those in Singapore,” says Boon.
Hole in the wall places with great food, and at a fraction of the cost in Singapore (Credit: EdgeProp Singapore)
At another coffeeshop, a young man is busy making coffee. There are people queueing up patiently, waiting for their turn. “He may not be a certified barista, but he’s probably better than most because he’s been doing it every day for so many years,” says Boon.
There are also new malls in Johor Bahru, such as Paradigm Mall, and the biggest Ikea store in Southeast Asia, as well as Aeon Tebrau City. They are located just a 20-minute drive from Woodlands across the Causeway.
A quiet rejuvenation is taking place in some of the old estates like Taman Molek in Johor Bahru (Credit: Albert Chua/EdgeProp Singapore)
While the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore high-speed rail project may have been scrapped, the Rail Transit System linking Woodlands in Singapore and Johor Bahru has not been derailed. And that is what many Singaporeans are looking forward to. “[The RTS] will increase accessibility and allow more people to explore the flexibility of living across the Causeway and working in Singapore,” says Boon.
One need not buy a property in Johor Bahru or elsewhere in Iskandar Malaysia to enjoy the semi-retired lifestyle. “You can just rent,” says Boon. Listings of newly completed terraced houses in developments in Johor Bahru and other parts of Iskandar Malaysia have asking rents of RM1,000 to RM3,500 a month. Studio apartments of about 560 sq ft are available for rent from RM950 a month, while three-bedroom apartments are from RM1,700 a month. “These are asking rents, which are usually negotiable because there’s a lot of supply and so many choices for potential tenants,” he adds.
With the exchange rate for the Singapore dollar still attractive at $1: RM2.98, it makes sense for those who want to lead a “simpler, semi-retired life”, says Boon. It is one he is certainly enjoying.it.