Call Me Maybe: Cellular assets in South East Asia

Money, Shopping

I’m a writer by trade, but bylines don’t bring in much cash. And I still want to eat, sleep indoors, and pay for things like cell phone credit.

In South East Asia, I finally struck gold: used phones. My first cell phone ever, a chunky powder blue number that elicited my first full-blown hissy fit in an electronics store over hundreds in hidden fees. My first smartphone, a slick Blackberry, patriotic nod to the reliably underperforming Canadian icon. The iPhone 3, just for apps. All lolling at unhealthy angles from their curled chargers in my suitcase of life, and each worth cold hard cash. Or at least crumpled hand-warmed Malaysian Ringgit, if also a puzzlingly unavailable telephonic status to family and friends.

First, I needed to locate a 'cell phone broker' who could transform these nearly obsolete devices into money. Not a difficult proposition. South East Asia represents an over 100% cell phone penetration rate, meaning that most people own at least one cell phone, usually more than one, and are perpetually scratching the upgraded features itch. 

Innumerable mini-kiosks ringed by colored lights showcase used cell phones mawkishly repackaged in Saran wrap, while new phones occupy separate, higher-priced cases. Here, you can invest in the latest Samsung Galaxy Note or a knock-off called Corby III, acquire a high-priced Blackberry or a copied Blueberry.

Phones are priced at every possible point, with bargain-basement relics from the early days of cell phones available alongside the new iPhone 4S. The mini-kiosks have cornered every possible consumer market for cell phones, or rather stretched their arms wide enough to hug each end of the spectrum.

Some cell phone brokers won’t bargain. Others will bargain a little, but with an eagle eye for retaining at least a slim profit margin in what is a guaranteed reselling proposition. The rapidly changing cell phone market creates a pool of throwaways for less scrupulous consumers who also want to partake in aspirational consumption. High usage rates entail the heavy demand that sustains prices, unlikely to abate.

I have managed to form a partnership with a regular 'cell phone broker', with whom I upcycle or downcycle my device, depending on my most recent fortunes. He perches me on his best stool, usually having to switch to a taller model to accommodate my gangly legs, orders a complimentary drink from the next-door hawker. We once reached an impasse over 5 Malaysian Ringgit. I wanted to see how low I could coax him... “Don’t ruin our friendship for that,” he said. He won that round.

Should you invest in cell phones? Are they the new South East Asian investment, their value sustained more reliably than the seasonal Indian weddings propping up gold prices? If you have money, unlike writers, you should buy real stocks, maybe in a South East Asia telecommunications company. But if, like me, you have a reserve of 8 or 9 cell phones collected over the years of a first world upbringing, you can part ways successfully and recover at least a portion of its initial value, which is better than nothing. You will always be able to sell a cell phone for something in South East Asia, a liquidity that nearly rivals international stock exchanges. And that, after all, is more than can be said for a share in Enron.

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Idil Issa is a Canadian writer and consultant based in Kuala Lumpur, Doha, Montreal, and Ottawa, making her living through literary bagatelles and occasional used cell phone fire sales.