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Living in Malaysia

Your guide to expat life in Malaysia

Want to live in Malaysia?

A luxury lifestyle and low living costs are the main attractions for expats moving to Malaysia. Other advantages include a highly developed infrastructure and excellent healthcare, along with superb shopping facilities and delicious local cuisine.

If you live in an urban area, you’ll have to get used to crowded streets and traffic congestion. But it’s easy to swap the humid bustle of the city for tranquil beaches and rainforests at the weekend.

Accommodation in Malaysia

You won’t have a problem finding comfortable, affordable accommodation in Malaysia. Rental prices are reasonable, especially if housing is included in your employment package or financed by a large expat salary. Property in central Kuala Lumpur is more expensive than in any other areas in Malaysia.

Condominiums with facilities such as gyms and swimming pools are popular with expats. There’s also a wide choice of apartments, semi-detached or terraced houses and large detached bungalows. You can also find both furnished and unfurnished accommodation. Be aware that ‘unfurnished’ could mean a bare space that doesn’t even have kitchen units or curtain rails.

Rental agreements are usually valid for 2 years, so make sure your contract includes a termination clause if there’s a chance you might leave earlier. You’ll have to pay a refundable security deposit of 2 months’ rent and another deposit for utilities.

Expats can only buy properties over a certain value, and some areas are out of bounds. The purchasing process may take time, but isn’t difficult if you have an estate agent to help you. You can also get information from a local Land Office in the state you want to live in.

Local culture in Malaysia

Malaysia has a diverse population made up of numerous ethnic groups. These include Malay, Chinese, Tamil and Filipino. The biggest difference for many expats is the predominance of Islam, which influences society, politics and everyday life. You’ll hear the Islamic call to prayer several times a day, but it soon becomes part of the fabric of life. It can also take a while to get used to the tropical heat and city crowds.

It’s important to learn local etiquette to avoid offending locals. Beckoning or pointing with an outstretched finger is considered rude, as is using your left hand to give or receive anything. Malaysians value their space and stand a few feet apart when they talk to each other. Touching women in public is frowned upon.

Education in Malaysia

Malaysia’s public, private and international schools all have a reputation for high standards. In public schools most classes are in Malay, Chinese or Tamil, but English is taught as part of the curriculum. The school year runs from January to December with the main holidays in June/July and December/January.

Public schools

Partially funded by the government, public schools have low fees and adequate facilities. Classes are large, and admission is steeped in bureaucracy. Most expats send their children to a private or international school.

Private schools

Private schools in Malaysia follow guidelines set out by the Ministry of Education. Most classes are taught in English, but fees are higher than that of public schools.

International schools

Most of Malaysia’s international schools are in Kuala Lumpur. Many follow the British curriculum, but some offer the American or Australian curriculum or the International Baccalaureate. While standards are high and facilities are excellent, these come at a price.

Keeping in touch in Malaysia

While internet speeds have previously lagged behind some Asian countries, Malaysia seems to be catching up. Various providers offer packages for ADSL and fibre.

Landlines are supplied by Telekom Malaysia. To apply for a contract, you’ll need a copy of your passport, proof of address and a work permit or visa. Almost everyone in Malaysia has a mobile phone – locals call them ‘hand phones’. The 3 main providers are Celcom, DiGi, Maxis and U Mobile. They all offer contract and prepaid packages at competitive rates.

Social media is a sensitive issue in Malaysia. Although the government values free speech, it also has a Sedition Act and censors mainstream media. It’s best to avoid posting anything contentious.

You’ll have access to local English media, as Malaysia has many English-language newspapers. The leading daily is the New Straits Times, with The Star being another popular choice. Malaysia also has a few local free-to-air TV stations, along with 2 national channels that you have to subscribe to. The Astro Satellite TV service has programmes in English and Chinese, but most expats watch internet TV.

Healthcare in Malaysia

Malaysia prides itself on being a medical tourism destination with a high standard of affordable healthcare. Both public and private hospitals have good equipment and skilled staff. Most health professionals speak English, and consultation fees are reasonable.

Anyone can get emergency medical care for a nominal fee at Malaysia’s public hospitals and clinics. For anything else, you need residency status and a MyKad ID card or foreign workers’ social insurance (SKHPPA) through your employer. There are also dozens of world-class private hospitals and clinics across the country. Most expats choose to pay for private healthcare, either in cash or through medical insurance.

You’ll find pharmacies (farmasi) on the high street and in shopping malls, as well as in hospitals and clinics. Pharmacists are well trained, able to give medical advice and can usually speak English.

When you call an ambulance in an emergency, you’ll be taken to the nearest public emergency room free of charge. There may not be any paramedics or medical equipment on board.

Health hazards to be aware of include high levels of air pollution, particularly from June to October. During this time, health warnings are often issued by the Malaysian government. Dengue fever outbreaks are common throughout the country, especially during the rainy season – so take precautions against mosquito bites.

Getting around in Malaysia

Public transport in Malaysia is excellent, so you’re unlikely to need a car. Because traffic can be congested and chaotic in urban areas, many commuters travel by train or bus.

The national rail service, KTMB, covers most of West Malaysia with links to Thailand and Singapore. There’s also a commuter network in suburban Kuala Lumpur. In East Malaysia, Sabah is the only state with a railway. Bus routes cover most of Malaysia and long-distance coaches are popular for intercity travel. Kuala Lumpur has a free hop-on-hop-off service called Go KL City Bus – look out for the bright pink buses. Frequent ferry services connect most Malaysian islands to the mainland. There are also daily services to Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

It’s easy to find a taxi in the cities, but they’re quite expensive, usually unmetered and slow because of the traffic. Ride-hailing apps are also available in Malaysia.

Drivers can use an international driving licence, but you have to convert it to a local licence within 3 months. You may also have to pass a written test if your home country doesn’t have a reciprocal agreement with Malaysia. While the quality of the road network varies, highways and city streets are among the best in Southeast Asia.

Flying is your best option for reaching outlying areas. The most popular airlines include Firefly, Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia.

Cost of living in Malaysia

The cost of living in Malaysia is lower than in most Western countries and other Asian hubs such as Singapore and Hong Kong.

You won’t have to spend a fortune on food, particularly if you buy local products. Eating out is cheap if you stick to street food and restaurants that offer traditional Malay cuisine. International school fees are high. Taxes on luxury goods and alcohol make them expensive. Accommodation and public transport costs are much lower than in Europe, North America and Australia.

Top tips for Malaysia

See what people responding to our Expat Explorer Survey think about living in Malaysia.

Contact an expat living in Malaysia before you move to get an understanding of the country.

All Expat Explorer survey data and all tips (in quotation marks) are provided by HSBC.

All other content is provided by, Globe Media Ltd and was last updated in September 2021. HSBC accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of this information.

This information is purely for orientation and to inspire further research, it does not constitute advice and no liability is accepted to recipients acting independently on its contents. The views expressed are subject to change.

Always remember to ensure you're aware of and comply with any laws in your host country or country of origin that apply to gift giving and bribery.

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