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Moving to Malaysia

Malaysia is an ideal destination for expats who are considering moving to Asia. Traditionally a country reliant on resource exports, Malaysia is beginning to expand its economy in areas such as science, tourism, commerce and medical tourism, resulting in an increase in expat employment opportunities.

The country consists of two different geographical regions separated by the South China Sea. The one region is Peninsula Malaysia, also referred to as West Malaysia. East Malaysia includes the Sarawak and Sabah region of Borneo Island and 13 diverse states. 

With a vast mix of cultures and nationalities, Malaysia offers expats a lifestyle replete with first-world comforts and conveniences while its easily accessible jungles and island getaways still allow a sense of adventure.

Kuala Lumpur, the capital and largest city in Malaysia, is the financial, cultural and economic centre of the country, and a major hub for international air travel. Among the skyscrapers and Dutch architecture, KL, as it is commonly known, is packed with luxury shopping malls, quality restaurants and colourful markets. It is a melting pot of cultures and offers expats an energetic lifestyle.

Travel within Malaysia is generally cheap and easy, particularly within Peninsula Malaysia. The country has an extensive road and rail network and taxis are easy to come by in the larger cities. East Malaysia, however, is slightly less developed when compared to the mainland. 

Malaysia has an affordable public healthcare system with a high standard of medical care. There are also a number of top-quality private facilities available. Additionally, Kuala Lumpur offers a range of great international schools that hold their own against neighbouring Singapore’s top-quality list.

Another key benefit to the expat lifestyle in Malaysia is the exceptional cuisine, which reflects the variety of ethnic groups present in the country, as well as its colonial past. The biggest influences come from Chinese and Indian immigrants. 

Although separated into two distinct parts, Malaysia’s landscape and climate are fairly similar. The country has an equatorial climate, with the southwest monsoon from April to October and the northeast monsoon from October to February. There is a dry season from June to October, when burning is conducted in many parts of the country, which can lead to heavy pollution. Expats with respiratory problems may wish to consider this. 

Malaysia is an exciting expat destination, but not without its challenges and differences. The myriad of cultures and immigrants make it a place both foreign and yet easy to adjust to. With wonderful beaches, nature hideaways and serene tea plantations, it’s easy to take a break from the city bustle over weekends. 

The country is stable and eager to attract foreign businesses and investors, ensuring a warm reception for expats choosing it as their new home.


Fast facts

Population: About 31.6 million

Capital city: Kuala Lumpur (also largest city)

Other major cities: Johor Bahru, Ipoh, Penang

Neighbouring countries: Malaysia is bordered by Thailand to the north, Indonesia to the south and southeast (which it shares the island of Borneo with) and the Philippines to the east across the South China Sea, and Singapore to the south.

Geography: Malaysia has a diverse landscape of coastal plains and mountainous terrain. The two major regions of Malaysia, Peninsula Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, are separated by the South China Sea. There are also a number of outlying islands forming part of Malaysian territory. Mount Kinabalu, on the island of Borneo, is the highest mountain in Malaysia. The country’s diverse mountains and rain forests are home to some of the most unique creatures on Earth.

Political system: A federal parliamentary democracy under an elective constitutional monarch

Major religions: The majority of the population is Muslim. Buddhism and Christianity are the other main religions.

Main languages: Bahasa Malaysia is the official language, while English is widely spoken in business. The Chinese population in Malaysia speak Cantonese, Hokkien or Hakka, and the Indian population in Malaysia speak Tamil, Hindi or Malayalam.

Money: The Malaysian Ringgit (MYR), divided into 100 sen

Time: GMT+8

Electricity: 240 volts, 50Hz. Malaysia uses three-pin, UK-style plugs.

Internet domain: .my

International dialing code: +60. City codes include (0)3 for Kuala Lumpur and (0)4 for Penang.

Emergency contacts: Dial 999 for a police ambulance emergency or 994 for fire emergencies.

Transport and driving: Cars drive on the left side of the road. The country has an extensive public transport system consisting of trains, buses and ferries. Kuala Lumpur also has a monorail system.

Weather in Malaysia

Expats moving to Malaysia will quickly find themselves well acquainted with the monsoon. These seasonal winds carry torrential downpours that can cause everything from mild crop failure to disastrous flash floods.

Weather in Malaysia is heavily affected by these strong gusts. The country's seasons change as a result of the different intensities of these prevailing winds. A southwesterly wind blows from April to September and a northeasterly wind from November to February. During the transition periods in between, there are light, variable winds.

As troublesome as these currents can be, the winds are the most important mitigating factor in relieving the oppressive heat of Malaysia. High temperatures and high humidity envelop the country throughout the year. Unfortunately, the heat doesn't let up in the evenings. Expats may find managing the extreme heat a major setback to living in Malaysia.


Embassy Contacts for Malaysia


Malaysian embassies

  • Malaysian Embassy, Washington DC, United States: +1 202 572 9700

  • Malaysian Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 7235 8033

  • Malaysian High Commission, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 241 5182

  • Malaysian High commission, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 61 200 300/310

  • Malaysian High Commission, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 342 5990/1/2/3

  • Malaysian Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 1 667 7280

  • Malaysian High Commission, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 4 385 2439


Foreign embassies in Malaysia

  • United States Embassy, Kuala Lumpur: +60 3 2168 5000

  • British High Commission, Kuala Lumpur: +60 3 2170 2200

  • Canadian High Commission, Kuala Lumpur: +60 3 2718 3333

  • Australian High Commission, Kuala Lumpur: +60 3 2146 5555

  • South African High Commission, Kuala Lumpur: +60 3 2170 2400

  • Irish Embassy, Kuala Lumpur: +60 3 2161 2963

  • New Zealand High Commission, Kuala Lumpur: +60 3 2078 2533

Public Holidays in Malaysia

 

2020

2021

Chinese New Year

25-26 January

12-13 February

Labour Day

1 May

1 May

Wesak Day

7 May

26 May

Hari Raya Aidilfitri

24 May

13 May

Agong's Birthday

6 June

5 June

Hari Raya Haji

31 July

20 July

Awal Muharram

20 August

10 August

Merdeka Day

31 August

31 August

Malaysia Day

16 September

16 September

Prophet's Birthday

29 October

19 October

Christmas Day

25 December

25 December

*Public holidays in Malaysia are observed differently in each individual state. Expats should check with their provincial government for an official list of public holidays in their area.

Public holidays in Malaysia that fall on a Sunday are observed the following Monday. Islamic holidays are subject to change based on sightings of the moon.

Working in Malaysia

Although many expats view Malaysia as their ideal retirement destination, there is also a range of expat job opportunities available in the country. Kuala Lumpur, with its proximity to Singapore and lower cost of living, makes for an ideal city for both businesses and families. 


The job market in Malaysia

There are a number of jobs in Malaysia in IT as well as in the teaching, diplomatic, engineering and tourism fields. Expats are also likely to find work in the banking and finance sectors, accounting and oil and gas industries.

Expats speaking a second language will have an advantage, particularly if it is Mandarin or another Asian language. 


Finding a job in Malaysia

The majority of expats move to Malaysia with a firm job offer and contract in place, and most often as part of an inter-company transfer.

It is very difficult to relocate to the country on a tourist visa and then seek employment. Business and work visas and permits for Malaysia are vitally important as the fines and laws regarding illegal work in the country are strict, as are those governing tax compliance. Expats wanting to work in Malaysia will need to ensure that they have the appropriate work permit. This can often be a lengthy and complicated process, but it is normally facilitated by the hiring company.

There are restrictions in place on the number of foreign employees that Malaysian companies can hire. This is probably the hardest regulation to overcome when seeking a job in Malaysia. However, once a company has convinced the government that there are no better qualified Malaysians to fill the position and that the potential employee and their position are of vital importance, then obtaining a visa and orchestrating the move should run smoothly.

It is important to negotiate a relocation package with a potential employer before signing a contract. Typical relocation packages can include airfare, international shipping costs and help with accommodation upon arrival in the country. Employers should also offer help with visas, visa costs and obtaining a work permit. 


Work culture in Malaysia

The etiquette and behaviour surrounding business in Malaysia is similar to that of most Western countries. However, Malaysia is an ethnically diverse country and expats will need to prepare themselves for dealing with people from a broad range of backgrounds, the most common being Malay, Chinese and Indian. When working in Malaysia, expectations and behaviour may need to be adjusted according to the organisation and who one is dealing with.

Malaysians work approximately eight hours per day, and the working week is five or sometimes six days a week. Normal business hours are from 9am to 5pm. Malaysian labour law provides 10 days of vacation per year, but the country also has a large number of public holidays, particularly religious holidays, because of the variety of cultures and ethnicities.

Doing Business in Malaysia

Expats planning on doing business in Malaysia should ensure they understand the cultural complexities associated with this ethnically diverse country. Although the Malaysian business world has largely succeeded in establishing a unified ethos, it is important for expats to realise that they might deal with people from a broad range of backgrounds (Malay, Chinese and Indian being the most common). Expectations and conduct might need to be adjusted accordingly, depending on who one is doing business with at the time.

Overall, Malaysia is a diverse, welcoming society that is accepting and friendly towards foreigners. The ease with which one can do business in Malaysia is demonstrated in its rankings in numerous international business surveys – most notably, the World Bank's Ease of Doing Business Survey for 2019, where Malaysia was ranked 15th out of 190 countries. Malaysia particularly excelled in the criteria of protecting minority investors, where it came second.


Fast facts

Business language

Officially, the language of business is Bahasa Malaysia, but English is widely spoken and commonly used.

Business hours

Business hours are generally from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.

Business dress

The dress code for business in Malaysia is typically Western, with smart, formal clothes being worn. Men generally wear white shirts and ties (jackets to be worn to meetings) while women, since Malaysia is home to a large Muslim population, should dress more conservatively than they might back home.

Greeting

Greetings may vary depending on who one is greeting, but generally the standard greeting between men is a handshake. When men greet a woman, sometimes a light nod of the head is sufficient, or a handshake. It's best to wait for the woman to initiate the greeting.

Gifts

Sometimes gifts are exchanged when meeting someone for the first time. However, it might be a better idea to receive a gift first, and then to reciprocate, rather than to be the one to initiate the gift-giving process. Always accept gifts with both hands, and do not open them in the presence of the person who gave them. When reciprocating with a gift, make sure that it's wrapped, and of about equal value to the gift that was first received.

Gender equality

Women are ostensibly viewed as equals in the Malaysian workplace, and can often rise to senior positions. Malaysia is, by all accounts, an easier place in which to do business for women than many other Asian countries.


Business culture in Malaysia

The defining characteristic of business culture in Malaysia is respect and deference to authority. Moreover, authority figures are viewed as such, less because of the powerful positions they hold, and more because they possess the skills, wisdom and temperament to foster harmony and cooperation within their organisation.

Business style

While business structure in Malaysia remains hierarchical, teamwork and collaboration are encouraged, with all members of the organisation being valued. The Malaysian style of management, it follows, is less goal-driven and more holistic than in some Western cultures, with managers taking a personal interest in the well-being of their employees.

Acting from a sense of duty is also important within the Malaysian workplace, and expats will be expected to work hard without the promise of added incentives or personal glory. Employees will be expected to derive pleasure from working within a team and accomplishing communal goals.

Business etiquette in Malaysia is marked by sensitivity and diplomacy. The golden rule is never to cause another to 'lose face' in professional company – the willful, or even careless, humiliation of even a subordinate is considered malicious in the Malaysian business world. One should always endeavour to protect the pride and honour of professional associates. If there is a strong disagreement to air or a complaint to make, do it privately.

Meetings

Business meetings in Malaysia usually convene on time, but can be subject to a lot of small talk and personal digressions. Don't get impatient as this is seen as an important function of meetings in Malaysia.

Business cards

Business cards are usually exchanged upon meeting new associates. Give and receive cards in the right hand, supported by the left, and never fold or put away a card without looking at it first. Expats should be sure to have their personal details printed in both English and with an additional language (usually Chinese or Bahasa Malaysian) on the reverse side of their business card while in Malaysia.


Dos and don'ts of doing business in Malaysia

  • Do show respect and deference to authority figures

  • Do remain polite and respectful in all situations

  • Do relish the opportunity to work within a team toward communal goals

  • Do keep an open mind and be willing to learn

  • Don't be impatient or aggressive

  • Don't be self-aggrandising or arrogant

Visas for Malaysia

All those entering Malaysia, whether for work or holiday, need to have a visa. However, nationals of some countries, including the US, Britain, Australia and South Africa, do not require a visa for entering Malaysia for short-stay tourist or business visits.

All those arriving in Malaysia should have a passport valid for at least six months and a valid return ticket. 


Tourist and business visas for Malaysia

There are three different types of entry visas for Malaysia, namely single-entry, multiple-entry and transit. Nationals of some countries are able to apply for a visa on arrival, but visas should generally be applied for before departure at a relevant Malaysian embassy or consulate. 

A single-entry visa is normally valid for one entry into the country and is valid for three months from the date of issue. Multiple-entry visas are issued to foreign visitors wishing to travel in and out of Malaysia a number of times, and are normally for business or official government matters. Multiple-entry visas are usually valid for a period of three to twelve months from the date of issue. Transit visas for Malaysia are for those entering Malaysia in transit to other countries.

Upon entry into Malaysia, tourists will have their passport stamped with a social visit pass, the validity of which depends on a person's nationality. While holding the social visit pass individuals are permitted to conduct a range of activities which are listed by the authorities. However, they will not be allowed to take up employment in Malaysia. 


Malaysia My Second Home Programme

The Malaysia My Second Home Programme (MM2H) was introduced by the Malaysian government as a means of allowing foreign nationals to retire or live in Malaysia on a long-term basis. The programme invites foreigners to gain residence status for the applicant as well as their family/dependents. 

As part of the programme, applicants will get a ten-year visit pass and multiple-entry visa, which is renewable every ten years. Unless specific approval is sought, expats are not allowed to be employed in Malaysia under this programme.

Applicants are required to pay a fixed deposit into a local Malaysian bank; the funds must be left in the bank during the period of validity of the visa. The amount to be paid will depend on the age of the applicant. After the first year, expats can take out money to purchase housing, and for medical expenses and their children’s education, but must maintain a minimum balance, depending on their age and circumstances, in the fixed deposit account from the second year onwards and throughout their stay in Malaysia.


Permanent residency in Malaysia

Expats wishing to work and live in the country permanently can apply for residency in Malaysia if they fit into one of the following categories:

  • A high-net-worth investor with a minimum of USD 2 million in a fixed deposit in a Malaysian bank

  • An individual with exceptional skills and talent who has been approved by a relevant agency in Malaysia

  • A professional with outstanding skills in any field who has been recommended by a relevant Malaysian agency and has worked in the country for at least three years

  • An individual who has been married to a Malaysian citizen and has lived in Malaysia for at least five years

  • Those who qualify under a point-based system whereby points are given according to one’s age, qualifications, language proficiency and employment, among other things. A minimum score of 65 out of 120 is required.

*Visa regulations are subject to change at short notice and expats should contact their respective embassy or consulate for the latest details.

Cost of Living in Malaysia

The cost of living in Malaysia is relatively low compared to neighbouring countries. The main discrepancy in prices is evident when buying cigarettes, alcohol or luxury items, as Malaysia places a higher sales tax on these items.

According to the 2019 Mercer Cost of Living Survey, Kuala Lumpur ranked 141st  out of 209 cities surveyed worldwide, placing it well below the cost of living of other Asian cities like Singapore, Beijing and Tokyo.


Cost of accommodation in Malaysia

Malaysia offers a range of accommodation options, and the price is highly dependent on what one is after. When looking for accommodation, it is always good to inquire about the local traffic in the area, and to double check the daily routes one will take as a short distance can become a long commute during rush hour traffic. Using public transport can become a lifesaver.

Renting a two-bedroom condo in an upmarket area of Kuala Lumpur can be expensive. Accommodation in other districts is sometimes half the price one would expect to pay in central KL.

Household running costs also vary, and on top of the basic rent, expats will also need to budget for expenses such as electricity, water and gas (excluding condo fees).


Cost of food and eating out in Malaysia

Food prices are generally quite low, particularly if buying local products. Malaysia has a fine range of cuisine from across the world, and this is reflected in the many types of restaurants available. Street food in Malaysia is a great experience and provides for a cheap night out; even restaurant meals can be reasonable. Alcohol is expensive, though, so drinks can increase the cost of eating out substantially. 

Expats moving to Malaysia are sure to enjoy the local markets where they can dine on street food, which is often better, and definitely cheaper, than a sit-down meal. The markets have a range of other products and expats will also be spoiled for choice in the modern malls dotted around Malaysian cities. New arrivals will soon find that the Malaysian shopping experience can pose a threat to a healthy bank balance.


Cost of electrical goods in Malaysia

Malaysia, like the rest of Asia, has a range of very cheap and good quality electrical products. Cameras, computers and mobile phones are all inexpensive. Expats will find that the range of products available is hard to beat. There are often sales and special deals, particularly around religious holidays, so shopping around does have its rewards. 


Cost of living in Malaysia chart

Note that prices may vary depending on product and service provider and the list below shows average prices for Kuala Lumpur in October 2019.

Accommodation (monthly)

One-bedroom apartment in city centre

MYR 2,300

One-bedroom apartment outside city centre

MYR 1,300

Three-bedroom apartment in city centre

MYR 4,100

Three-bedroom apartment outside city centre

MYR 2,100

Groceries

1 litre milk

MYR 6.70

Loaf of white bread

MYR 3.50

Rice (1kg)

MYR 5

Dozen eggs

MYR 6

Chicken breasts (1kg)

MYR 13

Pack of cigarettes (Marlboro)

MYR 17.40

Utilities/household

Mobile call rate (per minute – mobile to mobile)

MYR 0.40

Internet

MYR 120

Basic utilities Per month (electricity, gas, water)

MYR 220

Hourly rate for domestic cleaner

MYR 31

Eating out

Three-course meal at mid-range restaurant for two people

MYR 75

Take-away meal (McDonalds)

MYR 15

Cappuccino

MYR 12

Local beer (500ml)

MYR 15

Coca-Cola (330ml)

RM 2.50

Transportation

Taxi rate (per km)

MYR 2

City centre public transport

MYR 3

Petrol/gasoline (per litre)

MYR 2.20

Culture Shock in Malaysia

There is unlikely to be extreme culture shock in Malaysia during the initial settling down process. The country offers a range of modern conveniences, with a very multicultural society and a local population that is generally friendly and welcoming to newcomers. 

Nevertheless, there will be aspects of one’s new life that may take some getting used to. Perhaps the biggest adjustment of a new life in Malaysia is religion. Most of the population is Muslim and adheres to conservative Islamic customs. Another major element of culture shock that expats may have to contend with is getting used to the hot and humid equatorial climate


Cultural diversity in Malaysia

Malaysia has a diverse range of immigrants and ethnic populations, and most people are used to dealing with those from very different cultural backgrounds. The three main ethnic groupings in Malaysia are Malay, Chinese and Indian. Together with many indigenous ethnic groups, they combine to form a unique melting pot of cultures, cuisines and traditions.


Religion in Malaysia

Although the country does not have an official state religion, almost half of the Malaysian population practises Islam. This can impact on everyday life, especially for women, who should try to dress conservatively. It's also not unusual to hear the call to prayer in the early hours of the morning and throughout the day. Prayer times may also affect business meetings and social gatherings.

Expats are not obliged to adhere to Islamic traditions and are free to practice their own religion. However, they should always show respect for local customs and act and dress conservatively to avoid offending local sensitivities. This is especially important during Islamic holy times such as Ramadan.


Climate in Malaysia

The climate in Malaysia is ideal for a beach holiday or a getaway, but living and working in the humidity and heat can be draining. Those who enjoyed an active outdoor lifestyle back home may take a while to adjust to days spent inside air-conditioned buildings. It’s important to allow time for one’s body to acclimatise to the weather.


Saving face in Malaysia

Saving face is a central aspect of Malaysian culture. Malaysians strive to build harmonious relationships and it is imperative to avoid public shame or embarrassment. Expats should always treat their Malaysian counterparts with respect and should never argue or show anger towards another person in public. Should there be a problem, it is better to discuss it in private.

As a result of this cultural nuance, the Malaysian communication style is not always direct. So as not to offend anyone, Malaysians may give a vague answer to a question. This may be frustrating for those who are used to a more direct communication style, particularly in a business environment, and expats need to learn to exercise patience.


Language barrier in Malaysia

Malaysia’s official language is Bahasa Malaysia. It is written in both Latin and Arabic script. Due to the country's history as a British colony, many Malaysians also speak English, which is generally considered the language of business in Malaysia. Other languages spoken in the country are a testament to its cultural heritage and include Cantonese, Mandarin and Tamil.


Meeting and greeting in Malaysia

Showing respect to others is an important aspect of Malaysian life and it’s essential to greet people properly. A handshake is a standard greeting in Malaysia between men. However, Muslim women may be uncomfortable shaking hands or making any physical contact in public with a man who is not part of her family. When greeting a woman, it’s best they let her take the lead in extending her hand first. Otherwise, a simple nod of the head and a smile will suffice. Direct eye contact may be avoided and some Malaysians lower their eyes when greeting as a sign of respect.


Local cuisine in Malaysia

Malaysian cuisine reflects its diverse cultural heritage, with Indian, Chinese and Malay flavours dominating. Most food will seem familiar to those coming from Western countries, and perhaps the biggest hurdle to overcome will be dealing with the sheer variety available.

Accommodation in Malaysia

Expats can rest assured that they will have no problem in finding comfortable and affordable accommodation in Malaysia.


Types of accommodation in Malaysia

Many types of accommodation are present in Malaysia: large standalone houses, semi-detached and terraced houses, apartments, and condominiums. Generally, condominiums are most popular with expats, as they are secure and often boast highly sought-after amenities such as gyms and swimming pools.

Housing prices are reasonable throughout Malaysia, especially when included in a lucrative employment package or when financed by a large expat salary. Property in central Kuala Lumpur is generally more expensive than in any other area in Malaysia.

Completely furnished, semi-furnished or unfurnished accommodation is available. Expats are warned that 'unfurnished' is sometimes used more literally in Malaysia than in other countries. The term can refer to places that are completely empty, without kitchen units, stoves or even curtain rails.


Finding accommodation in Malaysia

The process of finding property in Malaysia is straightforward. Expats can engage the services of a real estate agent to help them find a suitable place to stay, or they can conduct internet searches and check local newspapers and other publications for rental listings. It's a very good idea to view a few properties to get a sense of how much to expect to pay for a certain type of space.


Renting accommodation in Malaysia

Rental agreements are usually signed on a two-year basis, with an option to renew written into the lease. For this reason, if unable to commit with 100 percent certainty to the full two years, be sure to have a termination clause written into the rental contract.

Usually, the tenant will have to pay two months' rent as a refundable security deposit to secure the rental. However, estate agent fees are normally paid by the landlord. The tenant will be responsible for their own water, electricity, sewerage, phone and internet bills, and might also be required to pay a deposit on these utilities before moving in.

Healthcare in Malaysia

Healthcare in Malaysia is among the best in the world. This is particularly evident in the more populated areas and larger cities, such as Kuala Lumpur, but healthcare facilities can be very limited in more rural areas.

The country continues to strive to entrench itself as a medical tourism destination, offering affordable and easily accessible healthcare coverage to both locals and expats alike.


Medical facilities in Malaysia

Healthcare in Malaysia is divided into public and private. Both sectors provide high-quality medical services, with modern technology and highly skilled staff, many of whom have trained overseas. As a medical tourism destination, areas such as cardiology, ophthalmology, dentistry, orthopaedics, gastroenterology, plastic and general surgery, and screening are at the forefront of their respective fields. 

Doctors' consultations are relatively inexpensive and the standards are high; almost all doctors are able to speak English. Dentists and other specialists are equally easy to visit and consultation fees are reasonable.

Although expats have access to Malaysian public hospitals, many still choose to use private facilities.


Medicines and pharmacies in Malaysia

Malaysia is not short of pharmacies, which can be found in most shopping centres. Most pharmacies are well-stocked and some drugs that require a prescription overseas do not require prescriptions in Malaysia. Others may ask for a local doctor’s prescription note. Opening times for pharmacies vary, with some in major cities being open till late.


Health insurance in Malaysia

Malaysia does not have a national health insurance scheme, but in 2011 the government introduced the Foreign Worker Hospitalisation and Surgical Insurance Scheme, making it compulsory for foreign workers in Malaysia to have medical insurance. Foreign employees are expected to cover the costs for the medical insurance coverage, which sees them getting a fixed amount of medical care each year in government hospitals. A number of companies are contracted to the scheme so expats have a choice when it comes to their insurance provider.

Expats preferring private healthcare should also consider investing in comprehensive private medical insurance. International health insurance companies offer a variety of packages for the expat market in Malaysia. However, it is also possible to shop around in the country and local rates are available with some companies. It is also relatively easy to visit doctors and specialists in both Bangkok and Singapore.


Health hazards in Malaysia

Malaysia suffers from high levels of pollution due to smoke haze, particularly from June to October. Health warnings are regularly issued by the Malaysian government. Pollution can be problematic for expats with respiratory health problems and it’s best to monitor local news about the situation and adhere to any advice issued by the local authorities.

Dengue fever outbreaks are not uncommon in Malaysia, including in Kuala Lumpur and other urban areas, and expats should ensure they take adequate precautions to prevent mosquito bites. The risk is highest during the rainy seasons.


Emergency services in Malaysia

Private ambulance services in Malaysia offer fast and efficient emergency services. The emergency number in Malaysia is 999, or 112 from a mobile phone.

Education and Schools in Malaysia

Education in Malaysia is of a high standard and expat parents should not struggle to find a school for their child. 

Admission into schools may vary depending on the type of school. Generally, schools in Malaysia can be classified into three categories: public schools, private schools and international schools.


Public schools in Malaysia

Public schools in Malaysia are in abundance and the tuition fees are low as most are supported by the government.

Study time for public schools usually starts at 7.30am and ends around 12.30pm to 1pm. Many public schools run on a two-session system, with one session in the morning and another in the afternoon. This is to accommodate the high number of students. Facilities in public schools are adequate and have most of the basic items needed for education, but student-to-teacher ratios can be quite high, with 40 to 50 students in a class. 

As an expat coming to Malaysia, the public school option should be the least costly. However, some major deterrents are the language barrier as well as the bureaucratic registration process for foreign students.


Private schools in Malaysia

There are a number of good private schools in Malaysia, but they are known to be expensive. Private schools usually practice three terms per year, with three major exams each term. All private schools use English as the main language of tuition. Classes generally run from around 8.30am to 4pm.

As with the public schools, private schools follow the guidelines and rules set by the Malaysian Ministry of Education.

Most expat children settle into private schools quite easily as they are less likely to struggle with the culture shock that they may experience at a public school. The teachers are also usually well trained and have ample experience in communicating effectively and handling students from different cultures and backgrounds.


International schools in Malaysia

Expats who wish to have their children educated in the curriculum of their home country or a country other than Malaysia should consider an international school.

Most international schools in Malaysia are based in Kuala Lumpur. These schools usually maintain the culture, primary teaching language and teaching methodologies and curriculum of their country of origin. The most prominent schools in Kuala Lumpur adhere to the English National Curriculum, with many schools also offering the International Baccalaureate programme.

Enrollment in an international school in Malaysia is expensive and may not be the best option for some expat budgets.

In these international schools, students will not only avoid the culture shock that they might encounter at public schools, they will also get the opportunity to socialise with classmates from their home country.

Admission into an international school is easier than admission into a public school. This is because the fees are not subsidised by the local government and, most of the time, can be easily done at the school itself.

Transport and Driving in Malaysia

Malaysia has an extensive transport system. The Klang Valley, which consists of Kuala Lumpur, its surrounding suburbs and adjoining towns and cities, has an integrated public transport system incorporating the Light Rail Transit (LRT), monorail, railway and bus services. Taxis are available in urban centres, and a number of ferries operate between the Malaysian mainland and nearby islands and neighbouring countries.

It is easy to transfer from one mode of public transport to another in Kuala Lumpur with a MyRapid Card. This card can be purchased and money is loaded onto it for bus and rail use. The card gives unlimited travel on the RapidKL buses, LRT lines or KL Monorail and can be loaded for weekly or monthly travel.


Public transport in Malaysia

Trains

Malaysia has an affordable and reliable national rail service. Long-distance trains operate around Peninsula Malaysia, with trains running from north to south between the Thai border and Singapore. The main western line connects Butterworth, Ipoh, KL and Johor Bahru with the eastern line that runs through Gua Musang and the Taman Negara National Park to Kota Bharu near the Thai border.

Kuala Lumpur has an extensive city rail system consisting of two Light Rail Transit lines, a monorail line, two commuter rail systems and an airport rail link. The LRT is the most reliable form of public transport in KL. It does, however, get very crowded, especially at rush hour.

Trains in Kuala Lumpur are integrated into the bus system, which makes it easy to transfer from one system to another. It also means that commuters don’t have to pay separate fees when moving from the railway onto a bus route. 

Buses

There is an extensive and inexpensive bus system running through Malaysia. Most towns have a bus terminal offering connections to other parts of the country, and there are long-distance buses connecting Malaysia to Brunei, Singapore and Thailand.

Ferries

Ferries connect various points in Peninsula Malaysia with Indonesia, southern Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines. A number of luxury cruise liners also have routes from Singapore and Thailand to Malaysia.


Taxis in Malaysia

Taxis operate in most Malaysian cities, but can be expensive compared to other transport options. Most are unmetered, so it's best to negotiate the fare with the driver before getting in the vehicle. There are also a number of ride-hailing services in Malaysia, whereby travellers can call a taxi to their location immediately using a smartphone application.


Driving in Malaysia

Malaysia has an excellent highway network connecting towns and cities, and joining Malaysia with its neighbours. Although expats living in Kuala Lumpur are able to get by without owning a car, it may be necessary to have a car if living outside of the major urban centres.

Cars in Malaysia drive on the left-hand side of the road. Driving in Malaysian cities can be chaotic and is generally not recommended. Traffic congestion is a constant problem and traffic lights, and the rules of the road, are not always adhered to. Motorcyclists are often the worst culprits for reckless driving.

It is quite simple for expats in possession of a valid international driver’s licence to get a probationary driving licence in Malaysia. Expats will need a number of documents, such as their original driver’s licence, a translated script if it is not in English, a colour photograph, passport, payment and a completed application form. A work permit that is valid for more than three months is also required.


Air travel in Malaysia

It is relatively cost-effective to fly in Malaysia and due to the remote nature of some destinations within the country, flying is often the best, and only, option. Kuala Lumpur International Airport is the country's main international airport. Other important airports in the country include Kota Kinabalu, Kuching, Penang and Langkawi. A number of airlines offer regional and international flights to and from Malaysia, including Malaysia Airlines, Firefly and Air Asia.

Keeping in Touch in Malaysia

The Malaysian government is actively trying to increase the number of internet users in the country. As such, there have been large investments in fibre optic connectivity and wireless zones.

There are a number of service providers offering competitive rates, making it easy to connect with friends and family across the globe. Malaysia also has a number of companies offering cheap call cards so phoning home is also an option for expats. 

Text messages and phone calls within Malaysia are reasonably priced, and it’s relatively simple to set up either a cellular telephone or internet connection. There are also many WiFi hotspots across big cities such as Kuala Lumpur.


Internet in Malaysia

Internet technology in Malaysia has improved over the last few years. However, it is still considerably slower than what expats may be used to in their home countries. In Kuala Lumpur, internet connectivity is good, but outside of major cities, the infrastructure is lacking considerably. Dial-up connections are predominantly more widespread in areas outside of the major cities, while ADSL and wireless internet services are common in major cities.

Internet cafés, restaurants and coffee shops do provide wireless internet access, but this is usually only in larger cities.

The most prominent providers include TM Streamyx, which belongs to Telekom Malaysia, Celcom and Maxis.

Internet censorship

Censorship in Malaysia is a growing issue, as many movies and websites have been blocked due to their subject matter contravening the Malaysian morality laws. Websites criticising the Malaysian Government have been blocked, as well as many file-sharing websites. News sites like the BBC and Al Jazeera have also been censored at times for their depiction of events in Malaysia. Expats should note that pornography of any kind is strictly banned in Malaysia.


Mobile phones in Malaysia

Mobiles, or "handphones" as they are referred to in Malaysia, are available from a wide range of providers. Expats can use their cellphones from their home country, and just sign up for a local sim.

Mobile service providers offer competitive rates due to the number of rivals that exist in Malaysia. Expats should shop around to find the best offers and deals. Customers can sign up for pre-paid or post-paid mobile services. Both are easily available and require little paperwork.


Landline telephones in Malaysia

Telekom Malaysia (TM) holds the monopoly on the fixed-line network in Malaysia. With highly advanced infrastructure, expats should have no problems keeping in touch. Expats will need to visit one of the TM offices, and are required to pay a deposit.


English media and news in Malaysia

English media is readily available in Malaysia. Daily newspapers include Business Times, The Edge, Malay Mail and New Straits Times. There are a number of other English newspapers and magazines available in Malaysia, and it also isn't difficult to find imported publications.

Frequently Asked Questions about Malaysia

Potential expats will no doubt have many questions about moving to Malaysia. From travel requirements to language barriers and working, here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about expat life in Malaysia.

Do I need a passport to travel to the Sabah and Sarawak (Borneo) part of Malaysia?

Yes, all foreign nationals need a passport to travel between Peninsula Malaysia and Borneo Malaysia. Malaysian citizens are required to present their ID Cards when travelling between the two different parts of Malaysia, and as expats do not get issued with a Malaysian ID, they are required to present their passport on entry and departure.

Is Kuala Lumpur the only place that I would be able to find employment?

Companies located in both Kuala Lumpur and the greater Kuala Lumpur area, otherwise known as the Klang Valley, employ many expats. There is also a significant expat community in Johor Bahru, just north of Singapore. Many foreigners choose to retire in Malaysia, which means that some areas, such as Melaka and Pulau Pinang, have a fair amount of expats, as does Ipoh.

What languages are spoken in Malaysia?

The Malaysian population is a mix of a number of ethnicities. The majority of the population is Malay and speak Bahasa Malaysia. As part of the country's colonial heritage, English is also widely spoken, and is the official language in the business world. There are significant Chinese and Indian populations who use a number of Chinese dialects and Tamil. East Malaysia, consisting of Sarawak and Sabah, has a number of native tribes, and the two most common indigenous languages in this Borneo region are Iban and Dusunic.

Are there good schools in Malaysia?

Malaysia has an excellent education system and expats will have a wide range of options when it comes to schooling for their children. Due to the language barrier and numerous bureaucratic obstacles, most expats choose to send their children to international schools. There is a good selection of international schools in Malaysia, mostly based in Kuala Lumpur. These cater to various nationalities, with the majority offering the British curriculum, and others following the International Baccalaureate programme.

Banking, Money and Taxes in Malaysia

The Malaysian banking system is well established. Although opening a bank account can be complicated for foreigners, particularly if they don't have the correct visa or work permit, once they have opened an account, banking in Malaysia can be easy and hassle-free for expats. 


Money in Malaysia

The currency in Malaysia is the Malaysian Ringgit (MYR), divided into 100 sen (cents).

  • Notes: 1 MYR, 5 MYR, 10 MYR, 20 MYR, 50 MYR and 100 MYR

  • Coins: 5 sen, 10 sen, 20 sen and 50 sen


Banking in Malaysia

Although many expats prefer to bank with a foreign bank, such as Bank of America or HSBC, as they can link to their account in their home country, there are numerous local banking options available to expats in Malaysia. The central bank is Bank Negara Malaysia, while local banks include Bank Islam Malaysia, Bank Muamalat Malaysia, CIMB Bank, Public Bank Berhad and RHB Bank.

Once an expat has an account, banking becomes simple. Malaysian banks have all the services customers have come to expect, including internet and mobile banking.

Banking hours are generally Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 4pm, and Saturdays from 9.30am to 11.30am.

Opening a bank account

Expats wishing to open a bank account in Malaysia with a local bank will need a valid work permit. Without this, it is almost impossible to open an account. New customers are generally required to provide their ID or passport, and evidence of residency or employment status, such as a work visa or letter of employment. Recent bank statements and a letter of recommendation from their current bank may also prove helpful.

Credit/debit cards

Credit and debit cards are widely accepted in Malaysia. However, cash payments are still more popular in many establishments. Expats should be vigilant when using their credit or debit cards and should check their till slips carefully. Credit card fraud remains a problem in Malaysia, with the country experiencing some of the highest rates of this crime in the world.

ATMs

ATMs are widely available, some of which accept foreign credit and debit cards. Cash will be dispensed in ringgit. Expats should note that some ATMs close at midnight.


Taxes in Malaysia

With a relatively low income tax rate and few other taxes, Malaysia is an incredibly tax-friendly country. Malaysian tax law divides potential taxpayers into three categories: residents, non-residents and pensioners.

  • Residents are those who have stayed in the country for longer than 182 days. People who fall into this category are liable to pay income tax. The income tax rate varies according to the amount of income. There are a number of different tax groups, ranging from 0 to 28 percent.

  • Non-residents, or those that stay in Malaysia for less than 182 days, are taxed at a flat rate of 28 percent.

  • The third group consists of people over the age of 55 years who are employed in Malaysia for less than 60 days in a year. People in this group either receive a Malaysian pension or live on interest from banks. People in this group are exempt from paying tax.

Many expats choose to go to Malaysia under the Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) programme. These expats are required to pay tax on any income made in Malaysia. However, they are not required to pay tax on income or pension funds generated abroad.

Malaysia has tax agreements with a number of countries in order to avoid foreigners having to pay double taxation. Expats should investigate whether Malaysia has such an agreement with their home country.

Expat Experiences in Malaysia

When considering a move to a new city, there is nothing more useful than hearing real-life stories and experiences from other expats who have lived there. We'd love to hear about your expat experiences. Please contact us if you live or have lived in Malaysia and would like to share your story.


Emily is an American expat who moved to Malaysia after living in South Korea for over 5 years. Her husband teaches at an international school in the city and Emily stays home raising their young daughter. Read all about the family's expat life in Malaysia.

Emily_Malaysia_0.jpg

Marvin Mooi is an engineer in the oil and gas industry. As a result of his work for Shell International, he and his wife have spent many years travelling around the world, experiencing its myriad cultures. Now they have returned home to Malaysia, a place every bit as vibrant and multicultural as they could ask for. Read more about Marvin's expat life in Malaysia.

Marvin Mooi

Virginia is a British expat who moved to Malaysia in October 2016 due to her husband’s job in the extractive industry. Having previously lived in Brisbane, Australia, Virginia is a seasoned expat and shares some great insights about expat life in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. Read more about her expat life in Malaysia.

Virginia - A British expat living in Malaysia

Nicola is a British expat who moved out to the small Malaysian city of Johor in 2014 when her husband took up a job at one of the town's university campuses. Her family has also lived in Singapore and Saudi Arabia, but she says the biggest plus of living in Malaysia is the opportunity to immerse yourself in a truly multicultural society. Read about her expat experiences in Malaysia.

Michael Kinkoph is an American expat who has been living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, since October 2014. He's there on a short-term contract and transferred to Malaysia with his American employer. Michael tells us about the city's food scene and grabbing any opportunity to travel with both hands. Read more about his expat life in Malaysia.

Michael Kinkoph is an American Expat living in Malaysia

Anna is an Australian expat living in Malaysia. Having lived in a number of countries around the world due to the nature of her husband’s work (he’s a British diplomat), Anna relocated to Kuala Lumpur with her husband and young son in 2012. They have since welcomed a little girl to their family, and are enjoying all that this Southeast Asian country has to offer. Read more about her expat life in Malaysia.

Interview with Anna - An Australian expat living in Malaysia

Kimbra Naber is an American expat who moved to Kuala Lumpur with her husband when he was relocated for his job. Kimbra loves the diversity of the people, cultures and religions in Malaysia and the many different opportunities for shopping and travel. Read more about her expat experience in Kuala Lumpur.

Kimbra - An American expat living in Malaysia

Michele Chan-Thomson is an American expat living in Malaysia. She moved from Austin, Texas, to the island of Penang with her husband and three children when he was transferred within his company. Michele has embraced her expat experience with a positive attitude and has enjoyed exploring her new city and the good quality of life that it has to offer her and her family. Read more about her expat experience in Malaysia.

Michel Chan-Thomson - An American expat living in Malaysia

Lakshmipriya Somasundaram was an HR professional in a former life, although nowdays she is a multitasking mistress who is mom to two little girls, a skilled business writer, a flawless hostess, a professional voice talent, an occasional culinary coach and an incurable decor addict. Read about her experiences of expat life in Malaysia.

Katrina, a Scottish expat living in Malaysia, pays the bills by advising foreigners on the finer points of life in Malaysia. As the online editor for ExpatKL.com, she's perfectly prepared to share the insight she's gleaned from her expat experience in Malaysia.

Ann Kaufman is an American expat living in Kuala Lumpur. This self-proclaimed "International Lady of Leisure" moved to Malaysia with her husband, and has been blessed with the arrival of a baby boy since their relocation. Read about her experiences of expat life in Malaysia.

US Expat in Malaysia

Johanna Leahy is a freelance writer on the cusp of completing her first novel. She is from Ireland but has lived a peripatetic life abroad since 1993, most recently settling in Malaysia. She is married to a Dane and is a mother to three children. Read about her insightful experience of life as an expat in Kuala Lumpur.

Bill and Randee Duncan, a Canadian couple living in Malaysia, turned a tiny stint abroad into over two decades of living and learning. Randee wrangles in fellow expats as the Membership Director for the Canadian Association of Malaysia (CAM) while Bill puts in his time at a major oil and gas company. Read what they have to say about expat life in Malaysia.

Canadians in Malaysia