Writing about Malaysia and Singapore


Writing about where you stay often becomes your favorite pastime if you are an expatriate. For me, I lived in Malaysia (Kuala lumpur to be precise) for almost two years, then moved to Singapore for an year and a half, and am now back in Kuala lumpur (KL) again. I cannot claim to know either country in depth, but when has that stopped me (or anyone else) from forming opinions and perceptions?

We like to think we know a place and its people if we stay there for a while, because if we admit we don’t, we feel a little disadvantaged…and er…let’s say disoriented. Maybe “dislocated” is the word I am looking for.

Anyhow. Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore and Malaysia. How do they compare? (I know this will end up as a comparison between KL and Singapore, because I have seen the rest of Malaysia only as a tourist would, through predictable weekends at Penang, Ipoh, Cameron, Cherating, Langkawi, and so on.)

Singapore is often compared with other countries, and most often with Malaysia, because Singapore was earlier a part of Malaysia—-we all know about that sort of feeling don’t we?

Well, here goes, Singapore and Malaysia from the eyes of an expat:

  • Singapore is fast and efficient. It took me all of three hours to get connections for broadband, television, cell phone and land-line. It took me more than three weeks in KL for all the same things, and I am not sure I am happy with my broadband speed even now.
  • Singapore is easy even if you do not own a car. There are trains and buses and taxis going any possible place you might want to go, at any time of night or day. Ok, only the taxis run at night, but you can hail or call them anytime. In KL, if you do not own a car, you are handicapped. The cabs are few. You could chat with a cab driver in Singapore but a cab driver in KL would keep asking “Sini?” (”Here?” in Malay) at every turn, eager to drop you off. I am not sure how many Malaysians take buses and trains to work. Can’t be that many.
  • Singapore has an antiseptic sense of cleanliness. The malls are cleaner than some hospitals I have seen. The roads are cleaner than corridors and toilets of some of the world’s hospitals. The toilets? Well, Singaporean toilets are cleaner than some of the world’s living rooms. Malaysians are a little less maniacal about cleanliness, but they can learn a thing or two from Singapore about toilet hygiene. I hope.
  • Malaysia is a place of smiles: the girls collecting toll smile, the security personnel smile, the immigration officers smile, it comes naturally to them. Singaporeans smile too, but their smiles look like they have been reading instruction manuals meant for air-hostesses.
  • Singaporeans do everything the way their government instructs them, and the government instructs frequently (even on chewing gums). I have seen neat placards near playgrounds saying: Children Must Play Quietly. Malaysians let their children loose anywhere they go, malls, hospitals, churches. Malaysian parents seem to think screaming in public places is every child’s birthright.
  • In Malaysia, people drive like the road belongs to them. In Singapore, they mostly drive like the road belongs to everyone else.
  • In Singapore, queues are sacred. You will see queues everywhere, at donut shops in shopping malls, at shops distributing freebies, at taxi stands, cemeteries. Everywhere, in short. In Malaysia, queues are not taken seriously. Period.
  • Malaysians love their food, and they don’t care where they get it. You can have some of the most delicious food at roadside hawker stalls. You will find BMWs and Ferraris parked beside humble Proton Wiras outside a stall that is famous for Char kway teow or Asam Laksa. In Singapore, the rich go to fancy restaurants, and the rest go to lesser restaurants and food-courts. People meet over food in Malaysia, in Singapore they meet over shopping.
  • When you meet people in Malaysia for the first time (naturally at a place where the food is scrumptious), you are likely to be asked, “What would you like to drink?”. In Singapore, the question would be,”What do you do (for a living)?”
  • In Malaysia, expatriates (and their spouses) are not given work permits or permanent resident status despite merit. In money-driven Singapore on the other hand, these things are issued based on ability to contribute to the country, not on race or religion. Sigh, poor me, an expat’s wife. The tough-as-nails Singapore government welcomed me to work and stay with open arms, but in Malaysia, alas, the hospitality and friendliness remains a quality only of its people, not its government.
  • In Singapore, my husband did not care if I took a cab at 3 am alone. In Malaysia, he worries if I take one alone at 6 pm. There are rapes, murders and robberies in Malaysia, much like in a lot of other countries. In Singapore, the crime news consists of accounts of shoplifters being caned mercilessly. (Ok, I exaggerated on that one, but you get the picture.)
  • The most important thing to remember about both countries: Most Malaysians hate Singaporeans and think they are stuck up and kiasu. All Singaporeans hate Malaysians and think they are lazy.

If I really, really ask myself, I like the relentless efficiency of Singapore, but there is nothing really to love or hate, there is great liking and but mostly, there is indifference.

I love Malaysia’s people, its natural beauty, its food. I hate the slowness, and of course, the corruption.

I am not so sure if I should believe that the “opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference”.

But there you go: I have a love-hate thing going on for Malaysia, but for Singapore, it is indifference.

131 thoughts on “Writing about Malaysia and Singapore

  1. hi Damyanti,
    Thanks for liking my poem.
    I briefly went through some of your pages and I enjoyed reading them. It’s so encouraging to read about another writer living in the same part of the world as I do. Can you share (via email perhaps)what you write daily as part of your work, if you don’t mind of course. thanks
    Alexis

  2. A very interesting piece. I was born in Singapore but have now lived the majority of my life in the UK. I have been to both Malaysia and Singapore. I love both but do find it sad that you can’t go out in the evening in Malaysia as a lone woman and feel safe. Such a shame.

  3. LOVED EVERYTHING ABOUT THE ARTICLE except the last point. no, time and time again, not all singaporeans hate malaysians. man. D:
    you’re right that singapore places your work first, and that’s because it’s a meritocracy based society. basically, if you work hard for whatever thing you do, if you help your company, you’d get credited.

  4. I really love Singapore.. last year I have been there. You are right its very safe in Singapore, for the first time in my life I have gone to the pub.. I agree with all the points that you have mentioned about Singapore.

  5. Love this! I met my husband when we both worked in KL in 2006, so I have very fond memories of Malaysia. I always tell Europeans that KL-Singapore is a bit like Budapest-Vienna :)

  6. I found your comments fascinating. I lived in Singapore as a teenager 1966-1969. I loved every minute. Singapore felt so safe, was so beautiful and I made many friends. Malaya, as it was then, was a peaceful holiday place- Malacca, Frasers Hill, Penang, KL, so I think they may have changed even more than Singapore. I have been back to Singapore twice in recent years. Yes, it has changed a great deal but it is still a vibrant, exciting city though maybe not as frenetic as Hong Kong.

  7. Being a Malaysian myself and having visited Singapore numerous times, I gotta say – very accurate descriptions of both countries! While I love Malaysia, there are things I abhor about it, especially the crime rate! Although I’ve moved to the USA and now live in a lovely small town, I still have the habit of locking my doors as soon as I enter and am just getting used to not having to hide my purse out of sight when I’m driving. I must admit – this is kind of liberating!

  8. I lived in Singapore in 2007-8 and traveled a lot all over Asia. Your comparison between Sng and MY cracked me up. We loved the safety of Singapore, but felt the restrictions at the same time. Nice article!

  9. I cant agree more with your comments about Singapore. It’s so diverse that the culture is hard to pinpoint. It’s too convenient, too clean. While it made my vacation easier, it seemed like I was still home in the States. The zoo, however, is wonderfully unique :)

  10. “I have a love-hate thing going on for Malaysia, but for Singapore, it is indifference.”
    You described what I’ve been struggling to tell my Malaysian fellow friends. The last few sentences accentuated the differences between these two countries.

    ps, thank you for liking my post! Glad that it led me to your blog :)

  11. I enjoy the observations an objective expat can give. My own descriptions of the US Canal Zone and Panama (My Paradise Lost) share a couple of similarities to Malaysia and Singapore, perhaps it’s the colonial heritage. But the Zone was mellow compared to SP. Your list was interesting and enlightening, thanks.

  12. I am an American who has lived in Northern Italy for 12 years. In that time, I have written a ton about the area. I love to share the unique qualities of our culture, language and customs with other people. This prompted me to write a book titled, “Our First Year – Sketches from an Alpine Village.” It’s available through Amazon.I realize that most people can’t or don’t want to live abroad. I hope to have filled a gap for these folks with my writing. Personally, I can’t comprehend living in one place on this huge planet all of my life.

    Tanti auguri per un buon lavoro!

    • Grazie! Vivere in Italia e’ un sogno per me. Cerchero’ il libro “Our First Year”.. Ho vissuto in tre paesi, India, Malesia e Singapore– e ho sempre voglia di trasferirmi e vivere per un paio d’anni anche in Italia!

      Scusami se ho fatto degli errori, in questi giiorni non faccio tanta pratica della lingua Italiana :)

  13. Hey D, I’m not sure why I’ve only seen this post now. I agree on most points except the last one – some of my closest friends are Malaysians :) And if you throw a Singaporean and Malaysian together in another part of the world, it’s almost always likely a brotherhood/sisterhood will be formed ;)

  14. To an armchair traveler, yours is a very insightful description of the two Malaysia. I’ve often wondered how Singapore’s city-state status differed from it being just a city on the Malaysian peninsula. It’s amazing how the social controls can make such a difference. It seems there would have to be cooperation on the part of both sides, the citizens and the government in order for it to work so well. Happy coincidence that in my book I use Singapore as a model for a successful China World Power of the future.

  15. To be honest you’re pretty spot on about Malaysia ;)

    And currently in this moment and period in time, Malaysia isn’t exactly famous for the right things. The corruption has indeed gone pretty bad.

    Racist remarks are openly thrown by the ministers.
    And hypocrisy runs rampant. Inefficiency is considered normal. And there’s the very big nonchalant attitude towards a lot of important things (like security and amenities maintenance for instance just to name a few). Dealing with the government services, you have to make sure you have blood pressure medicine ready cause it’s going to hit you bad. You’ll be pulling hairs out of frustration trying to get things done.

    The country is being run to the ground. The people are united through friendships regardless of race, but one can’t escape the negative effects of its corrupt government. And the people are suppressed, the democratic elections rigged in favour of the ruling party that has been in power for quite the number of decades. The judiciary, law enforcements and military are not independent and eating from the hand of government officials.

    Malaysia’s atmosphere isn’t how it used to be years ago during the time right after its independence.

    Food wise, Malaysia can boast of it definitely. But I prefer Singapore (though I haven’t been there long enough, the impression has been strongly placed upon me) for its efficiency. I would like to be amidst a culture that actually gets things done for a change.

  16. Great blog entry. As I read this, I am currently reading a book about a Singaporean detective investigating a murder in Kuala Lumpur. It talks about some of the things you noted. The main character provides some comparisons to his home country while working in Malaysia for a temporary case. It’s called “Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder”, by Shamini Flint. It’s a cute read. I love mysteries.

  17. Excellent writing about Malaysia and Singapore. Very much needed for me as I will be visiting SG as an in a couple of months as an expat wife! Thank you. Keep writing :)

  18. I’ve not been to either Singapore or Malaysia yet (on the bucket list) though my nephew is in Singapore with his wife and seems to enjoy it in all its blandness. I love the bit about the opposite of love is indifference. That may just be crueller. Keep up the insights.

  19. This is amazin Damyantig I don’t know how I didn’t see this post before. I know exactly how you feel about Singapore and Malaysia as I feel pretty much the same way. Such indepth insight here into how both countries work. In terms of the people, the culture and food I love Malaysia more, but in terms of the mod-cons and efficiency and the pay rate Singapore is better in my humble opinion. :)

  20. Certainly a description with beauty capable of inspiring all. Thanks for following my blog. I am deeply impressed with your profile and am following you with immediate effect. This is pleasant that we are able to exchange our views.

  21. I may not get the opportunity to visit Malaysia or Singapore but your description was so detailed, I feel like I have a good sense of what to expect if ever I do. Thank you for such an informative piece and thanks for the follow also. I gladly return the favor! Have a great night!

I love comments, and I always visit back. Blogging is all about being a part of a community, and communities are about communication! Tweet me up @damyantig !

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