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.


Add Yours
  1. Crosslife's Space

    interesting to read an expat’s view on two countries during a brief stay. There are fundamental differences between the two. From what I know the people do not hate each other. Many depend on each other for a living. Like many other pragmatic parts of the world, economics continues to motivate people to live together. Often I meet members of the same families being distributed evenly in these two places to take advantage of the higher currency value of one and the cheaper cost of living in another.


  2. Thessauron

    I’m from SG and kudos to you for boldly stating the ups and downs of the country. It both heartens and disheartens that you’ve noticed our obsession with “what do you do for a living,” something which reflects our overall mercenary mentality towards life.


  3. billwhite1951

    As an expat from the United States relocated to Peru, I enjoyed your comparisons very much, and appreciated your sense of humor. I found much to relate to, with the US my Singapore and Malaysia my Peru.


  4. Birgit

    This is very interesting and a great post. My hubby would love it in Singapore because of the cleanliness and the strict rules. I think some of those rules should be adopted here since garbage can be everywhere and so many people are disrespectful.


  5. KLMcCarty

    Hello! I would love to contact you–I myself will be traveling to SE Asia beginning of 2016, and KL in Malaysia is a stop! I will continue reading your blog, but will love input if I have questions!


  6. Lola Elvy

    I lived in Malaysia on my boat on and off for about a year; the last six months were spent generally in Langkawi, with the occasional trip to Thailand. I have only been to Singapore once, and only for a couple days, but the sense of being constantly observed was very present, I thought. I like Malaysia, though; the people are very friendly and welcoming.


  7. Lance Greenfield

    This is a brilliant article, and I find so many truths in it, or maybe so many parts that I agree with. As a child, I lived in both Singapore and North Borneo (now Eastern Malaysia) in the sixties. I have been back to Singapore and KL on many visits since then.
    I love both countries and recognize all of the differences that you write about here.
    Lovely writing, striking home.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. dcavnar

    I thoroughly enjoyed your in-depth look into the various differences between these two incredible countries. I had the joyful experience of backpacking through Malaysia and into Singapore as I wrapped up the last few weeks of a several month backpacking trip, and loved both places. All of your observations are spot on, particularly about the nearly antiseptic cleanliness of Singapore. I also was enamored with the sheer variety of choice for food in both places, but I was truly in food heaven in Malaysia. What you wrote about the crossing of socio-economic divides when it came to food is an interesting view that I hadn’t considered.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences, as well as taking a look at my own post! It’s an honor to have someone who’s clearly so established in the blogging realm to check out anything I’ve produced. I look forward to more of your posts!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Damyanti

      Thanks for your comment– I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Look forward to visiting you more often– my blog is hardly an establishment, it is more of a water-cooler community where everyone chats about topics of common interest.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. gspottedpen

    I have been a regular visitor to Singapore and Malaysia. I am disturbed by the fact, of the awful incongruity between the prices of hotels in Singapore and Malaysia. Malaysia is cheap for an average middle class person and for the same price you can rent only a shack in Singapore. I stayed in Indian hotel in Singapore and it was budget hotel. The room was stinking and the AC was inhuman. On the other hand budget hotels in Malaysia like MY Hotel are pretty good with tidy rooms, great AC and friendly staff. Singapore’s Changi airport was bewitching. Malaysia became a home to me as I have many friends there. Yes Malaysian smiles are more homely and Singaporeans are mechanical and look at you with causal indifference. Anand Bose

    Liked by 2 people

  10. mrphilippines1974pinoytraveler

    I like the way you compare the two countries and that is really true because I visit both countries for several times during my competition year while I’m competing for Asean bodybuilding competition but two years ago I was in Singapore and visiting the famous bay casino I’m not a gambler I just try some beer on the top roof of the famous over hang deck. And I met a Malaysian in the lobby who just attending seminar and we have good conversation and she invited me to their house in malacca and I told her that after I visit MYAMMAR I’m going back to visit the famous petronas building then I can swing by to malacca and she surprised when that week I ring their house. They are really hospitable . They let me stay on their house for five days and they treat me like a family. The husband touring me on their famous place in malacca and bring me to their family celebration and introduced me as their friend from Philippines . I love their family and the husband told me anytime I will visit malacca just don’t hesitate to give them a call and are happy to pick me .


  11. Stanton Swafford

    Good morning. I will launch my debut novel, China Sea, in about two weeks. I will distribute through Amazon, Kindle, iTunes, Nook and Google Play. As my settings are primarily in Southeast Asia (including Malacca and Singapore) I do want the book to be available in that region. Can you update me? Are Amazon print books and each of the eBooks easily available in Singapore and Malaysia these days? Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • James J. S. Johnson

      Same here — it was very interesting to learn of the contrasts. Pacific countries are an unknown to me, except for what I learn from their people (and from the few history books that appear to be both insightful and accurate).

      Liked by 1 person

  12. mwamburimaole

    Thanks for passing by my blog. Wow, I should travel…that was really nice. I always thought Singapore was a nice place, now surviving the indifference, that’s the catch. hehe, thanks Damyanti!


  13. Bea dM

    really interesting info, specially in terms of comparing them – from the physical and cultural distance of Europe-centric Europe, neither is all that well known, though Singapore is often described as the “Switzerland of Asia”. I get the love-hate for Malaysia, but why the indifference to Singapore? sounds like pretty decent quality of life, no?


  14. Anne Skyvington

    I love this. You seem to have got it right, just from the tone. I’ve visited Singapore but not Malaysia. I’d like to go there now after reading this. Thanks for stopping by


  15. writing, writing, words words words.

    Thanks for the likes, and for the Follow. Apologies it has taken me so long to respond. Can’t wait to dive into some of your work, although I’m still trying to figure out sort a daily schedule of writing my own stuff and reading other people’s stuff. How do you do it? :)


  16. lghiggins

    Interesting and well written comparison. As expats we definitely have a viewpoint and that can be a constructive thing if we keep things in perspective. I liked the way you compared two places you lived rather than with “back home.”


  17. lisboeta1

    Thank you for visiting my blog. I was an expat myself in many different parts of the world, first due to my dad’s job and later my husband’s. I lived in many different parts of Africa and Europe and like them or not, those places where you spent a few years of your life will always have a special place in your heart; sometimes it is the country itself (Scotland), other times it is the human condition in the country (old Zaire, now the Congo). Great article.


  18. Elleez

    Hi, enjoyed reading your blog. I’m a Malaysian currently based in SG as a professional for the last 5 years plus and have also worked in KL for more than 10 years. I’ll like to contribute my 2 cents since I’ve been in both cities long enough. I also grew up going to SG very often to visit my late grandma, aunts and cousins, so much so many have asked if I was S’porean even when living in KL.

    Sg is very efficient, clean to a certain extent (still lots of litter in some parts), practise meritocracy and has zero tolerance to corruption. It attracts talent from all over the world, so everyone competes at an almost equal playing field. Food is good (though I always remark, not as good as in M’sia!) , hawker food is very affordable, fine dining superb selection. More importantly, I feel safe walking on the streets and even when taking the MRT home late at night. Oh btw, there are always tall, young Cisco police personnel patrolling the train stations, streets and even in trains. I feel safe in SG.

    In KL, I drive around everywhere. The last of Security is an issue, so I lock my doors immediately upon getting into my car. I clutch my handbag tightly to prevent falling prey to snatch thieves, which is prevalent. Food wise, it’s almost similar but as another writer wrote, no street food available. Only hawker fare with alphabet rating prominently displayed on the stall to indicate their level of cleanliness. A is of course the best rating. I find this useful and M’sia should also adopt this concept. So far, I’ve never seen any lesser rating than a B.

    The high Cost of living is always a bane in SG. Due to the lack of land, rental is very high but less than HK. A small private shoe box unit with set you back by S$600K easily. Cars are more expensive now with higher COE but I’ve gotten used to not driving in SG. The efficient MRT, bus and cabs makes not owning a
    car a breeze. Oh yes, one thing lacking in SG toilets is the lack of bidet or wash hose! But without it, toilets are dry and cleaner compared to those in M’sia with wet dirty floors. Guess you can’t have best of both, huh?:-)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elleez

      Sorry, just to add on, the lack of street food and the availability of such food via hawker stalls refer to SG with alphabet tagging to denote the level of cleanliness.


  19. hairulov

    Hi Damyanti,

    Enjoy reading your post about Malaysia n Singapore.

    I’m Malaysian. I agree with almost your observation but i,m not agree about Malaysian are lazy compare to Singaporean.

    Malaysia is actualy not that lazy. It is actually Singaporean who is working too much because they are obeying zombie trying to survive against each others.

    We Malaysian have plenty lot others things to do like “lepaking” at mamak stall late at night to banter each other.

    I might be bias but i think that is my birthright ;)


    Liked by 2 people

  20. James Dooney

    I concur with this. I have my own little observation to add. The staff at KLIA,. Kuala Lumpur International Airport, are so warm and friendly that I often catch MAS ( my favorite airline ) purely just to stop over at KLIA. Changi Airport is run so much like a business that you wonder if they know how to smile at all in Singapore !

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Juliana Lightle

    Glad you liked my blog post. I have two friends, sister, who live where you live. They are originally from Thailand. One was an exchange student here. Of course, you live in a big city so the likelihood of your knowing either of them is negligible.


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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