Living Life as an Expat in Malaysia: Pros and Cons11 min read
My family and I have spent now over 2 1/2 years living in Malaysia. We absolutely love it.
Every day we get to enjoy the many benefits of being an expat in Malaysia along with being closer to my wife’s family.
It’s not perfect though, then again nowhere is.
The odd annoyances are far outweighed by the pros of living in Malaysia though.
The experience of living abroad aren’t completely new to me. But this is the longest period I have lived outside the UK.
Apart from sometimes missing family and friends, the experience has been how I expected and we’re glad to have made the move as a family. It was made easier by my work being mostly online and being location independent (check out how I made money online).
So, I thought I would write an article on living life as an expat family working online.
Why Did We Move to Malaysia from the UK?
The most obvious reason why most people move abroad is for work reasons. For us it was for family and lifestyle reasons.
As I have outlined in me about the Life Hacker Guy page, my wife is from Malaysia, and so she does have family living here. I would also say that 75% of the reason for moving to Malaysia is for the lifestyle.
With the shift of work now moving ever online, and the rise of the so-called digital nomads (although they tend to be younger people), it’s easier than ever to work and life pretty much anyway in the world.
I am fortunate that years of wishing to be location independent has meant that my work in the last 20 years has mostly been online. So, up and moving to Malaysia meant that I didn’t need to find a job and initially could work for my UK company until I sold it.
My Previous Experiences Living as an Expat
I have spent a reasonable amount of time living abroad as an expat in places like Munich, Germany and in Chiang Mai, Thailand in the last 16 years. In fact I estimate in the last 18 years I have spent at least 6 years outside of the UK.
During this time the term digital nomad didn’t existed.
Most people I met where either backpackers or had physically relocated for their job.
Nowadays it’s not uncommon to meet people with their laptops in trendy coffee shops and be unsure if they are simply checking email, updating their Facebook status or actually working.
I know recently I used to work the same way, but much prefer spending time in coworking spaces in Malaysia.
My previous periods living as an expat abroad were less than and year though due to circumstances at the time. Funny enough the reasons were mostly around girlfriends!
A picture of the lounge at my Chiang Mai condo in 2004 when I lived there.
Advantages of Living as an Expat in Malaysia
We have experienced regular trips to Malaysia since I have been with my wife as we tended to come here every Chinese New Year to celebrate with the in-laws.
So, we mostly knew what to expect in terms of the weather, food and the people. This really helps and would highly recommend visiting a place a number of times before making the commitment of moving there, especially if you have kids.
Every day is a Sunny Day!
For me one of the biggest pros of living as an expat in Malaysia is the weather.
Maybe it’s because I am a Brit, if I do complain about the weather (hey I still do, it’s our cultural pastime after all!) it’s because it’s simply too hot, or really too humid here. Often its in the high 30 degrees here, sometime touching 40 with 75-80% humidity!
In fact, thinking about it, I may complain about the cold more than the heat.
That’s right, the cold! More of that below in the disadvantages.
When it’s sunny most days, it’s a lot easier to plan what you want to do.
Going to the pool or the beach, or maybe the playground with the kids? No problem, most days it’s possible.
Even if it decides to rain typically you only get a downpour, which is actually quite refreshing and sometimes welcomed – I never would have thought I would be saying that!
Amazing Countries Just a Short Flight Away
I really enjoy travelling to countries in South East Asia. Whilst Thailand used to be my favourite place in the world, as time goes on I have to admit that Malaysia and Singapore are pretty tough to beat.
Thinking about this more, I have realised it’s a combination of the improved infrastructure in places like Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong – and also the fact in my opinion their more family friendly.
So, it’s most likely the stage I am at in my life. I am simply not looking for cheap backpacking places but a bit more sedate and luxury place to chill and un-wind. Of course, it’s possible to do this in Thailand but I like the organisation and reliability of Singapore and places like Kuala Lumpur.
Based in Malaysia it’s easy to hop a low-cost airline to visit all the countries around us for sometimes $30-50 USD.
Ironically, these days I think nothing of jumping on a plane to Singapore or Chiang Mai for a conference or meet up with like-minded people. When living in the UK the prospect of jumping on a place to Scotland or Spain for an event or meet up, was This is something I rarely did when living in the UK.
Cost of Living
It’s impossible not to mention the cost of living when highlighting the pros of living in Malaysia!
Playing the currency arbitrage game means your money goes a lot further in SE Asian countries, even with the downward trend of the British pound these days (don’t mention the B word!).
Our cost of living is significantly cheaper than our days of living in London.
Not everything is cheaper though.
Imported goods at the super market can still add up. I have thought on numerous occasions how much cheaper Sainsburys or Marks and Spencer in the UK would be for things like nappies, decent formula milk, toothpaste etc would be.
Our apartment cost is also not terribly cheap, there is a reason for this though. We enjoy a large amount of space (double the size of our last house in the UK) in a complex that has a few acres of swimming pool, tennis courts and playgrounds. I can only imagine the cost of living somewhere similar in the US or warmer parts of Europe.
Lastly, one of the true bonus of living in SE Asia – the FOOD!
Partly responsible for me putting on 5-6 kg since living in Malaysia is the tasty food that can be incredibly cheap. When we go out for dinner, we can spend literally $10 USD for a family of four in market or hawker centre (just $1 for morning Roti Canai breakfast – see picture), or we can splash out in one of the many expat or higher-end restaurants and spend $40 USD.
Exposure to Different Languages
My kids understand Mandarin I would say fairly fluently, especially my older daughter. Although my wife has spoken to them mostly in Chinese since birth, their ability to understand and speak in Mandarin has blossomed since moving to Malaysia.
Being around the in-laws and exposure to different languages each day at school or nursery has really developed their language skills.
Now, I really wish I could say the same about me though.
It’s very easy to just speak English here as the language fluency of English is much higher here than neighbouring Thailand. As such, this means it’s simply too easy to be complacent and not bother.
If you have ever checked out my monthly Life Hacker Guy reports, you will know that this is something I am really trying to change.
The Disadvantages of Being an Expat in Malaysia
It’s often the case that some of the disadvantages aren’t realised until your settled down in your new country.
For me, the biggest downside is with accountability and customer support.
Poor Customer Service
It’s really tricky to sometimes get someone to actually be accountable for something said or done here. In terms of good customer support, in most cases you can forgot it!
I can give you a quick example, in the local apple-like store called uSwitch, I asked why one wireless keyboard was more expensive than similar much cheaper one. As is fairly typical in my experience, he simply read out the box contents to me and didn’t actually answer the question.
Me being the sarcastic chap I am, replied “so maybe does this one help you type faster?”.
He replied, “Yes”.
Seeing my reaction, he realised his mistake and said “no”.
To cover up his mistake, replied “oh this one is powered by Bluetooth!”.
Less than impressed I simply said, “thank you” and left.
So, my point is not to ridicule the salesperson (although when I see him now, I avoid him big time), but to illustrate that the staff in shops where I live 90% of the time don’t know anything.
It’s worse than that though, most sales assistants simply don’t admit in most cases that they don’t know and try to wing it. I would rather hear “I am not sure”.
The irony is that you walk into a shop and staff will often follow you around, trying to be helpful and yet often don’t know anything….. aghhh!
In contrast many high-end shops that have high ticket items, maybe watches and cars they are much better and typically very knowledgeable.
Contrasting Temperatures and Being TOO COLD!
Another disadvantage which is somewhat ironic coming from a Brit, is that sometimes it’s simply TOO COLD here.
Office buildings and shopping malls have their aircon really turned up, resulting in cool air being blasted around giving the feeling your in a icy wind tunnel. So, sometimes your day is one of contrasting hot/cold temperatures.
You find that you’re often moving from hot/humid temperatures to what feels like sub-zero temperatures. On some days it’s like being in a German sauna from steam room to icy plunge pool!
One of my favourite shopping malls in Kuala Lumpur – Pavillon!
The Expat Bubble
This phenomenon is common amongst expats who move abroad and mix with just other expats. Through a combination of working closely together and often hanging out in similar places can mean living in somewhat of a bubble, far removed from the “normal” everyday life of where you’re living.
Whilst I don’t necessarily think this is bad, it’s a shame if you completely miss out on the more local experiences.
I remember when I lived in Chiang Mai a French friend of mine (we do sometimes get on us Brits!) used to say I wasn’t living a proper Thai lifestyle – whatever that is! For reason why is because I lived in a serviced apartment that cost 4 times the average wage of a local person in Chiang Mai.
I regularly ate in local markets often being the only foreigner there and enjoyed the odd expat meal too each week. You could say I was living life like a well-off Thai – or as they say in Thailand, I was a little hi-so!
Is Malaysia Now Our Home?
Yes, it certainly feels like it.
We have integrated nicely into a mix of expat and local life here. With my wife being Malaysian it’s nice to enjoy a mix of local living combined with the benefits of being an expat.
Living life as an expat suits me. I enjoy meeting people from all over the world and feeling independent, and not dependent on living in one place, one country or even one government.
With the interconnectedness of the world, I really like the fact our kids are growing up experiencing living in different countries and cultures. It’s proving a real boost to them learning and understanding Mandarin too!
As the modern world becomes increasingly globalised, international travel is a way of life and getting as easy as getting on a train. Living in different environments encourages us as a family to adapt to different cultures and ways of life, an amazing skillset for our kids to learn.