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Culture Shock in Malaysia

With a range of modern conveniences, a highly multicultural society and a local population that is generally friendly and welcoming to newcomers, expats are unlikely to experience extreme culture shock in Malaysia during the initial settling-down process.

Nevertheless, there will be aspects of an expat's new life that may take some getting used to. Perhaps the biggest adjustment newcomers may face in Malaysia is religion. Most of the population is Muslim and adheres to conservative Islamic customs. Another major element of culture shock that foreigners 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 locals are used to dealing with people from very different cultural backgrounds. The three most common ethnic groups in Malaysia are Malay, Chinese and Indian. These, along with many other indigenous groups, combine to form a unique melting pot of cultures, cuisines and traditions.

Religion in Malaysia

Around two thirds of the Malaysian population practise Islam. This can have an 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 practise their own religion. That said, 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 that expats allow time for their bodies 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. For example, Malaysians may give a vague answer to a question in order to avoid giving a negative answer. 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 Malay, which 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. In contrast, Muslim women may be uncomfortable shaking hands or making 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 gaze 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.

Cost of Living in Malaysia

The cost of living in Malaysia is relatively low compared to neighbouring countries. In Mercer's Cost of Living Survey for 2023, Kuala Lumpur and Johor Bahru ranked 180th and 212th respectively out of 227 cities surveyed worldwide. This puts even Malaysia's most expensive city, the capital, well below nearby Singapore (2nd). Other regional capitals such as Manila (133rd) and Jakarta (151st) also have significantly higher costs of living.

Accommodation will most likely be the largest expense that expats will need to cover. It's possible to save by living outside the capital and avoiding renting in city centres, opting for somewhat less convenient but much cheaper suburban options.

Cost of accommodation in Malaysia

Malaysia offers a range of accommodation options at varying prices that are highly dependent on the type of home an expat is looking for, as well as its location. When viewing a property, it's always good to enquire about the local traffic in the area and to double-check possibilities for daily routes, as a short distance can become a long commute during rush-hour traffic. Easy access to public transport is also often a lifesaver but will push up the cost of rent.

Household running costs can vary, and on top of the basic rent, expats will need to budget for utilities such as electricity, water and gas.

Cost of groceries and eating out in Malaysia

Food prices are generally quite low, particularly if buying local products. Expats moving to Malaysia will also have fun exploring local markets where they can find cheap fresh produce. 

Those looking for a taste of home will have to fork out a little extra to enjoy imported Western products. Supermarkets such as déMarket in Kuala Lumpur offer a range of speciality products, but this comes at a cost. 

Cost of entertainment and eating out in Malaysia

Malaysia has a fine range of cuisine from across the world, and this is reflected in the many types of restaurants available. Indulging in some Malaysian street food is a great experience and makes for a cheap night out, and even restaurant meals can be reasonable. Alcohol is expensive, though, so drinks can increase the bill substantially.

Malaysia, like the rest of Asia, has a range of affordable and good-quality electrical products. Therefore, it goes without saying that shopping is one of the biggest pastimes in the country. Cameras, computers, mobile phones and other items are all inexpensive. There are often sales and special deals, particularly around religious holidays, so shopping around does have its rewards.

Cost of transport in Malaysia

Malaysia boasts comprehensive and efficient public transport networks that are easily accessible at reasonable prices. Expats living in the Klang Valley can use the integrated transport system, comprising buses, Light Rail Transit (LRT) and a monorail to get around in Malaysia. Taxis and ride-hailing services are also available but at a premium. 

New arrivals will likely need a vehicle outside the Klang Valley as public transport is fairly limited. Expats who choose to drive in Malaysia will need to account for the cost of petrol, road tax and insurance. 

Cost of healthcare in Malaysia

The cost of healthcare in Malaysia will depend on whether expats decide to access public or private medical facilities. Foreign workers in Malaysia will have access to government-mandated medical insurance that allows them to be treated at public facilities at a low cost.

Still, as Malaysia is a booming medical tourism destination offering relatively low consultation, hospitalisation and treatment fees, most expats opt for international medical insurance to access private facilities in the country. 

Cost of education in Malaysia

Public schools in Malaysia are typically not an option for expats moving to the country with older children or those staying for the short term, as the language of instruction is Malay. Expat parents who would like to integrate their children into the local culture can send them to public schools at a low cost.

Most expats will send their children to private or international schools as these offer a wider range of curricula in a familiar language. Although international schools are infamous for their steep tuition costs, these schools offer high teaching standards and quality facilities. It is advisable for expats relocating to Malaysia for work to negotiate an education allowance to offset some costs associated with private and international schools. 

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 May 2023.

Accommodation (monthly rent)

One-bedroom apartment in city centre

MYR 2,200

One-bedroom apartment outside city centre

MYR 1,310

Three-bedroom apartment in city centre

MYR 4,420

Three-bedroom apartment outside city centre

MYR 2,400


Milk (1 litre)

MYR 7.75

Loaf of white bread

MYR 3.68

Rice (1kg)

MYR 6.24

Dozen eggs

MYR 8.19

Chicken breasts (1kg)

MYR 18.32

Pack of cigarettes (Marlboro)

MYR 18


Mobile call rate (per minute – mobile to mobile)

MYR 0.46

Internet (uncapped per month)

MYR 118

Basic utilities per month (electricity, gas, water)

MYR 225

Eating out

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

MYR 120

Big Mac meal

MYR 18


MYR 12.27

Local beer (500ml)

MYR 18

Coca-Cola (330ml)

MYR 2.94


Taxi rate (per km)


City-centre public transport (one-way ticket)


Petrol/gasoline (per litre)

MYR 2.07

Frequently Asked Questions about Malaysia

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

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

Companies located in both the city of 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.

What languages are spoken in Malaysia?

The Malaysian population is a mix of various ethnicities, with the first language of much of the population being either Malay, Mandarin or Tamil. As part of the country's colonial heritage, English is also widely spoken and is the official language in the business world.

Are there good schools in Malaysia?

Malaysia has a good education system and expats will have a wide range of options when it comes to schooling for their children. Owing 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.

Should I prepare for the climate in Malaysia?

Definitely. The country experiences reasonably high temperatures throughout the year, with winter and summer only differing by a few degrees. Expats unused to the heat can easily feel drained, and we suggest staying hydrated and keeping cool to combat fatigue and heatstroke.

Do I need a bank account in Malaysia?

Most expat will certainly find having a local bank account helpful. In many regions of the country, cash payments are preferred, if not mandatory, but luckily ATMs are reasonably abundant.

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.

With a number of local service providers offering competitive rates, it's easy to connect with friends and family across the globe.

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, though it is still 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.

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

Prominent internet service providers include the likes of TIME, Maxis and TM Unifi.

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 card.

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

The most prominent mobile providers include Maxis, Celcom and DiGi.

English-language media in Malaysia

English media is widely available in Malaysia. Local English-language newspapers include 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.

Public Holidays in Malaysia




Chinese New Year

22–24 January

10–12 February

Labour Day

1 May

1 May

Hari Raya Puasa

22–24 April

10–11 April

Wesak Day

4 May

22 May

Agong's Birthday

5 June

3 June

Hari Raya Haji

26 June–1 July

17 June–18 June

Awal Muharram

19 July

8 July

National Day

31 August

31 August

Malaysia Day

17 September

16 September

Prophet's Birthday

27 September

16 September

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.

Islamic holidays are subject to change based on sightings of the moon.

Weather in Malaysia

Expats moving to Malaysia will quickly find themselves well acquainted with its tropical climate and monsoons. 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 the 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. Light, variable winds occur between seasons.

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, ranging from between 71° to 91°F (22° to 33°C). Unfortunately, the heat doesn't let up in the evenings. Expats may find the country's extreme heat difficult to adjust to, and should take care to stay cool and hydrated.


Embassy Contacts for Malaysia

Malaysian embassies

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

  • Malaysian High Commission, London, United Kingdom: +44 20 3931 6196

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

  • Malaysian High Commission, Canberra, Australia: +61 2 61 200 300

  • Malaysian High Commission, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 12 342 5990

  • 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 2167 8200

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

Accommodation in Malaysia

With a range of options to suit any taste and budget, expats will have no problem finding a place to call home in Malaysia. In fact, many expats in Malaysia report that they are able to afford much more spacious housing than back home.

Types of accommodation in Malaysia

Expats have a wide variety of accommodation to choose from in Malaysia: large standalone houses, semi-detached and terraced houses, apartments and condominiums. Generally, condominiums are most popular with foreigners, as they are secure and often boast sought-after amenities such as gyms and swimming pools.

Housing prices are reasonable throughout the country, especially when included in a lucrative employment package or when financed by a large expat salary. Expats should note, though, that property in central Kuala Lumpur is generally more expensive than in other areas.

Fully furnished, semi-furnished or unfurnished accommodation is available, though expats should be aware 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 accommodation in Malaysia is straightforward. Expats can engage the services of an 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. Estate agents can be especially useful for expats as they have experience in the local property market and knowledge about the various areas.

Renting accommodation in Malaysia


Rental agreements are usually signed on a two-year basis, with an option to renew. If expats are unable to commit with certainty to the full two years, they should be sure to have a termination clause written into their rental contract, allowing them to break the lease off early under certain conditions.


To secure the property while finalising the contract, expats may be asked to pay an 'earnest deposit' of a month's worth of rent. This essentially puts a hold on the property while contract details and negotiations are worked out. The earnest deposit is typically used as a rent payment once the contract is finalised.

In addition, the tenant will have to pay one to two months' rent as a refundable security deposit. This is returned to the tenant at the end of the lease period if the home is in good condition.

Estate agent fees are normally paid by the landlord.


The tenant will usually be responsible for their own water, electricity, sewerage, phone and internet bills, and may also be required to pay a deposit on these utilities before moving in.

Doing Business in Malaysia

Malaysia is a diverse, welcoming society that is accepting and friendly towards foreigners, especially in matters of business. 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. Expats may need to conduct themselves according to who they are doing business with.

Fast facts

Business language

Officially, the language of business is Malay, but English is widely spoken.

Business hours

Business hours are 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). As Malaysia is home to a large Muslim population, women should dress more conservatively than they would back home.


The standard greeting between men is a handshake. When men greet women, sometimes a slight nod of the head is sufficient, or a handshake. It's best to wait for the woman to initiate the greeting.


Sometimes gifts are exchanged when meeting someone for the first time. In certain cases, it may be a better idea to receive a gift first, and then 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.

Business culture in Malaysia

The defining characteristic of business culture in Malaysia is respect and deference to authority. 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.


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 many Western cultures, with managers taking a personal interest in the wellbeing 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 credit. Working within a team and accomplishing communal goals is imbued with great importance.


Sensitivity and diplomacy are essential to doing business in Malaysia. The golden rule is never to cause another to 'lose face' in professional company – the wilful, or even careless, humiliation of even a subordinate is considered malicious in the Malaysian business world. Expats 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.


Business meetings in Malaysia usually convene on time but can be subject to a lot of small talk and personal digressions. Building a relationship is seen as an important function of meetings in Malaysia, so don't lose patience.

Business cards

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

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

Education and Schools in Malaysia

Education in Malaysia is of a high standard and expat parents will have little trouble finding a school for their child. That said, due to the language barrier in the country, and in the largely Malay-speaking public schools, many expats prefer to place their children in English-speaking international schools.

Preschool begins at the age of four, but schooling only becomes compulsory from age six to 15.

Public schools in Malaysia

There are plenty of public schools in Malaysia, and the quality of education is generally adequate. What's more, attendance at a public school can be an ideal way for expat kids to integrate with the local population and learn to speak Malay – though for some, the language and culture barrier can be overwhelming, in which case alternatives should be looked at. Public school facilities are decent and the basic items needed for education are available, but student-to-teacher ratios can be quite high.

As public schools are supported by the government, locals aren't required to pay school fees. Expats, on the other hand, will have to pay tuition fees for public school attendance, though the costs are much lower than for private and international schools. In addition, expat children must have a foreign student pass to attend public schools, which creates a significant amount of extra admin for parents.

Private schools in Malaysia

There are a number of good private schools in Malaysia, but they are more expensive than their public counterparts. The extra cost is justified by advantages such as better resources and lower student-to-teacher ratios.

The main language of instruction in private schools is Malay, but maths and science classes are taught in a combination of Malay and English. Private schools must have certification from the Ministry of Home Affairs to admit foreign students, but students themselves don’t need any special documentation to attend.

Parents can generally expect a good quality of education at private schools. Cost-wise, private schools are a good middle ground between public schools and international schools.

Expat children at private schools 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 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, language, teaching methodologies and curriculum of their country of origin. The English National Curriculum, including the Cambridge IGCSE and A-Levels, is most commonly offered, with many schools also offering the International Baccalaureate programme.

In international schools, expat children tend to adjust easily thanks to the familiar teaching methods, content and language. International schools also give children (and parents) the chance to meet other expat families.

Special-needs schools in Malaysia

Children with special needs are either educated under tailored programmes at mainstream schools – known as the Special Education Integrated Programme (SEIP) – or at dedicated special schools.

Public schools offering the SEIP are fairly easy to find, with the programme being offered in many schools across the country. That said, there are very few dedicated public special schools. Those that do exist mostly cater to hearing and visual disabilities only. Parents may find more options in private education.

Tutors in Malaysia

Whether children need a little extra help with maths or are struggling to adapt to a new curriculum, tutors can be an invaluable resource to expat parents in Malaysia. Language tutors can be particularly useful for children being taught in a new language, such as Malay, and for maintaining fluency in the family's mother tongue.

Recommended tutoring companies in Malaysia include TeacherOn, ChampionTutor and MyPrivateTutor.

Visas for Malaysia

Malaysia has a number of different visas available to fit the nature and length of any expat's planned visit. Regulations vary according to nationality – for example, expats of certain nationalities may enter Malaysia for a period of up to 14, 30 or 90 without a visa for tourism or business purposes.

All those arriving in Malaysia should have a passport valid for at least six months, a valid return ticket and proof of funds to sustain themselves while in the country. 

Tourist visas for Malaysia

Tourist visas for Malaysia can either be single- or multiple-entry.

Nationals of some countries are able to obtain a visa on arrival, valid for one visit of up to 30 days. Expats who don’t qualify for a visa on arrival will need to apply for a visa at their local Malaysian embassy or consulate before departure.

A single-entry visa is valid for one entry of up to 30 days within three months of the date of issue. Multiple-entry visas are issued to foreign visitors intending to travel in and out of Malaysia a number of times, and are usually for business or official government matters. Multiple-entry visas are usually valid for three to 12 months from the date of issue. Each entry into Malaysia is for a maximum of 30 days.

Select nationalities can apply for an eVisa online, while others will have to apply through their local embassy or consulate. The eVisa is valid for 90 days from the date of issue and grants multiple entries of up to 30 days total during this period.

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 with their family on a long-term basis. The programme requires that expats 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.

Successful applicants will get a 10-year visit pass and multiple-entry visa, renewable every 10 years. Expats generally aren’t allowed to be employed under this programme and must be over the age of 35.

Permanent residency in Malaysia

Expats wishing to work and live in the country permanently can apply for residency in Malaysia. Permanent residency applications fall into one of several categories:

  • High net-worth investor

  • Highly skilled or talented individual

  • Professional

  • Spouse of a Malaysian citizen

Alternatively, expats can apply for permanent residency by making use of the points-based system. Points are given according to one’s age, qualifications, language proficiency and employment, among other criteria. To take this route, a specified minimum of points must be attained.

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

Moving to Malaysia

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 for a sense of adventure.

The country consists of two different geographical regions separated by the South China Sea. To the west is Peninsular Malaysia, while the sparser territory of East Malaysia includes Sabah and Sarawak regions of Borneo Island.

Living in Malaysia as an expat

Life in this Southeast Asian country is filled with excitement and diversity.

Traditionally a country reliant on resource exports, Malaysia has expanded its economy in areas such as science, tourism, commerce and medical tourism, resulting in an increase in expat employment opportunities.

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, the city is packed with luxury shopping malls, quality restaurants and colourful markets. It is a melting pot of cultures and offers expats an energetic lifestyle.

With options ranging from standalone houses to condominiums with gymnasiums and swimming pools, expats can expect finding accommodation in Malaysia to be a walk in the park. Housing here is generally quite inexpensive and most expats report that they can afford more spacious abodes than back home. Expats should note that the price of housing in central Kuala Lumpur can be steep compared to other spots in the country.

Getting around in Malaysia is generally cheap and easy, particularly within Peninsular Malaysia. The country has an extensive bus system, and the Light Rail Transit makes getting around quick and easy. Taxis and ride-hailing services are also easy to come by in the larger cities. East Malaysia, on the other hand, is slightly less developed when compared to the mainland. Driving outside large cities is generally preferred by many expats, although traffic in places like Kuala Lumpur can be heavy.

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. The country is a popular medical tourism site with excellent service, top-tier facilities and exceptional staff. Despite the affordable healthcare system, expats are advised to have health insurance, since foreigners don’t qualify for the public healthcare scheme.

Cost of living in Malaysia

The cost of living in Malaysia is generally reasonably low. An expat’s biggest expense will most likely be accommodation, with food, transport and healthcare much more affordable than in Western countries such as the US or UK. Even education in the country is generally highly affordable.

Expat families and children

Malaysia has many public schools with great reputations. Although facilities and teaching standards are generally decent, schools can be short-staffed. Kuala Lumpur offers a range of great international schools that hold their own against neighbouring Singapore’s renowned institutions. Expats can also choose between multiple private schools in the country.

Malaysia is an exciting expat destination, but it is not without its challenges and differences. The myriad of cultures and immigrants make it a place that can be foreign, yet welcoming to newcomers. As a popular tourist destination, expats can visit wonderful beaches, nature hideaways and serene tea plantations, to get away from the city bustle over weekends.

Climate in Malaysia

Although separated into two distinct parts, Malaysia’s landscape and climate are fairly similar. The country has equatorial weather, with the southwest monsoon season from April to October and the northeast monsoon season 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 keep this in mind.

Malaysia is a stable country eager to attract foreign businesses and investors. The diverse population ensures a warm reception for expats as they settle in. With a high standard of living, beautiful sights to see and interesting cultures to explore, any expat will enjoy their time here.

Fast facts

Population: 32.7 million

Capital city: Kuala Lumpur (also largest city)

Other major cities: Johor Bahru, Ipoh, George Town

Neighbouring countries: Malaysia is bordered by Thailand to the north, Indonesia to the south and southeast (which it shares the island of Borneo with), 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, Peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, are separated by the South China Sea. There are also a number of outlying islands that form 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: Federal parliamentary constitutional elective monarchy

Major religions: The majority of the population is Muslim. Buddhism and Christianity are also quite prominent.

Main languages: Malay is the official language, while English is widely spoken in business. The Chinese population in Malaysia usually speaks Cantonese, while the majority of Indian population in Malaysia speaks Tamil.

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

Time: GMT+8

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

Internet domain: .my

International dialing code: +60

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, though this is less developed outside of Kuala Lumpur.

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), a monorail and bus services. That said, public transport outside of this area can be limited, leading many expats to prefer driving instead.

Public transport in Malaysia


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.

Kuala Lumpur has an extensive city rail system consisting of five rapid-transit lines, two commuter-rail lines and two airport-rail links. The LRT is the most reliable form of public transport in the city. On occasion, though, it can get very crowded, especially at rush hour.

Trains in the capital are integrated with the bus network, 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.


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 Singapore and Thailand.


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

Taxis in Malaysia

Taxis operate in most Malaysian cities, but can be expensive compared to other transport options. Most have meters, but drivers do not always use them, so it's sometimes best to negotiate the fare with the driver before getting in the vehicle. There are also a number of ride-hailing services in Malaysia, such as MyCar, DACSEE and Riding Pink, which is only available for women.

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.

Air travel in Malaysia

It is relatively cost-effective to fly in Malaysia and, owing to the remote nature of some destinations within the country, flying is often the best, and sometimes only, option. Kuala Lumpur International Airport is the country's main international airport. A number of airlines offer regional and international flights to and from Malaysia, including Malaysia Airlines, Firefly and Air Asia.

Banking, Money and Taxes in Malaysia

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

Money in Malaysia

The currency in Malaysia is the Malaysian Ringgit (MYR), which is 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, since entities such as Bank of America or HSBC allow them to link to their account in their home country, there are numerous local banking options available in Malaysia. The country's central bank is Bank Negara Malaysia, while local banks include Bank Islam Malaysia, Bank Muamalat Malaysia, CIMB Bank, Public Bank Berhad and RHB Bank.

These local Malaysian banks have a range of services that make banking simple and convenient, 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

A valid work permit is essential for any expat looking to open an account with a local bank. New customers are also required to provide their ID or passport, and evidence of residency or employment status. 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, although 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 as credit card fraud remains a problem in Malaysia.


ATMs are widely available, and some accept foreign credit and debit cards.

Taxes in Malaysia

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

  • Residents are those in the country for 182 days or more in a particular tax year. People who fall into this category are liable to pay income tax according to a progressive scale from 0 to 30 percent.

  • Non-residents, or those in Malaysia for less than 182 days in a tax year, are taxed at a flat rate of 30 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, and 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 only on income made in Malaysia, not on income or pension funds generated abroad.

Malaysia has double-taxation agreements with a number of countries in order to avoid foreigners being taxed twice over. Expats should ascertain whether Malaysia has such an agreement with their home country.

Articles about Malaysia

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 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 locals and expats alike.

Health insurance in Malaysia

While Malaysia does not have a national health insurance scheme, 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 who do prefer 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, but it is also possible to shop around in the country and local rates are available with some companies.

Public healthcare in Malaysia

Malaysia's status as a healthcare hotspot is largely due to the high quality of care in specialities such as cardiology, ophthalmology, dentistry, orthopaedics, gastroenterology, plastic and general surgery, and screening. These areas of medicine 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.

Private healthcare in Malaysia

Although expats have access to Malaysian public hospitals, many still choose to use private facilities. Private institutions also offer world-class services at comparatively low prices. It is also relatively easy to visit doctors and specialists in both Bangkok and Singapore.

Pharmacies and medicines in Malaysia

Malaysia is not short of pharmacies, which can be found in most shopping centres. Most of are well stocked. Opening times for pharmacies vary, with some in major cities being open till late.

Some drugs that require a prescription overseas do not require prescriptions in Malaysia. Others may ask for a local doctor’s prescription note.

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. 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, though not for free. The emergency number in Malaysia is 999, or 112 from a mobile phone.

Diversity and inclusion in Malaysia

Malaysia is home to people from all walks of life – read on to learn about some of the diversity and inclusion issues expats might encounter in this vibrant country.

Accessibility in Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur is one of Asia’s most wheelchair-friendly cities. Most, though not all, of Kuala Lumpur is accessible, though some streets don’t have curb cuts, making traversal difficult for wheelchair users.

It’s fairly easy to get around on all forms of public transport in Kuala Lumpur, with a bit of planning. Getting to and from transport stops may be the most difficult part of travelling on public transport, due to the lack of accessible roads and sidewalks. The good news is that the situation is improving, with the government making an effort to repave sidewalks and construct curb cuts around the city.

Further reading

LGBTQ+ in Malaysia

Homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia and is punishable by up to 10 years of imprisonment. Under Sharia law, Muslims may also be sentenced to caning and fines. Although convictions are rare in practice, the state has been known to arrest or detain people at LGBTQ+ gatherings.

Transgender individuals face many obstacles in living as their identifying gender in Malaysia, mainly due to the fact that transgenderism not recognised as a genuine gender identity but is rather considered ‘cross dressing’, an act condemned by Islam.

Conversion therapy is common in Malaysia and endorsed by the government. There have been reports of government bodies raising funds for conversion therapy.

Useful resources

Gender equality in Malaysia

Malaysia has made strides towards codifying gender equality, ratifying (with reservations) the UN's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women in 1995, and removing most of those reservations in 2010.

The remaining reservations have to do with equal marriage rights and a woman's ability to pass her citizenship to her children, stemming from the difficulty of unifying these ideals with traditional Islamic law. These areas aside, women in Malaysia enjoy equal rights and protection from discrimination, at least in theory, though gender equality in Malaysia is a complex issue, with a woman's status influenced by her religion and which territory she lives in.

The World Economic Forum's 2022 Global Gender Gap Report ranks Malaysia 103rd out of 146 countries, between China and Brunei. Malaysia's score is mostly hindered by a lack of women's political empowerment and economic participation and opportunity.

Although there is actually reverse parity in education, meaning a higher proportion of females are receiving education in Malaysia, women are underrepresented in the workforce. At some point, women drop out of the workforce in favour of home management and caring for children and the elderly, and only half of women participate in the workforce.

Useful resources

Women in leadership in Malaysia

In 2020, Malaysia reported that 33 percent of senior management positions were filled by women, though The 30% Club pegs the number at 28 percent in 2022. In either case, this represents a stellar improvement in recent years.

Eight out of the 15 Malaysian Federal Court judges are women, another promising indication of increasing gender parity in Malaysian leadership. In 2022, women constitute 15 percent of Malaysia's parliamentary and 16 percent of its ministerial positions, indicating that women are not yet adequately represented in the political sphere.

Useful resources

Mental health awareness in Malaysia

Due to the stress of relocation and feelings of loneliness or isolation in their new home, expats are at higher risk of depression and anxiety than the general population. While mental health was once a taboo subject, companies are becoming increasingly conscious of its importance. More companies are holding talks and workshops to raise awareness, and employers are adjusting healthcare plans offered to their employees, so that there’s better coverage for treatment in the mental health arena.

Expats in Malaysia tend to opt for private mental healthcare services. The extent of coverage provided by a particular insurer can vary, however, so it’s important to check individual policy details for clarity.

Numerous private clinics in Kuala Lumpur cater directly to expats, with diverse staff from all over the world able to practice in numerous languages.

Useful resources

Unconscious bias education in Malaysia

Unconscious bias is an implicit set of often stereotyped ideas an individual carries about groups of people different to themselves. These ideas are not purposefully adopted but rather develop subtly over time, and people tend to hold unconscious biases about groups they never or rarely come into contact with. As a result, they're often inaccurate and based on assumptions.

Unconscious bias can profoundly affect both personal and work conditions. In the workplace, unchecked bias undermines vital aspects of the company, with negative effects on employee performance, retention and recruitment.

In a bid to create a better work environment, many companies are beginning to institute unconscious bias training. There are also a number of online resources that can be used to improve self-awareness regarding bias.

Useful resources

Diversification of workforce in Malaysia

Malaysia is home to more than 2 million foreigners, the majority of whom come from China, India and Indonesia. People moving to Malaysia are often drawn by the thriving energy of Kuala Lumpur, an excellent location for advancing in one’s career.

Expats can expect to encounter a fairly diverse work environment in the large multinational companies based in Kuala Lumpur. The offices of international firms buzz with a blend of languages, with staff being sourced from all over the world.

Studies show that diversification of the workplace is hugely beneficial to companies and employees alike. In recognition of this, many of Malaysia’s largest companies are setting up diversity and inclusion programmes, ensuring that a wide variety of people is represented among employees.

Safety in Malaysia

Malaysia is generally a safe place, with opportunistic petty crime being the primary safety concern of most expats. Much of this risk can be negated by following normal safety precautions, such as keeping valuables tucked away, being aware of personal belongings in crowded areas and tourist hotspots, avoiding walking alone at night through isolated areas, and only using reputable taxi companies.

Calendar initiatives in Malaysia

4 February – World Cancer Day
March – TB Awareness Month
19 May – Global Accessibility Awareness Day
10 September – World Suicide Prevention Day
October – Breast Cancer Awareness Month
8 October –World Mental Health Day
14 November – World Diabetes Day
1 December – World AIDS Day

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, is an ideal city to do business in and raise a family. 

Job market in Malaysia

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

The ability to speak a high level of English is valued in the Malaysian job market, but expats that can speak an additional local language such as Malay or Cantonese will have a great advantage.

Finding a job in Malaysia

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

Work permits for Malaysia are vitally important. 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. Acquiring these 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. But, 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 should run smoothly.

Work culture in Malaysia

The etiquette and behaviour surrounding business in Malaysia is similar to that of most Western countries. That said, 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 individual that is being dealt with.

Malaysians work approximately eight hours per day, and the working week consists of five days. Normal business hours are from 9am to 5pm. Annual leave entitlements vary according to the length of employment, but the country also has a large number of public holidays, particularly religious holidays, because of the variety of cultures and ethnicities.

Work Permits for Malaysia

Expats wanting to work in Malaysia will require a work permit. Obtaining a work permit for Malaysia is often a lengthy and complicated process, but luckily for most expats, the bulk of the process is undertaken by their employing company. 

Applying for a work permit in Malaysia

Work permit validity varies widely, depending on the duration of the work contract and the type of work permit. Applications for work permits can be submitted online via the Expatriate Services Division's website.

As part of the visa application process, a reference number will be issued so that it’s possible to track the progress of the application online.

Conditions for work permits in Malaysia

There are restrictions on the number of foreign workers a Malaysian company can employ. A company that wants to hire foreign workers will have to prove to the government that the potential employee and their position are of vital importance and the job cannot be filled by a local.

Approval of employment is granted by the Immigration Department in conjunction with different regulatory agencies, depending on the industry and nature of work the foreigner will be undertaking. Once approval has been granted, the company can begin the application process for the work permit on behalf of the expat.

Types of work permits for Malaysia

Below are the types of work permits most commonly used by expats.

Employment Pass

An Employment Pass applies to those wanting to work in Malaysia and who have specific skills, generally in technical or managerial positions. Before the Employment Pass can be issued, the employment of the foreign worker must be approved by the relevant regulatory agency. Employment Passes can be granted for up to 12, 24 or 60 months, depending on specifics such as the nature of the job, the salary earned and the length of the employment contract.

Professional Visit Pass

The Professional Visit Pass is issued to foreigners employed by an overseas company but working with a company in Malaysia on a temporary basis. The Professional Visit Pass is valid for a maximum of 12 months.

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