Pros and Cons of Expat Living and Retiring in Malaysia

friends on balcony

Malaysia is almost always in the top 10 lists of best international places for expat living and retirement, and for good reason. But just not for the reasons they list. Those “10 Best” write-ups are hilarious fantasy fictions written by people who are either completely high, closely related to Pinocchio, or have never set foot in Malaysia. A recent one gushed that Malaysia’s cities are “clean and modern” (Hahahaha! Ow, I just fell into an open storm drain) with “unrivaled public transportation” (um, busses?) with “stunning beaches” (bejeweled with trash) and “untouched rainforests” (ignore the bulldozers).

That said, thousands lead fulfilling expat lives in Malaysia and enjoy a happy retirement here, but for reasons that are actually based in reality. So how about we talk about what it’s REALLY like to live here – both the good and the bad – so you’ll be able to determine if moving to Malaysia is right for you?

After interviewing a number of expats living in Malaysia and combining it with my own experiences, these are the top pros and cons of living and retiring in Malaysia, along with important swing factors to consider: (Note – this table is best viewed on tablets or desktop computers – the formatting looks weird on phones)

Pros Cons Swing Factors
Low cost of living and great value

Excellent healthcare

Easy to obtain 10-year visa

Safety

Affordable luxury housing

Excellent home base for travel

English spoken widely

Friendly, welcoming locals

Can purchase freehold property

Fantastic festivals

Robust expat community and no creepy “sexpats”

Seasonal haze/poor air quality

Litter

Disgusting bathrooms

Rampant development

Dangerous drivers

High cost for certain imports (such as alcohol, cars, electronics)

Very far from Europe and US

Limited entertainment and activity options

 

 

Heat and humidity

Local food

It’s a developing country

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pros

There are many benefits of expat living and retiring in Malaysia. The top reason for most of us who live here is that life is easy, affordable and relatively low-stress. In fact, the cost of living is so low that many Westerners are able to retire early here – sometimes a decade sooner than anticipated. It’s a friendly, comfortable, relaxed, welcoming place to live with a low crime rate. Plus, you get incredible value for your money, from low rental rates for luxury housing, to movie tickets that cost about a quarter of the price in Western countries, and insanely cheap restaurant food that allows many to eat out every night.  Plus, for those with kids, there’s a wide variety of excellent international schools. And the healthcare system is quite good and incredibly affordable.

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It’s easy to make friends with both expats and locals here, and there’s always a festival going on to celebrate together

Malaysia is one of only three Asian countries where you can purchase freehold property, making it attractive for international investors. And Malaysia makes it fairly simple to get a 10-year visa through their Malaysia My Second Home program (also known as MM2H), making it one of the easiest places to retire in Asia. (You can learn all about the MM2H process here – this is the agent that most of our friends use).

There are plenty of exotic travel adventures nearby within short, direct flights from Penang and KL airports, fascinating festivals to celebrate in Malaysia, and many fun things to see, taste and do:

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The roads are generally in very good shape here, and there have been quite a few infrastructure improvements – like a beautiful new bridge connecting Penang island to the mainland, and in Kuala Lumpur there’s a new light rail transit system. The sidewalks leave a lot to be desired though – more on that below.

And as an added bonus, because of stricter laws, there aren’t any disgusting sex tourists or “sexpats” here in Malaysia like there are in Thailand. It’s just gross seeing creepy old men in gold chains trolling the streets of Bangkok, groping tiny 17 year-old Thai prostitutes. Ew, just ewwww.

Cons

One of the most frequent complaints from those living here is that Malaysia can be a bit gritty. From litter on the beaches and beside roads, trash in the ocean and floating down rivers, and bathrooms that would horrify even Freddy Krueger, it takes some time to adjust. (There are some clean, beautiful places in Malaysia at locations that are sparsely populated, but it can be hard to find trash-free areas around populated locales).

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Trash left by beachgoers and that washes ashore can be a downer. Luckily the most popular beaches usually employ beach cleaners to gather the rubbish.

I’ve found that it helps to focus on the positives instead of fixating on the litter. Like, for example: the beaches look fantastic from the 15th floor of a waterfront condo. 🙂

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Extensive development is also an issue for some people, especially those who live next to noisy construction sites or who love nature and are sad to see jungles replaced by condos and palm oil plantations. It’s also quite a long flight to the US and Europe that can take up to 35 hours door-to-door with transfers and layovers, which is tough for people who need to travel back there frequently.

For those with uncommon heath conditions, it can be challenging to find medical specialists. And whenever Indonesia is setting their rainforests ablaze (usually between August-October), the haze that drifts into Malaysia can make the air quality quite dangerous for people with respiratory issues. 2017 and 2016 didn’t have much haze (thankfully), but in 2015, the sky was ashy-gray and full of particulate matter for two straight months.

Penang is definitely a great place to live for those seeking a pretty relaxed life, but it’s not exactly an entertainment capital. Granted, there are now quite a few really cool bars popping up in Georgetown, especially the speakeasies, and the month-long Georgetown festival attracts lots of interesting artists and performers. Aside from that and the night markets, there’s not a lot of nightlife.

A special note for those who are mobility-challenged – some parts of the country are rough for people in wheelchairs, who use walkers or are unsteady on their feet. For example, this is a sidewalk near where we live:

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(Gotta love the chair in the open/broken sewer grate. That’s the local way of indicating the hazard, which is hilarious. It may not be an orange cone, but it’s effective!)

Unless you’ve got an off-road wheelchair with a jetpack to fly over hazards like this, navigating the sidewalks here could be a challenge.

jet pack wheelchair

 

How to find out if Malaysia is for you

If you’d like to get a taste for the daily life of an expat in Malaysia, follow me on Instagram or Facebook. I post fun and unique experiences just about every day, so that’ll give you a good feel for what it’s like to live here…and perhaps a laugh or two as well.

If you’re really serious about moving here, definitely plan a trip to explore, meet with other expats and see if it’s for you. If you come to Penang, here’s a fun way to see and experience its highlights in 3 days.

In the meantime, just picture yourself here, enjoying this incredible view and your early retirement 🙂

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11 thoughts on “Pros and Cons of Expat Living and Retiring in Malaysia

  1. Great Article, Thank You!
    Can you please advise the approximate cost of a 3 bedroom house or apartment? A luxury house or apartment

    • Hi Sharon! The cost of an apartment or home is dependent on a number of factors, from location to size to amenities. I wrote a whole story about this with a range of homes featured to give you a good idea about the cost of living. You can find it in the same section of the site as this story. Just go to this link and scroll down until you find the cost of living story. https://ohmyexpatlife.com/penang-life/ 🙂

  2. Thanks so much
    We’ve really enjoyed reading your blog
    Thank you
    We are thinking of coming over for a holiday & I’d love to catch up if we do
    Cheers

  3. Dear Cimeron, how are you doing . This is YewKeng again, very enjoy to read your blog, so interesting and you are so knowledgeable. :)
    I believe it’s time soon for me to prepare a final move to Penang. Can you please kindly share your moving experience? Such as how to look for a reliable international shipping (moving) company? How do they charge? Base on the weight of the container or size of the container? Approximately how much? Self pack self loading? Or do they offer full service? How many months before the move I have to start to look for a moving company?..any paperwork? …etc….etc……..any important questions I have missed to ask?
    any trustable international cargo service company you can referred?
    Please advise!
    Deeply appreciate any information you provided,
    Thanks so very much in advance and have a beautiful day,
    Sincerely,
    YewKeng

    • Hi YewKeng! Very exciting that you’re ready to plan your final move to Penang. 🙂 I wish I could answer your questions about movers and costs, but all that was taken care of for us by my husband’s company – we never saw the final bill. All I can tell you is the name of the company that did all the packing and moving for us: Santa Fe Relocation. They were great and everything arrived without any breakages. I hope that helps! Good luck with your move, and if you wouldn’t mind letting me know about your moving experience and who you hire, we can write a story together about it so other people moving here can learn from your experiences.

  4. Hi Cimeron,

    I’m a Chinese Indonesian living in the US. I was wondering is discrimination on the rise in Malaysia now? Also on average how are the Chinese being treated there?

    • Hi Sue,
      In Penang, I believe the majority of residents are Malaysian-Chinese. I’ve never seen any Chinese discrimination here, and none of my Chinese friends have mentioned it. There seems to be quite a lot of harmony here among races and religions. I can’t speak to other locations though since I don’t spend much time in the rest of Malaysia. I hope that helps!

    • Hi James. It’s in Tanjung Bungah. Check out my neighborhood guide story to see more shots of the area (and lots of other areas around the island).
      Cimeron

  5. Hi Cimeron,

    Thank you for writing such informative blogs.
    I had been to Penang many times, but each time stayed in hotels.
    Is there any short term rentals available around Strait Quay or Gurney area, eg say for two or three months? If so are they within the range you have mentioned in one of your articles. Can you suggest any agent for that? I like to spend such time before making final move. Also is transferring funds from USA easy in Penang? Thanks a bunch!

    • Hi there! Yes, there are a some short-term serviced apartments around the Straits Quay and Gurney area that are quite nice. My friend Sharon gets special deals for them and I’m sure she can help you out and show you a bunch of options. You can contact her directly at: giraudcan@gmail.com

      As for transferring funds from the US, the easiest method is to set up an account with HSBC in the US, which also has a branch here in Penang. That way you can transfer your funds very easily. (There’s also Citibank, which we opted for and I regret it. Our US rep either didn’t understand their international transfer abilities or he lied to us outright, because transferring funds was a pain in the neck and carried unreasonably high fees.)

      I hope that helps!
      Cimeron

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