Expat Voices: Survey of Likes and Dislikes (PART 2)

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Andy Davison gives a little more depth to the findings of the recent TEG survey of expat’s likes and dislikes and shares some of his own thoughts after over 20 years living in Malaysia and promoting the country internationally.

One very clear message from the survey on what expats like and dislike about Malaysia is that the vast majority feel the “likes” heavily outweigh the “dislikes”. That’s undoubtedly what attracts people to the Malaysia My Second Home programme despite the minimal marketing and complaints about the frequent changes to the rules. Most applicants share a common thought: the positive aspects of life in Malaysia exceed those of their home country.

See Also: Expat Voices: Survey of Likes and Dislikes (PART 1)

As can be seen from the chart on this page, there has been a shift in the things people dislike about Malaysia from the survey we did in 2003. It should be noted that both surveys asked people to list five things they liked about Malaysia and five things they disliked. We then tried to put these into broad categories using the same methodology in both surveys. In addition to a shift in the rankings, a few new items appeared on this year’s list.

Driving was once again the number one dislike. This rather broad category included the increasing number of traffic jams and ubiquitous motorcycle riders. The reality is that most countries in the world have traffic problems particularly in bigger cities. Even Singapore, which charges drivers a small fortune to drive around the middle of their city, experiences regular traffic jams. Not surprisingly, the parking habits of Malaysians came under criticism, particularly indiscriminate double parking. Malaysia has in fact done an amazing job of adding new highways. The government has been building roads around KL and the rest of the country almost nonstop since I first moved here at the end of 1980s. Malaysia’s population has been growing rapidly, from 18 million when I first arrived to over 28 million today. This factor plus increasing prosperity has added many millions of cars onto the roads.

Infrastructure, which was the number two dislike, covered a wide range of topics. It also appeared on the list of things expats liked, as they recognise the excellent job Malaysia has done of developing its basic infrastructure over the last twenty years or so. However, many expats feel that more could be done. Comments were made about the poor public transportation system and it was pointed out that even the KL light rail system has three different formats which do not always connect with each other. Not many expats use buses but those that did were not that happy with the service or signage on them. Others felt that renovation and maintenance work were sorely lacking in many areas. Several expats mentioned the absence of pedestrian pavements (sidewalks) on many streets, and confusing road signage came under criticism. Quite a few respondents commented on the poor quality of internet connections and slow speeds. We know this is now viewed by the government as a priority item. Improvements are already being seen in certain areas but clearly this should remain high on the country’s “to do” list.

Government bureaucracy rose to third place up from seventh place in the last survey. This may well be partly the result of more expats dealing directly with the government, as less of them work for major corporations which typically take care of government formalities on their behalf. Certainly, many Malaysia My Second Home applicants have told us they were upset by the way they have been treated. This is often because of new rule changes which were not announced but MM2H applicants were still forced to follow.

Quite a few foreigners feel the government is not very “foreigner friendly” and the immigration department came under criticism for some of their staff’s attitudes towards foreigners. Others were not happy with Malaysia’s comparatively hard line towards giving permanent residency. Of course, government bureaucracy comes under criticism in most countries, so Malaysia is not alone in this area. An exception is Singapore which seems to have done an excellent job in keeping expats happy.

General cleanliness came in at fourth place which is better than last time but still shows that expats feel this is an area which can be improved. High on the list was dirty toilets. There have clearly been improvements in recent years but it still has a way to go.

A couple of people referred to the open sewers although I suspect they are just open drains carrying waste water. Others referred to rotting garbage (quick to happen in a tropical climate) in the streets and the absence of any focus on recycling waste products. The tendency of some Malaysians to drop litter randomly was also mentioned and certainly we have heard local radio stations asking people to use the litter bins which suggests this is a problem some Malaysians are trying to fix. Australian Balfour Ross, who lives in Terengganu, wrote: “Malaysia is a great country but it should adopt some of the laws regarding littering that we see in Singapore”.


While the friendly Malaysian people ranked top of the list of things expats liked about Malaysia there are some local habits which they find hard to accept.The lack of punctuality is irritating to many expats from fully developed countries who are used to people making more effort in this regard. Expats were also unhappy about the tendency not to queue or the way some locals jump to the front of the line.

Corruption was a new entry on the list, and it is probably safe to assume that the government’s increased focus on this area and the resulting publicity is probably a factor. Certainly we see no evidence that corruption is on the rise and there is plenty of evidence that the Anti Corruption Agency is producing results. Of course, the local newspapers continuously publish stories about corruption in government and the private sector, so there is clearly a long way to go. Many expats say they have come across corrupt police.

Taxis ranked seventh on the list of dislikes, which is slightly better than last time. Many people have commented that there have been some improvements but more needs to be done. Taxis in Penang rarely use metres and the absence of a highly efficient complaints Hotline in KL, which can remove licences of errant drivers, is hampering efforts to resolve the problem.

The crime level is another area which would probably be on the list for any country in the world. In Malaysia, there is concern among expats about snatch thefts and burglaries.

On the positive side, there is evidence that recent actions by the government are having some effect. Getting the police out onto the streets was a big move forward and any expats who have lived in KL for more than a couple of years will have noticed there are a lot more police cars and bikes on the streets.

Racial issues appeared in the survey for the first time this year. Racial issues have  become a major factor around the globe in the last ten years and this raised awareness probably accounts for their higher ranking in this year’s survey.

The local media will also have played a part here as there has been a lot more reporting about these issues and whether this is a consequence of increased press freedom or more cases is not entirely clear.

It seems to be an issue that is recognised by the government as Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak was recently quoted in the local press as saying that if racial attitudes become more extremist then “everything we have achieved, everything we have built, and things which are dear to us will be destroyed.”

Service standards were once again listed as a dislike and crept in at tenth place. While this could arguably be considered to fall under the general category of “people”, it is probably more to do with training. In most developed countries, considerable emphasis is placed on making employees more service oriented. It is seen as an essential factor in trying to stay ahead of the competition.

Even government agencies in many countries are trying to ensure their staff treat the public politely and efficiently. Many expats find the service levels in Malaysia to be lacking.


Staff often do not appear to be properly trained to assist with enquiries and are often too eager to pass people to another section or staff member. Five-star hotels are an example of a business sector which has generally managed to address this problem. Leanne Robertson, an Australian, wrote: “Malaysia has huge potential to be a fantastic place to live/work/visit if only the general populace started to take a little more effort to be more consumer/service orientated and generally more courteous.” There were other issues raised by respondents but not in sufficient numbers to get into the top ten. These covered a wide variety of topics from censorship of the media to the distance KLIA is located from downtown KL.

Environmental issues were high on the list of things just missing the top ten cut off. Many expats are concerned about deforestation. There was a feeling that most Malaysians don’t care too much about environmental issues. Korean Yuni Lee said she felt they should stop selling food and drinks in plastic bags. Others felt not enough was being done to protect historical buildings.

Then there were those “dislikes” which are really outside everyone’s control. These included the presence of jelly fish in the sea, the absence of four distinct seasons in the year, the high humidity and the difficulty one expat experienced in getting a date. Then there were the expats who were not happy that people did not speak better English. Clearly they have never lived in Japan, Korea, Thailand or many other Asian countries where good English is a rarity. Inevitably there were also references to the high tax on two things which many expats enjoy – motor cars and alcoholic beverages. A few expats felt they were subject to discrimination. There were a number of expats who did not like the fact they were sometimes charged higher prices just because they are foreigners.

A few expats married to Malaysians felt that it was tough to get residency in Malaysia and the immigration policies for them were very hard. A British citizen, now in  his 50s, wrote that his big worry was that if anything happened to his wife he and his children would be kicked out of the country because his visa is dependent upon her. A British lady, Juley Sharma, felt that  as a woman she was not respected in this country. It is probably true that in most Asian countries women receive less respect than men compared to Western counties. It should be remembered that the survey asked all respondents to list five “likes” and five “dislikes” so the number of points raised was not reflective of expats being unhappy living here. Quite the contrary, many people added comments saying how much they liked living here.

Annie Rustericci-Teo from France, who lives  in Sarawak, wrote: “a wonderful lifestyle makes me forget what I don’t like”.

A German, Gudrun Neinaber wrote: “despite the five dislikes, the likes are certainly more significant for us. We truly love this country.”

So do we.

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