The age-old debate of Singapore vs. Malaysia – an expat’s opinion

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Pete Brunoehler has been asked many times, by locals and expats alike, “Which do you prefer: Singapore or Malaysia?”. Here, he tries to explain his thoughts – and avoid offending anyone…

Since moving to KL in 1998, I have lived in Malaysia for about 7 ½ years spread over three stints, and lived in Singapore for about 10 ½ years, spread over two. During that time I have often been asked how the two countries compare.

Rather than express an absolute preference and risk offending either of my adopted homes (I appreciate that is very non-committal, maybe I have a future in politics), I tend to stress the differences. I truly enjoy both places, but for very different reasons based on what I perceive as their very different strengths.

Singapore is a great place to work


The whole country is geared toward efficiency and productivity. The workforce is well educated and competitive thus generally self-motivated, which makes hiring and training rewarding experiences. The environment promotes efficiency—when you are seeing local customers, you rarely if ever need to allow extra time for traffic, which almost always moves well—even better if you use the amazing MRT /LRT networks.

Timeliness and punctuality are the rule, so you’ll reach your appointment on time, and you’ll find waiting and available counterparts there prepared to meet with you. When business takes you out of town, you’ll find honest and efficient taxi services to whisk you to Changi Airport, a check-in process that is second to none — from the airline counter through immigration; and once inside, first rate wireless to keep you working efficiently while awaiting your flight.

When you reach home again at the end of your trip, expect to clear immigration, customs, the taxi queue, and be home before you know it. Having lived all around the world, this is the only city I have ever lived in where I have comfortably gone from my airplane seat to my easy chair in under an hour! That’s efficiency.

Malaysia is a great place to live


Where else can you go from a world class city to a world class jungle to a world class beach resort, with only a modest drive / short flight separating them? Furthermore, for a place that offers all of these outstanding leisure options, the cost of food, lodging, and transport – ranging from the 1 to 5 star variety – it’s amazing that life can be this affordable when compared to other countries—especially our neighbour to the south.

Food? The variety of Malay, Indian, Chinese, Nyona, and others – at a cost that will definitely help your wallet and hurt your waistline – is deliciously unbelievable. Housing? How many places on this earth offer the variety—bungalow, condo, link house, apartment, serviced apartment—at rental or purchase rates that won’t break anybody’s bank?


When it’s time to travel overseas, the cost of transport in and out of Malaysia is unparalleled—we have the best budget airline in the world! Shopping? Have you ever seen so many shopping malls? They are modern, they are huge, and, as per my Malaysian friends, they deliver well on their main attraction—free air-conditioning! But they are truly everywhere. To top it all off, Malaysian people are laidback, easy-going friends and neighbours, complaining – but not overly worried – about local politics, taking life as it comes. That’s life.

Now let’s reverse the two for a moment…

How is Singapore regarding “life”?


It is green, it is clean, it is safe. The networks of parks, trails, cycling paths, stadiums open to the public, etc, are all excellent. Singapore is an ideal place for regular outdoor activities, as all of those facilities are nearby no matter where you are.

You won’t climb any regal mountains or enjoy pristine beaches/sea-views, but the daily outdoor opportunities are first rate. The famous cleanliness of Singapore has deteriorated somewhat since I first arrived, but it is still the cleanest city that I have lived in. Getting settled – ie getting your phone, your wireless internet, your bank account, your driving licence, your utilities, etc – all are a breeze in the Lion City.

Politics? As far as I can tell, one of the most dedicated groups of public servants anywhere. Driving? Great infrastructure, clear and accurate road signs, polite drivers (albeit a little s-l-o-w!).

Is there a price to pay to live in Singapore? Yes, there literally is. Singapore is very expensive. From the tiny house you live in to the car (if needed—to this day, overseas friends think I am exaggerating when I tell them the cost of a car with COE / Certificate of Entitlement) and petrol if you drive, to the food that you consume (stalls remain reasonable, restaurants not so much). Fancy a drink? Better enjoy it, because it doesn’t take long to spend a lot of Singapore dollars on a few cold ones.

Singapore was again ranked as the most expensive city on earth—and one of the least happy (though I disagree with that finding) in recent surveys. Singaporeans do tend to be a bit more stressed and a lot less laid back than their Malaysian counterparts— have you heard of kiasu? It is indeed a small island nation, and can be claustrophobic in some ways, especially as the population has risen significantly in recent years.

How is Malaysia regarding “efficiency”?


Malaysia is efficient in pockets, I find. Certain businesses, employees, and services are first rate. Taken the ERL from KLIA? As good as any system anywhere. Dealt with Talentcorp (free plug!)? They do what they promise. Many businesses in Penang impress me with their customer service.

On the other hand, if you’ve dealt with JPJ, KLIA Immigration, most Kuala Lumpur retail clerks… not so much. Setting up your new home’s utilities, phone, wireless… patience is a virtue! Deadlines? Scrap your clocks /watches / calendars right now, it’ll keep your blood pressure down!


Arriving at KLIA, braving the l-o-n-g immigration queue, waiting for the luggage carousel to finally show signs of life, then dragging your already harried self and bag to the KLIA “Limo” (wow is that term used loosely!) taxi queue, then praying throughout the drive home that your 18-year-old Wira (from the day KLIA opened), and much older driver, get you there in one piece can be trying!

It’s a good thing that cold beer awaiting you is…cheap? Err, alcohol, another problem spot I failed to mention—but not as expensive as in Singapore! Driving? Excellent, modern but overburdened infrastructure, confusing signs (does every road really lead to Petaling Jaya?), drivers that know no limits (speed that is). However, when the weekend arrives, you can relax in one of those dozens of cool and comfortable malls—provided there are spaces in the car park.

While this country sometimes moves in spurts, and illustrates the “two steps forward one step back” cycle that slows consistent progress, I remain convinced that from a lifestyle perspective—the variety and options of indoor and outdoor activities, the unchanging and generally gorgeous year round sunny climate, the genuinely friendly and accommodating people, the first class infrastructure, the central location, and especially factoring in the cost of all elements of living here; it’s hard to beat the lifestyle here in Malaysia.

So tell us – who wins?


In conclusion, although they share a long history, and until today still share many common traits, Singapore and Malaysia offer very different lifestyles, very different pluses and minuses.

Bottom line: I’d absolutely recommend both places. Having travelled through all of Asia and most of the developed and emerging world, I can honestly say that these remain the two places I most enjoy.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to further explore my potential career in local politics…

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Hai AduHai

All of these comment really make my day.. Usually not like this. Anyway sg and msia complement each other

Kenny Tan

One was going forward the other in a reverse gear (backward) 😛

Ramli Ibrahim

One small island is going to be drowned….one long peninsula still proudly maintained.

Kent KT

Poorly maintained but still floating

Marc Lamy

I think people are missing the fact that this is comparison of KL vs Singapore. Try a 2 year stint in KB and your views might change drastically. 😀

アンヂー ダン

Work in Singapore…. Live in Malaysia…. Best of both worlds.

Raymond Hee

both countries have fair share of pros and cons. None is superior than the other, in my books at least

Hafis Malik

Live like a king in Singapore…but make sure youre wealthy as a king…Live like a king in Malaysia, everybody want to be a king here…eventhough they have nothing….hehehe…

Kang Jeong Ui

Haha You’re right Penang Customer Services are much better than from KL ……… I talk with some from KL they literally show their unnatural fakeness and indirect sarcasm.

Elwin Roy Thangasamy

I love both countries we are like work and leave..Love Malaysia Love Singapore

Marius Eddie Ng

So Singapore is great to work in and Malaysia is great to live in. Conclusion, form one country.

Eh that’s been tried though.

Mark Williams

The big draw back with working in Singapore is that Expats aren’t entitled to the CPF (EPF) scheme anymore unless you get a PR.. this really put me off…

Zhong Ming Ng

You’re the first person I’ve met who actually likes CPF.

Ng Cheong Keat

Earn your money in Singapore and retire in Malaysia and you will live like a king!

Kent KT

Thailand will be a much better choice than Malaysia

Akanksha Madiraju

Sudhansh check this out. Great article! And it highlights the positives of both countries, the best kind of comparison!

Oybek Shavkatoghli

Nice and honest thoughts…but still, they are a bit subjective. Anyways, thanks for the writing…:)


It’s someone’s opinion – it’s supposed to be subjective 🙂

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