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We’re Not Kidding: Kuala Lumpur Was Just Named the World’s Best City for Expats in 2021

There's a new number one city for expats | Image Credit: Horizon Grill, Banyan Tree Kuala Lumpur
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Given the rather poor treatment experienced by expats at the hands of the Malaysian government over the last couple of years, seeing Kuala Lumpur atop the InterNations Expat City Ranking for 2021 certainly dropped a lot of jaws.

Congratulations… we guess? The just-released Expat City Ranking 2021 didn’t offer too many little surprises, but it sure landed us with one really big one.

Kuala Lumpur is the top-ranked city worldwide for expats. Yes, we know. We had to go back and read it twice, too.

With the myriad difficulties experienced by many working expats thanks to draconian new policies governing employment passes and a host of problems experienced re-entering Malaysia during the pandemic, the real pain was largely borne by non-working expats, the resident Malaysia My Second Home visa holders. These residents, who have not only invested in the country, but accepted the government’s invitation to make Malaysia their home, have been so incomprehensibly mistreated by the current government, a storm of criticism has rained down from virtually every sector – trade groups, embassies and high commissions, local media outlets, real estate groups, foreign chambers of commerce, members of Parliament, and of course, all of us here at TEG Media. Even the Sultan of Johor joined the chorus admonishing those in the government for their decision-making with regard to the MM2H programme. So far, however, all this vocal disapproval has done very little to change anything.

Home Minister Hamzah Zainudin has been front and centre in the government’s apparent pushback against foreigners living in Malaysia | Image Credit: Malay Mail

Against the very well-publicised backdrop of the government’s openly criticised mistreatment of resident foreigners, it’s hard to reconcile a global number one ranking for the Malaysian capital. And yet, there it is. We expect to see no shortage of local media stories in the coming days and weeks crowing about how beloved Malaysia is by expats. (Don’t believe us? It’s already begun.)

And to be fair, expats absolutely do love Malaysia, by and large. And why wouldn’t they? Most of the people of Malaysia are friendly and welcoming. Expats integrate easily here and have no trouble making local friends. The cost of living here ranges from reasonable to downright cheap. There are modern conveniences and highly developed infrastructure juxtaposed with exotic cultures and memorable experiences. The food is amazing. The weather is warm, yet tolerable. Prior to the pandemic, the travel opportunities in, around, and from Malaysia were inexpensive and plentiful. Business opportunities abound, shopping is world-class, and for families, there are a great number of excellent international schools.

Kuala Lumpur, BC era – “before Covid” – a city adored by expats | Image Credit: OhMyExpatLife

Kuala Lumpur genuinely is a pretty fantastic place for expats… with perhaps one exception. But when that exception is along the lines of “We don’t feel welcome or valued by the government,” it’s a glaring one. Seldom a week goes by without a story of how some leaders in the current government are tightening the screws on everyone from migrant workers to expat professionals to MM2Hers.

So what does InterNations have to say about it all? What were the detailed survey results that led them to put KL at the top of the global heap?


Asia as a whole has never been notably represented in the seemingly Euro-centric Expat City Ranking by InterNations, which is the world’s ‘largest expat community’ boasting a whopping four million members. But that’s not to say that the continent has been ignored, either. Though there aren’t a great number of Asian cities featured in the list of 57 cities worldwide, a lot of them tend to be clustered near the top, with the others languishing near the bottom – and few or none anywhere in the middle. It seems that for many expats, Asia is often an ‘all or nothing’ proposition.

That was again the case this year. Seven Asian cities are featured in the Expat City Ranking 2021 by InterNations, and of those seven, five rank very highly indeed: Kuala Lumpur ranks 1st out of 57, followed by Singapore (5th), Ho Chi Minh City (6th), Bangkok (11th), and Shanghai (13th). The two other Asian cities on the list are, conversely, quite near the bottom: Hong Kong (46th) and Tokyo (53rd). Most of the Asian cities featured in the survey are among the best-rated cities worldwide in terms of getting settled, finance and housing, and the local cost of living. However, Tokyo and Hong Kong land among the 10 worst-rated cities worldwide: Among other things, expats find it particularly hard to settle down in Tokyo and are unhappy with the cost of living in Hong Kong – hardly surprising given the eye-popping cost of housing there.

The Expat City Ranking is based on the annual Expat Insider survey by InterNations, which is one of the most extensive surveys about living and working abroad, with 12,420 respondents in 2021. This year, 57 cities around the globe are analysed in the survey, which offers in-depth information about five areas of expat life: Quality of Urban Living, Getting Settled, Urban Work Life, Finance & Housing, and Local Cost of Living. Together, the first four topics make up the Expat City Ranking, which reveals the best and worst cities for expats to live in.


So with that in mind, let’s break it down and see why KL’s regional neighbours landed where they did in the survey… and then look at KL itself.

#5 | Singapore: High Quality of Life, but Poor Work-Life Balance

Image Credit: Financial Times

It’s not often that Singapore gets bested by KL in anything. To put it quite bluntly, Malaysians are so accustomed to seeing their southern neighbour at or near the top of virtually every international ranking, they know on some level that here in ASEAN, everyone else is usually playing for second place. So for Singapore, losing to KL and doing it by four spots in the ranking has got to sting a little.

Coming in 5th out of 57 in the Expat City Ranking 2021, Singapore receives its best results in the Quality of Urban Living Index (3rd), particularly in the Safety & Politics Subcategory (1st). Nearly all expats are happy with the political stability (95% vs. 64% globally) and feel safe there (99% vs. 84% globally). It also performs well in the Transportation Subcategory (4th). A British expat is particularly pleased with “the efficiency and low cost of public transport services.” However, Singapore receives mixed results in the Health & Environment Subcategory (27th). While a majority of expats are satisfied with the availability of healthcare (89% vs. 76% globally) and the quality of medical care (84% vs. 71% globally), 43% find healthcare unaffordable (vs. 21% globally). Singapore also scores high in the Getting Settled Index (12th). Expats find it easy to make new friends (56% vs. 48% globally) and are happy with their social life (60% vs. 57% globally).

That said, Singapore’s results in the Urban Work Life Index (37th) are below average. It even ranks in the bottom 10 of the Work-Life Balance Subcategory (52nd). In fact, expats are unhappy with their working hours (23% vs. 16% globally) and work-life balance (22% vs. 17% globally). An Indian expat shares: “There is hardly any work-life balance or time for family; life is mostly about working and paying bills.”

Lastly, Singapore ranks 43rd in the Local Cost of Living Index, and 63% rate this factor negatively (vs. 34% globally). About two-thirds (66%) also find housing unaffordable (vs. 39% globally). On the bright side, housing is at least easy enough to find (79% vs. 60% globally).

#6 | Ho Chi Minh City: The Cost of Living Is Excellent, the Quality of Life Less So

Image Credit: The Star

Ranking 6th out of 57 in the Expat City Ranking 2021, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) makes it into the top 10 for four indices — and ends up in the bottom 10 for the fifth one. It ranks 2nd in both the Local Cost of Living Index — 84% rate the local cost of living positively (vs. 48% globally) — and the Finance & Housing Index. It even tops the list in the Finance Subcategory (1st): 75% of expats say that their disposable household income is more than enough to cover expenses (vs. 52% globally), and 77% are satisfied with their financial situation (vs. 64% globally). They also find housing affordable (61% vs. 42% globally) and easy to find (88% vs. 60% globally). The Vietnamese city does well in the Urban Work-Life Index (10th) and is the best city in terms of overall job satisfaction (1st). In fact, 88% of expats are satisfied with their job in general (vs. 68% globally). Ho Chi Minh City also scores high in the Getting Settled Index (10th): expats find it easy to make new friends (77% vs. 48% globally), are happy with their social life (74% vs. 57% globally), and describe the local people as generally friendly towards foreign residents (93% vs. 67% globally). While 80% find it hard to learn the local language (vs. 42% globally), 77% say it is easy to live there without speaking it (vs. 54% globally).

#11 | Bangkok: Finance and Housing Are Great — The Urban Environment Is Not

Image Credit: The Japan Times

Bangkok (11th out of 57) narrowly misses out on the top 10 of the Expat City Ranking 2021. It has excellent results in the Finance & Housing Index (3rd): 71% of expats are satisfied with their financial situation (vs. 64% globally). They also consider housing easy to find (87% vs. 60% globally) and affordable (64% vs. 42% globally). Bangkok excels in the Local Cost of Living Index (9th) too: 65% rate the cost of living positively (vs. 48% globally). A British expat shares: “There is a great range of supermarkets, with options that cover all budgets.” He adds that “whether you are renting or buying, it is affordable.” Bangkok has an above-average performance in the Getting Settled Index (18th), particularly in the Friends & Socializing Subcategory (10th): 74% of expats are happy with their social life (vs. 57% globally). Another 81% rate the general friendliness of the local residents positively (vs. 69% globally), contributing to the city’s 11th place in the Local Friendliness Subcategory. However, Bangkok receives poor results in the Quality of Urban Living Index (43rd). Expats are happy with the availability of healthcare (88% vs. 76% globally) and its quality (89% vs. 71% globally), but the city ends up in the bottom three for its urban environment (55th): 39% rate this factor negatively (vs. 16% globally); only in Ho Chi Minh City (56th) and Cairo (57th) are expats less satisfied.

And now, without any further ado…

#1 | Kuala Lumpur Is the World’s Best City for Expats

Image Credit: Kayak

A perennial solid performer in this survey, Kuala Lumpur makes it to the very top of the Expat City Ranking 2021. The city excels in the Getting Settled Index (1st), with top 10 results in all subcategories. In fact, three-quarters or more feel at home there (75% vs. 65% globally) and find it easy to get used to the local culture (78% vs. 65% globally). Most are also happy with the general friendliness of the local population (81% vs. 69% globally), as well as their friendliness towards foreign residents (77% vs. 67% globally).

Kuala Lumpur also ranks 1st out of 57 in the Finance & Housing Index: expats find housing both affordable (74% vs. 42% globally) and easy to find (91% vs. 60% globally). Additionally, 80% are satisfied with their financial situation (vs. 64% globally), and 64% say that their household income is more than enough to cover expenses (vs. 52% globally). It might help that Kuala Lumpur also ranks 3rd in the Local Cost of Living Index, with 78% of expats rating this aspect positively (vs. 48% globally). However, the city gets average results in the Urban Work-Life Index (30th): expats are very happy with their working hours (6th) and their work-life balance (7th), but not so much with the state of the local economy (40th) and the career opportunities (44th). Lastly, Kuala Lumpur only ranks 41st in the Quality of Urban Living Index. Expats’ satisfaction is below the global average when it comes to political stability (35% happy vs. 64% globally), personal safety (78% vs. 84% globally), the public transportation system (57% vs. 69% globally), and the urban environment (66% vs. 71% globally).

Infographic Courtesy of InterNations


With a healthy dose of incredulity, we reached out to InterNations when we got this bombshell delivered to us and asked exactly how KL could be ranked so highly when expats have been kicked around, locked out of their homes, and generally treated like something you’d scrape off the bottom of your shoe.

The explanation we received was both straightforward and sensible: Kuala Lumpur scored highly because immigration issues aren’t factored into the survey. The reply included this information:

“At the moment, our survey does not take into consideration visa or immigration issues, as these issues can depend largely on an expat’s country of origin, not just the destination country (for instance, American expats may have a much easier time obtaining a visa in certain destinations than expats of a different nationality). Some of the expats surveyed seem to agree with the visa problems that you mention; one noted in the comments section his frustration with the MM2H programme, saying, ‘The government has stopped taking in applications for review but hasn’t issued the new requirements.’ We are thus considering adding a visa element to the survey in the future, but as of now, it is not included.”

And there you have it. When you exclude any government problems – like visa or immigration concerns – from the equation, Kuala Lumpur is a fine city for expats. And on that point, we would wholeheartedly agree.

We now await the trumpeting headlines in local publications, proudly boasting of Kuala Lumpur’s ranking as the world’s number one city for expats. When those headlines start popping up in local media – and they will – we hope the government takes note, and realises that expats not only bring economic and societal value to the multicultural fabric of Malaysia, they love the place, too, and they’re happy to tell others about it. And naturally, when they sing the praises of the country or its capital city, that often brings some very welcome positive international press along with it, which can in turn influence the decisions made by tourists, by other prospective expats considering an overseas assignment, and of course, by foreign investors.

Despite the recent challenges and frustrations, many expats still love Malaysia | Image Credit: Migrating Miss

About the Expat City Ranking 2021

The Expat City Ranking is based on the annual Expat Insider survey by InterNations. For the survey, InterNations asked 12,420 expats representing 174 nationalities and living in 186 countries or territories to provide information on various aspects of expat life, as well as their gender, age, and nationality. In addition to their satisfaction with life in their host country, respondents were also invited to share their opinions on the city they are currently living in.

Participants were asked to rate more than 25 different aspects of urban life abroad on a scale of one to seven. The respondents’ ratings of the individual factors were then bundled in various combinations for a total of 13 subcategories, and their mean values were used to draw up four topical indices: Quality of Urban Living, Getting Settled, Urban Work Life, and Finance & Housing. These were further averaged in order to rank all cities worldwide that had the required number of participants for the minimum sample size. (The survey also includes a Local Cost of Living Index, which does, however, not factor into the overall ranking to avoid overrepresenting financial aspects.)

In 2021, the top 10 cities for expats are Kuala Lumpur (1st), Málaga, Dubai, Sydney, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Prague, Mexico City, Basel, and Madrid (10th). For a city to be featured in the Expat City Ranking 2021, a sample size of at least 50 survey participants per city was required. In total, 57 cities met this requirement.To learn more, visit internations.org.

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