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The Other Side of Living in Kuala Lumpur

After a year living in Kuala Lumpur, I boldly wrote about why I think it’s the best city to live in Southeast Asia. For me it’s a place that exceeded all expectations, and compared to my two years living in Thailand’s sex-pat capital that was sought with so many challenges, living here has been a doddle.

Just in case you missed that post, here it is!

Since then, I had a lot of emails from people all over the world who were interested in moving to KL, and I’d been in contact with some who have since made the move. It’s been humbling to have played a small part in that decision making process by providing an insight on life here.

But there was one question that was repeatedly asked from prospective expats. “What are the negatives about living in Kuala Lumpur?”

Then I realised that in my last post, I failed to write about any challenges.

The truth is, for me there aren’t any major negatives, but that’s not to say that KL is perfect. It’s not! Thank god, otherwise how boring would that be.

But as another 12 months have passed, I thought it was time to counter that argument a little. Whilst the past two years in KL for me have been awesome, it wouldn’t be fair to only paint a flawless picture of living here.

Like anywhere in the world, living in Kuala Lumpur isn’t always peaches and cream, because life is never just Christmas.

Not even Asia’s ‘top city for expats’.

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Trading Places

Three months ago I moved back to Port Douglas, a semi-remote town in Australia’s Tropical North. After nearly three decades of living in big concrete cities and gloomy weather, it blew be away with its natural beauty and offered a rich, outdoors lifestyle that Queensland is famous for.

Being back for just a day, I was having conversations with the Sailor about how ludicrously easy it is living in Australia and was comparing it to our life in Malaysia. I also realised how much I sacrificed living in a big city.

A sunset overlooking the Sugar Wharf in Port Douglas, Queensland

Port Douglas, Australia

One thing I noticed immediately is the difference in air quality. In this part of coastal Queensland where you’re surrounded by ocean and rainforest, the air is so pure that it slapped me in the face with freshness.

When I arrived it was also technically ‘winter’ so the temperature was significantly lower than KL by 10 degrees, as was the humidity. This meant that walking around Port Douglas was a delight. No more sweaty upper lip or car exhaust pollution during peak hours!

The truth is, I didn’t really walk around KL all that much and would get a Grab taxi to most places. The jungle became my treadmill, as well as shopping malls.

I love the tropics, but KL’s heat and humidity is pretty intense during the day. For some, this could be a sacrifice living here, and you may not be comfortable with spending as much time outside between 12 and 4pm .. unless it’s in the pool of course!

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Working at an International School, once they finally fixed their air quality reader, there was a lot of missed playtimes in my second year where the AQI (Air Quality Index) was above 100. Of course, the children and teachers just loved that! 🤦🏻‍♀️

However this wasn’t because the haze in KL had got worse, but that the AQI reading around my school was higher, probably due to all the car traffic. Thankfully though, the reading would normally improve before lunch and rarely lasted the whole day.

Fogging in Kuala Lumpur

Fortnightly fogging around my condo

Although even more problematic, is the spout of haze that happens every 2-3 years around September due to all the land clearing fires in Indonesia.

When I first moved to KL I was told about how bad it was the year prior, and unfortunately it returned this year too. I was lucky not to have experienced it but for weeks, millions had to live with a thick layer of smog that travelled from Indonesia and sat over Malaysia. Many schools closed for a few days this year because of it, and people were advised to stay indoors.

KL’s air quality might not be perfect, but overall it’s one of the cleaner big cities in Asia.

For some perspective, as I write this KL’s AQI is a ‘moderate’ 67, whilst Bangkok is ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ at 107. Most of China is ‘unhealthy’ with more than half of the country between 100 and 200, and four locations in India are ‘hazardous’ with readings ranging from 322 to 588.

London on the other hand has a ‘good’ rating of 46.

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Sorry lah?

Another thing that’s obviously easier in Australia is communicating.

Coming to KL you’d expect language barriers. Yet when I first moved here, I couldn’t believe that I could get away with conversing so freely in English. I would natter away with Grab taxi drivers, order food in restaurants with ease and speak to people over the phone with high success levels, unlike my time in Thailand.

It shouldn’t really come as a surprise though. In Malaysia, English has been widely spoken since the colonial days. It’s also a compulsory subject in schools, often the language of choice in businesses and many Malaysians choose to converse in English.

In fact, it can be argued that many KL-ites consider their first language to be English, even if Malay is the country’s offical lingo.

But around 35% of the time, understandably, I still experienced communication challenges.

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Whilst teaching English is compulsory in schools, unlike the flood of English medium schools that were prevalent in the 60’s, nowadays it’s usually only taught as a single standalone subject.

If I compare that to my experiences learning French at Secondary School, I was hardly fluent when I took my GCSE’s (and I was top of my class!)

In KL it seems that unless you’re from a family that speaks fluent English at home or whom can afford to send you to an International School, then speaking the language fluently is a challenge. And with the growing number of people who are more fluent in Manglish or their own mother tongue, there are clear struggles.

Manglish-Malaysia-meme-photo by_TheSmartLocal.com

Manglish – a mix of Malay and English, is pretty common to hear around the streets of Kuala Lumpur (Singapore has a version of this too called Singlish).

The vocab is a mish-mash of words from English, Malay, Hokkien, Mandarin, Cantonese and Tamil, with some American and Australian slang words thrown into the mix. Heck, I even speak some Manglish now with the Sailor ah! You hear some phrases all the time and after a while, they begin to stick.

In the end, I got used to being called ‘Boss’, ‘Aunty’ or ‘Sir’, and realised that sometimes when people say ‘yes’, it’s just a polite way of saying ‘I’ve no idea what you’re talking about!’

Other language barriers you’ll encounter in KL are not with the locals, but non-Malaysians. Whilst there are a lot of foreigners in KL whom speak fluent (or native) English, there’s a significant proportion that don’t.

KL is essentially a massive Asian melting pot with a mix of expats, economic migrants and refugees, and not all will have learnt English in their home country.

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Cannot Boss

Overall, the infrastructure in KL is pretty good and many services work similarly to the West. I even found that some things worked better, like the speed of my internet. Streaming UK TV via VPN was a blast!

But not everything will work in the same way you’re used to, and not everything is as highly regulated or advanced.

You’ll also probably find that there’s a different level of flexibility when it comes to asking for things to be done in a slightly different way, and will get told ‘cannot’ a lot. But those more open minded or willing to help you will give you a ‘can’ every now and again. 😉

Georgetown-Penang-Malaysia

To be honest, it’s not that there are really big things which are challenging or difficult in KL. It’s just that sometimes there are quite a few small things that add up. I didn’t really find them a bother until my second year when the same issues were recurring. Before that I was in my honeymoon phase!

But I want bore you with the glory details. Just be mindful that things won’t always function as efficiently as what you may be used to.

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Like dat cannot lah

Whilst I take yet another career break from teaching in Australia (it seems to be a recurring theme! 🤔), perhaps the biggest challenge for me in KL was at work.

I think there’s this perception in the UK that teaching gets easier when you work abroad. It doesn’t! At least, it depends on which school and region you end up in.

But particularly from my experiences working in Southeast Asia, the expectations and workload has been much higher. We might not have OFSTED, but we have fee-paying parents who spend a local’s average annual salary to send their children to your school, and big bosses who seem more concerned with ‘numbers’ – specifically, those concerning student enrolment.

Then of course, cultures are vastly different and there can be a disparity between the expertise and work ethics of staff, and the standards you’re used to in your home country.

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In KL, me and my team of 5 teachers found that, whilst the hearts of our support staff were in the right place, a lot of the time they lacked the necessary know-how to execute their jobs at the level we’re used to. This meant that we needed to dedicate a lot of time to in-house training.

Their attitude towards time off was also a little less restrained. On top of their 16-weeks of paid holiday per year, we were informed that they wanted to use up all of their 20-days paid leave that was reserved for medical emergencies, even though they weren’t sick. So at least once a fortnight, 5 out of 6 would take a 1-day sick day. Of course, I wouldn’t be writing this if the majority of cases were genuine.

* * *

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So that’s pretty much all I have.

As you would expect moving to Southeast Asia- or anywhere, there will inevitably be frustrations and compromises.

Kuala Lumpur may be more ‘Western’ than other cities in the region, but it’s still not the West. Although if we wanted a replica of what we have back home, we’d stay there right?

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For the past 2 years, KL has allowed me to experience an array of cultures and enjoy the time I have off. It’s also provided a cheaper cost of living [compared to the West] with the potential to save. And Malaysians are some of the loveliest and most genuine people I’ve met.

Moving abroad isn’t always easy, and some people who have never lived in Southeast Asia before may find KL more challenging than I did.

Or, like myself, you may not be a huge fan of big cities and may prefer other less populated parts of Malaysia like Penang.

Whilst I knew that KL’s huge metropolis wouldn’t keep me forever and now I’m back to living in a small town by the ocean, I look back fondly on my time there. It wasn’t perfect, but it was home. And I had it pretty good.

Related Read:
18 Relaxing Short Getaways From Kuala Lumpur


Have you ever lived in Malaysia? Do you agree with the article or have anything else to add?
Gimme, lah!

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