After living in Kuala Lumpur for a year and a half, I 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 lot easier.
Just in case you missed that post, here it is!
Since then, I’ve had a lot of emails from people all over the world who are interested in moving to KL. It’s been awesome to hear your stories and humbling to know that my articles have given a small 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.
To be totally frank, I’ve been putting off writing this article for as long as possible because I didn’t want to come across as talking badly about Malaysia.
I’ve loved my time here and Malaysians have been nothing but welcoming to me in their country.
Leaving KL last July was actually really sad for me. I’ve met so many kind-natured locals who have blown me away with their hospitality and warm heart. Malaysians are truly some of the most sincere, genuine and humblest people I’ve ever met, and I’ll never forget the level of generosity I received as a foreigner in their country.
But like everywhere, nowhere is perfect and I wanted to give you more of a balanced idea of what it’s like as an expat here.
So I’ll be talking about ‘the other side’ of living in Kuala Lumpur- from my experiences working as a teacher to life in the day to day. Even if you’re not an educator, some of these points may be transferable and relevant to you.
As I write this, I’m taking yet another career break from teaching in Australia (it seems to be a recurring theme! 🤔) except this time, it’s intentional.
I think there’s this perception in the UK amongst teachers that when you leave to go and teach abroad, everything suddenly gets easier.
Well, it doesn’t!
At least, it completely depends on where you end up and which school you work in.
With the rising number of International Schools throughout Malaysia, all schools are competing with each other more than ever before and many have seen a dip in student numbers. Where I was, our intake had also been steadily declining.
As a profit making school, the owners obviously wanted to see enrolement increase, so their pressures and demands would inevitably trickle down the hierarchy and squeeze us harder to perform.
My school in KL was one of the biggest and best in the city so as you can imagine, the demands and expectations of class teachers were already high.
During my first year, I easily had the most challenging class in the school. About a quarter of my class had either behavioural challenges or were on the Child Protection register, which surprised me quite a bit considering this was virtually non-existent in Thailand.
For an overview, about 40% of the children in our school were expats and the rest were Malaysian. Out of the Malaysian children, around 48% were Chinese-Malay, and the remaining were Indian-Malay or Malay.
In most circumstances, I found that these issues stemmed from cultural differences and parenting strategies within the dominant group.
For example, I had a pupil in my class that was regularly beaten at home for misbehaving. I also had a few children that were neglected. You’ll find that many high income families have maids and nannies, and some of the time, it is them who basically raise the kids. This can then lead to a whole host of problems, like children not getting the love, care, attention or guidance that they need.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, there were quite a few pupils that were incredibly spoilt and often lacked respect for others or property. Of course, you get this everywhere and I’ve seen this heaps in the UK & Australia, but it did seem more magnified here.
This is certainly not reflective of the majority of families that were loving and supportive. There were so many amazing parents that I worked with and I look back at those relationships with fondness.
Being in a Southeast Asian country, there will inevitably be cultural differences, communication challenges and often a disparity between the expertise and work ethics of staff, and the standards you’re used to in your home country.
For me this meant that I regularly needed to train up colleagues, and had to spend quite a lot of additional time explaining things to ensure they were completed at the level that was required. When you’re already working under the pump, this did add a lot of extra stress and pressure to my regular load.
Compared to teaching in the UK, the volume of work I had in KL was easily greater due to the factors mentioned above and the sheer busyness and pace of the school. The days were also longer and I used to start at 6:30 as the kids would trickle in from 7:10am, and I rarely finished before 5 or 6pm.
Outside of my teaching hours, due to all the meetings and training sessions that my school loved to pencil in (sometimes there were 3 or 4 in a day), there was little time left to complete the basics like planning and marking. Usually I’d take work home in the evening and weekends just to get on top of things, which was kind of expected from staff.
Teaching can be crazy anywhere, and a lot of the time it comes down to the individual in regards to how much you put in. But I just want you to realise that teaching or working here won’t necessarily be easier.
For me, the volume of work in KL beats anything I’ve experienced (including the UK) and after a while this work routine was unsustainable.
Over a longer term these pressures caused me to develop mild anxiety issues which have only subsided after 6 months of being away. Another teacher who started at the same time as me also developed more severe stress-related health problems and had to take time off because of it.
Of course not all teachers experienced the same and most renewed their contracts past 2 years, but I’m sure most would concur the points mentioned above.
Obviously I can’t speak for all professions in KL, but I think that there’s generally a lot of pressure on skilled foreigners to deliver.
After all, you were probably granted a Malaysian Employment Pass visa based on your high level of expertise, and companies can only apply for this visa on your behalf if they can prove that a local Malaysian worker can’t do your job.
So often, they’ll want to get their money’s worth since they’re [probably] remunerating you well to be there.
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!
Whilst it was a lot easier for me to get things done in Malaysia compared to say Thailand, after coming from Melbourne where life was SO easy-breezy, many things in KL felt more onerous.
In Malaysia, not everything is as highly regulated, advanced or will have a common-sense approach. You’re also faced with cultural differences from three dominant ethnicities, as well as language barriers.
I also found that generally there’s a different level of flexibility when it comes to asking for things to be done in a slightly different way. I’m was so used to ‘course mate, no worries‘ in Oz, but when I got to KL there was more of this – ‘sorry, cannot lah’ ! 😄
To be frank, there definitely weren’t any big challenges in the day-to-day. But for me it was usually a series of smaller issues that were often recurring.
I guess when you’ve lived somewhere a while, those little things you overlooked or found cute at the beginning start to grate a bit. Like any relationship I guess!
If things don’t go your way, just remember to always be polite and courteous (not like I had to tell you, you guys are rockstars!). People are generally really lovely and genuinely want to help you, but patience will be your best friend.
Okay, so I know I mentioned that I LOVE the hot tropical weather in my last article- and I do! However I discovered quite early on that it rains a lot in KL, and I mean hold on to your brolly kind of torrential rain that will ruin your shoes!
One day at school I was teaching an extra-curricular yoga club and a proper 💩 storm happened. As me and my yogis were doing downward dogs & happy baby poses, it sounded like a cyclone was ravaging through the town. When I went outside I found fallen trees all the way home, only to find that open windows were literally ripped from their hinges in my condo block! 🙈
View this post on Instagram
(This ☝🏼 was the most freakishly strong storm I experienced during my 2 years in KL!)
Okay, so storms like this are VERY rare, I just wanted to tell you my little story. 😄Usually they only last for an hour or two so it’s unlikely to keep you in all day, and it pleasantly cools the hot air afterwards.
But nevertheless, you’ll probably want to start getting good at reading the weather to time your outings accordingly or risk getting unapologetically saturated.
To help minimise sun exposure (and never-ending sweat from the heat and humidity), I also avoided spending much time outside during the day- unless it was in the pool of course. And like most other people, often I ended up at a shopping centre to enjoy their AC.
Which is another thing about living in Malaysia- you’ll probably spend more than your fair share of time at shopping centres!
Not only are they “cool” (as in temperature) places to hang out, but they’re usually ‘everything’ places where you go to do your food shopping, watch a movie, eat, get your nails done, etc etc. It’s a very similar arrangement to Bangkok.
At times I was a bit “over” them as it felt like I was always in one, and sales assistants follow you around like a shadow which I hate! But there could be worst places to be. I’m nit-picking really.
When my school finally fixed their air quality reader during my second year, there was a lot of missed playtimes because 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 it rarely lasted the whole day.
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 before in 2016, and unfortunately it returned in 2019 too. I was lucky to have missed it but for weeks, millions had to live with a thick layer of smog that travelled from Indonesia and sat over KL & Malaysia. Many schools closed for a few days 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.
It can be argued that many KL-ites consider their first language to be English and many speak it fluently. But – as you would expect living in a country whose first language is not English – you will still encounter many communication barriers, and I think this is sometimes what you’ll need to be the most patient with.
Even after living in KL for a year or two, I was still surprised by some British expats who expected the same level of understanding from locals as they would Brits, or who didn’t alter their speech & spoke spoke in the same way- i.e. quickly and with idioms.
Erm, nah mate, you ain’t dahn London Tahn now innit! 😆
Like most other expats here, I am ashamed to say that I didn’t learn enough Bahasa during my time in KL. Generally we’re a lazy bunch if English is so readily on the table.
But it really would have gone a long way with the locals.
You’ll still meet people in the city and Malaysia who speak very little English and applying just a few words of your broken Bahasa would be helpful in those situations, easing the pressure off them to converse in a foreign language. They’d also really appreciate the effort.
As well as English, Bahasa and a range of Chinese and Indian dialects being prevalent across communities, another unofficial language you’ll come across is Manglish, which is a mix of Malay and English. 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 thrown into the mix. I even speak some Manglish now with the Sailor! You’ll hear some phrases all the time and after a while, they begin to stick.
As some locals are more fluent in Manglish than English, if you can learn some of this lingo too then you’ll fit right in. 😉
Other language barriers you’ll encounter in KL are not with the locals, but non-Malaysians. Whilst a lot of foreigners in KL 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.
I was recently asked by a female reader of my blog what it’s like living as a woman in KL.
When I first moved to the city, I was here alone (minus the Sailor) and knew a lot of other single female expats. I can honestly say that I’ve never felt unsafe or threatened in the any way, and neither me or my friends have encountered any problems. I don’t know anyone at school who did either.
That’s not to say that KL is crime free- it’s a big city like anywhere else so you should be vigilant and streetwise. Petty theft is probably the most common form of crime in the city, so perhaps think twice before leaving your iPhone or wallet on the table at night in a crowded place. It’s basic common sense stuff.
I was also advised by a local staff member to watch out for motorbikes as some thieves are known to drive past and snatch handbags. If you’re ever unlucky enough for that to happen to you, then never retaliate and allow them to take what they grab, as in some instances they’ve violently forced belongings from people. On the whole though, there’s very little in the way of violent crime in KL.
You may also want to dress a bit more conservatively, which was something I did here and in Thailand out of respect for the local culture and to minimise any unwanted attention.
Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t dress like a nun or anything like that! I’d usually wear dresses and shorts but felt more comfortable having them come closer to the knee. I sometimes wore slightly shorter skirts and fancier tops too, but usually only when I went out for dinner or drinks.
Sometimes in the centre, you may get stared quite a bit from some men, regardless if you’re wearing more conservative clothing, or if your BF is right next to you. I usually found this to be the case from Indian and Pakistani men (who were usually immigrants). Although it was a bit annoying, I never felt uncomfortable or threatened, and no one had ever been inappropriate. It’s also rarely an issue in the expat suburbs.
* * *
So, I think that’s all I have. And congratulations if you made it to the end, this was a long one!
I hope I’ve managed to give you a slightly more balanced view on life in Malaysia and what to expect.
As mentioned in my other articles, I’ve really loved living here. My free time was awesome and life in general (outside of work) was virtually care-free. People are lovely, the culture is colourful, and the holidays were incredible.
But on the other side, I found that work was really consuming. There’s certainly no free meal ticket and I had to work my butt off for the perks of living in Malaysia. I’m not sure I can say there was more of a work-life balance for me, but my free time was ace.
Everyones experience will be different though, and of course it completely depends on what job you have and where you work. There are a lot of awesome employment opportunities for skilled migrants which is reflected in the constantly growing expat community, and many foreigners choose to stay for years.
Perhaps you will be another. 🤟🏼
* * *
Are you moving to Malaysia or KL and have a questions that wasn’t answered in this post? Get in touch!
Or if you’ve lived or worked in KL, share your experiences below.