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Writing about Malaysia and Singapore

Singapore and Malaysia comparisonWriting about where you stay often becomes your favorite pastime if you are an expatriate. For me, I lived in Malaysia (Kuala lumpur to be precise) for almost two years, then moved to Singapore for an year and a half, and am now back in Kuala lumpur (KL) again. I cannot claim to know either country in depth, but when has that stopped me (or anyone else) from forming opinions and perceptions?

We like to think we know a place and its people if we stay there for a while, because if we admit we don’t, we feel a little disadvantaged…and er…let’s say disoriented. Maybe “dislocated” is the word I am looking for.

Anyhow. Malaysia and Singapore. Singapore and Malaysia. How do they compare? (I know this will end up as a comparison between KL and Singapore, because I have seen the rest of Malaysia only as a tourist would, through predictable weekends at Penang, Ipoh, Cameron, Cherating, Langkawi, and so on.)

Singapore is often compared with other countries, and most often with Malaysia, because Singapore was earlier a part of Malaysia—-we all know about that sort of feeling don’t we?

Well, here goes, Singapore and Malaysia from the eyes of an expat:

  • Singapore is fast and efficient. It took me all of three hours to get connections for broadband, television, cell phone and land-line. It took me more than three weeks in KL for all the same things, and I am not sure I am happy with my broadband speed even now.
  • Singapore is easy even if you do not own a car. There are trains and buses and taxis going any possible place you might want to go, at any time of night or day. Ok, only the taxis run at night, but you can hail or call them anytime. In KL, if you do not own a car, you are handicapped. The cabs are few. You could chat with a cab driver in Singapore but a cab driver in KL would keep asking “Sini?” (“Here?” in Malay) at every turn, eager to drop you off. I am not sure how many Malaysians take buses and trains to work. Can’t be that many.
  • Singapore has an antiseptic sense of cleanliness. The malls are cleaner than some hospitals I have seen. The roads are cleaner than corridors and toilets of some of the world’s hospitals. The toilets? Well, Singaporean toilets are cleaner than some of the world’s living rooms. Malaysians are a little less maniacal about cleanliness, but they can learn a thing or two from Singapore about toilet hygiene. I hope.
  • Malaysia is a place of smiles: the girls collecting toll smile, the security personnel smile, the immigration officers smile, it comes naturally to them. Singaporeans smile too, but their smiles look like they have been reading instruction manuals meant for air-hostesses.
  • Singaporeans do everything the way their government instructs them, and the government instructs frequently (even on chewing gums). I have seen neat placards near playgrounds saying: Children Must Play Quietly. Malaysians let their children loose anywhere they go, malls, hospitals, churches. Malaysian parents seem to think screaming in public places is every child’s birthright.
  • In Malaysia, people drive like the road belongs to them. In Singapore, they mostly drive like the road belongs to everyone else.
  • In Singapore, queues are sacred. You will see queues everywhere, at donut shops in shopping malls, at shops distributing freebies, at taxi stands, cemeteries. Everywhere, in short. In Malaysia, queues are not taken seriously. Period.
  • Malaysians love their food, and they don’t care where they get it. You can have some of the most delicious food at roadside hawker stalls. You will find BMWs and Ferraris parked beside humble Proton Wiras outside a stall that is famous for Char kway teow or Asam Laksa. In Singapore, the rich go to fancy restaurants, and the rest go to lesser restaurants and food-courts. People meet over food in Malaysia, in Singapore they meet over shopping.
  • When you meet people in Malaysia for the first time (naturally at a place where the food is scrumptious), you are likely to be asked, “What would you like to drink?”. In Singapore, the question would be,”What do you do (for a living)?”
  • In Malaysia, expatriates (and their spouses) are not given work permits or permanent resident status despite merit. In money-driven Singapore on the other hand, these things are issued based on ability to contribute to the country, not on race or religion. Sigh, poor me, an expat’s wife. The tough-as-nails Singapore government welcomed me to work and stay with open arms, but in Malaysia, alas, the hospitality and friendliness remains a quality only of its people, not its government.
  • In Singapore, my husband did not care if I took a cab at 3 am alone. In Malaysia, he worries if I take one alone at 6 pm. There are rapes, murders and robberies in Malaysia, much like in a lot of other countries. In Singapore, the crime news consists of accounts of shoplifters being caned mercilessly. (Ok, I exaggerated on that one, but you get the picture.)
  • The most important thing to remember about both countries: Most Malaysians hate Singaporeans and think they are stuck up and kiasu. All Singaporeans hate Malaysians and think they are lazy.

If I really, really ask myself, I like the relentless efficiency of Singapore, but there is nothing really to love or hate, there is great liking and but mostly, there is indifference.

I love Malaysia’s people, its natural beauty, its food. I hate the slowness, and of course, the corruption.

I am not so sure if I should believe that the “opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference”.

But there you go: I have a love-hate thing going on for Malaysia, but for Singapore, it is indifference.

Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • oldpoet56 says:

    Wow, what a great honest article, thank you for taking of your time to write it.

  • aj vosse says:

    Yep… we need a bit of dirt in our lives!
    Imagine writing a story with no dirt… boring! 😉

  • Fascinating comparisons! I love learning about different cultures.

  • damyantig says:

    Link away, Crankshaft:)

    Malinz, I am glad you could identify!

    Ely, of course, you will be coming to Kuala lumpur, and see for yourself if I am right!

  • Crankshaft says:

    Thanks, Damyanti! 🙂
    I like your blog. Mind if I link it to mine?

  • malinz says:

    I enjoyed this, having known a number of friends who’ve lived in Singapore (and visited it often myself) and sisters-in-law from Malaysia. I loved your comment that in Malaysia people meet over food but in Singapore they meet over shopping.

  • elybessy says:

    Thanks Dee for this picture full of of examples and details about Malaysia and Singapore. I think you have been fair and honest about it.
    You know, I went there to Singapore for only one months, but I understood many things about people, organization and cleaning, and I was astonished about it, while I never been to Kuala Lampur, it doesn’t remain that to come there!

  • damyantig says:

    Crankshaft, welcome to my blog, and thanks for the link 🙂

  • Crankshaft says:

    Oh well. I think the Malaysians and Singaporeans hate each other equally. 🙂

    Malaysians shouldn’t gloat though.

    Singapore has stuff up its sleeves.

  • damyantig says:

    You are welcome Indigo:) Anytime you come to this part of the world, you can be a sure of a “physically present” tour guide, not merely a virtual one!

  • indigobunting says:

    Great piece D! I really love being able to travel a bit with an interesting tour guide…

  • That was very interesting and insightful. Being an expat myself I feel your pain on the issue of PR and work status. I am still waiting on my official permission despite the fact that they made the decision over a month ago now.

    Living in different places/countries really gives a person the ability to compare not only populations but to look differently at themselves and their own attitudes too, I have found.

    Great piece.

  • damyantig says:

    You are welcome, Darc, and thanks for dropping by as usual:)

  • DarcKnyt says:

    Being far from these places, your insight helps me understand them better. You’ve been an outsider in some respect in both, and your view inside at them is really clarifying and … well, funny.

    🙂 Thanks, Damyanti.

  • damyantig says:

    Thanks for dropping by, I was beginning to worry about you!

    This post has been a long time in the making (in my head, of course), but today it just decided to pour itself out….I have been honest, certainly, I can’t help it, but I hope I have also been fair.

    I understand your sentiment, and thank you so much for loving me!:)

  • Ovidia says:

    See? I’m here!!!
    But I have been dropping in–read your books-love-affair twice already…!

    Anyway, hello & I love the Singapore/Malaysia piece. It’s true about the efficiency/over-efficiency, but I find myself fiercely loving/hating Singapore.

    Maybe it’s where we identify. For me it’s like being a teenager & hating & fighting my parents (yes, I did) but at the same time resenting anyone who dared criticise them, even if the criticism had to do with how they treated me!
    I think that’s my feeling towards Singapore now. So much I want to change but I hate being in the US/Australia & hearing people criticise!

    (btw I still love you, I don’t resent honest writing!)

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