Living in Kuala Lumpur
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A comprehensive guide about living well in Kuala Lumpur
Living in Kuala Lumpur means settling in the center of a Southeast Asian “tiger state”. Why not visit the local InterNations GO! network in “KL” while you’re there? Moreover, our City Guide provides useful info on health issues, renting an apartment, or exploring the city.
Life in Kuala Lumpur
Nowhere is the rapid pace of Malaysia’s development as obvious as in Kuala Lumpur. The booming city on the western coast of Peninsular Malaysia belies its origins as a humble mining town. Today, nobody would believe that in the 1850s, the city’s only inhabitants were some Chinese laborers.
Due to the success of the mining enterprise, Kuala Lumpur became the capital of the Malay States in 1896. A new addition to the British Empire, the administrative and economic hub attracted Malays, Chinese and Indians as well as British colonials, all living in Kuala Lumpur together. Malaysia has been an independent nation since 1963, and its population is still marked by ethnic diversity, especially in Kuala Lumpur.
A Multiethnic City
Kuala Lumpur is defined by the young nation’s history and its tradition as a multicultural, religiously diverse society. While living in Kuala Lumpur, foreign residents may wonder at its diverse cityscape: Highlights of post-modernist architecture such as the famous Petronas Twin Towers dominate Kuala Lumpur’s skyline, together with other iconic buildings influenced by Malay heritage as well as Islamic art.
Hidden between the modern buildings, there are still many vestiges from the colonial past, like the pseudo-Tudor houses of the Royal Selangor Club or the neo-gothic St Mary’s Cathedral. The latter – Malaysia’s oldest Anglican church – is one of the many places testifying to the different faiths of people living in Kuala Lumpur.
Contemporary life in Kuala Lumpur is strongly influenced by the local brand of Islam. However, there are also large groups of Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and followers of Chinese religions in the city.
Expat Life in Kuala Lumpur
Among the multiethnic population, you will find numerous foreign residents as well. In recent years, employment opportunities in Kuala Lumpur and the Klang Valley have proven attractive for low-skilled laborers from Indonesia, Nepal, Thailand, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and the Philippines. At the other end of the spectrum, foreign investors and highly qualified employees enjoy expatriate life in Kuala Lumpur.
While Kuala Lumpur only rates 84th out of 230 cities in the Mercer quality of living survey 2015, there is a well-developed infrastructure for expats living in Kuala Lumpur. Due to Malaysia’s colonial past, English remains an important language in the business world and in secondary education. Moreover, there are plenty of social associations, international clinics and schools for foreigners in Kuala Lumpur.
Living in a Social Conservative Country
As far as safety and crime are concerned, expats living in Kuala Lumpur should particularly beware of the following: snatch theft, pickpocketing, motor vehicle theft, and scams. Apart from that, Kuala Lumpur is comparatively safe. However, it is important to keep in mind that Malaysia is, in some respects, a socially conservative country.
Human rights organizations like Amnesty International routinely criticize Malaysia for its political censorship and the existence of corporal punishment. Whereas the former should not affect expatriates in Kuala Lumpur, the latter might: Not only does Malaysia pursue an extremely strict anti-drug policy, but its penal code actively discriminates against its LGBT population. Homosexual people can be criminalized and may incur fines, whippings, or incarceration.
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Health and Education in Kuala Lumpur
Health Issues: Earthquakes and Haze
Expats worried about their health should take some more things into consideration when moving to Kuala Lumpur: The city has a hot and humid tropical rainforest climate. If you come from a cooler, more temperate region, it can take a while to get used to it. The local climate also features a heavy monsoon season, which often leads to flooding. Although the 2004 tsunami disaster only touched Malaysia slightly, earthquakes remain a possibility.
However, health issues caused by the so-called “haze” are far more likely than an earthquake: The mixture of industrial smog, smoke from forest fires, and car exhaust fumes puts a huge strain on infants, kids, the elderly, and people with allergies, heart problems or respiratory diseases.
Furthermore, life in Kuala Lumpur requires prophylactic measures against dengue fever and malaria as well as number of immunizations. These include vaccinations for tetanus, diphtheria, polio, hepatitis A/B, typhus, rabies, cholera, and Japanese encephalitis.
Medical Infrastructure: Consultations and Private Hospitals
Fortunately for expatriates, the healthcare infrastructure and the quality of medical care in the Greater Kuala Lumpur region are considered good. There are smaller medical centers and dentist offices at many of Kuala Lumpur’s shopping malls. A brief private consultation costs about 35-40 MYR; sometimes, foreigners are asked to pay more, but a normal consulting fee probably shouldn’t amount to more than 100 MYR (about 23 EUR or 25 USD in August 2015).
In case of serious illnesses, surgery, or comprehensive treatments, it’s essential to have private health insurance. Malaysia does have a universal basic healthcare system, but this does not cover hospital stays in private clinics catering to affluent locals, foreign residents, and medical tourists.
A day in a single room of a private hospital costs up to 1,000 MYR (in a VIP or deluxe suite room), not including doctor’s fees, medication, and nursing care. You are expected to pay immediately, but a private insurance provider will reimburse you later on.
Popular Hospitals and Emergencies in KL
Some private clinics and large medical centers are particularly popular with Kuala Lumpur’s expat community. These include the Prince Court Medical Centre (24/7), the Gleneagles Intan Medical Centre (24/7 ER), Pantai Medical Centre, and the Twin Towers Medical Centre in downtown Kuala Lumpur. There are further private hospitals in some of the surrounding municipalities of the Klang River Valley.
If there’s an accident or medical emergency, dial 999 to call the police or an ambulance and 994 to alert the Kuala Lumpur fire brigade. The general emergency number for GSM mobile users, 112, also works in Kuala Lumpur. For over-the-counter medication, just walk into the nearest branch of the major drugstore/pharmacy chains.
Education and Leisure in the Tiger State
Expats with families will be happy to hear that there are a number of international schools in the Kuala Lumpur area. While English is taught as an obligatory foreign language at every Malaysian school, the usual languages in the classroom are Malay and sometimes Mandarin or Tamil. Unless your children are reasonably competent in one of these languages, local schools will be a poor choice for them.
Among the many international schools in Kuala Lumpur and its suburbs, several cater explicitly to specific foreign communities settling in the Klang Valley region. There are educational institutions for expatriate kids from Australia, France, Germany, India, Japan, and the UK as well as general private schools where the language of instruction is English.
Kuala Lumpur also offers a lot of opportunities for family outings. When the weather is right, kids will enjoy a visit to the National Zoo or the Kuala Lumpur Lake Gardens, with its Butterfly Park, miniature deer, playground, and boat rental. The Bukit Nanas Forest Nature Reserve has a recreational park with picnic areas, or you can venture outside to fly a wau bulan, one of Malaysia’s beautiful moon-kites.
Living and Driving in Kuala Lumpur
From KL City Center to the Suburbs
Affluent Malaysians and expats prefer to live in quiet,residential districts in close proximity to parks and international schools. Aside from the serenity and peace these areas offer, they also provide more space than urban shopping districts. Some of the residential areas expats prefer are:
- Mont Kiara
- Sri Hartamas
- Damansara, Selangor
- Kuala Lumpur City Centre
Other areas of interest are, for instance, Bangsar, a mostly affluent residential suburb, or the former satellite city of Petaling Jaya, which is more of an independent town than a neighborhood of Kuala Lumpur. It is often considered Kuala Lumpur’s twin sister due to its close proximity. As the first planned city in Malaysia, it has (alongside Putrajaya) quickly developed into an attractive alternative to settling in Kuala Lumpur.
The restrictions for foreigners purchasing property in Malaysia are no longer as strict as they used to be, but there are several regulations trying to limit the influence of foreign investors and to curb real estate prices. Therefore, many expatriates prefer to rent rather than buy, often relying on a realtor to assist them in their search.
The House of Your Dreams: What Is Next?
Once you have found the house of your dreams and reached an agreement with the landlord, you have to sign a letter of agreement and pay one month’s rent in advance. This is supposed to seal the deal while the proprietor prepares the rental contract, which you must sign within a week. Most contracts require a down payment of two months’ rent as a security deposit, plus an additional sum for utilities as well as legal fees.
In Malaysia, most rental contracts for expat housing are valid for one to three years. You often have the opportunity to renew the agreement for another couple of years. Make sure that the contract contains a “diplomatic clause”. This allows you to get out of an agreement early (after the first twelve months) if you should have to break off your expatriate assignment for some reason.
Hitting the Road
Unlike other Asian mega-cities, such as Singapore, Kuala Lumpur hasn’t got a very well-developed public transport network yet. For this reason, driving is very popular among locals and expats alike. Before you decide upon a property, always check how easy it is to get there in various traffic conditions.
In contrast to public transportation, the road network in Kuala Lumpur is fairly good, though. It isn’t that difficult to get a driving license, provided you have a residence permit for the country. First, you need to go to your embassy and get a certified translation of your driver’s license from home. Then you can exchange it for a Malaysian one at the JPJ (Jabatan Pengangkutan Jalan – Road Transport Department) if your country is covered by one of the bilateral agreements.
These agreements refer to Australia, Belgium, Brunei, China, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, the Philippines, Russia, South Korea, Singapore, Switzerland, Thailand, Turkey, and several other countries. Please bring your license, the translation, the completed application form, one passport photo in color, your passport and a copy, and the processing fee of 20 MYR to the nearest JPJ office.
If your original license was issued in a country not on that list, please ask at the JPJ if you can still exchange it, after a slightly more complicated procedure, or if you need to take drivers’ training classes and pass an exam.