Living in Malaysia
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A practical guide to the way of life in Malaysia
Life in Malaysia can be a beautiful and stressful experience at the same time. Get the most out of your expat life in Malaysia by knowing what to expect! With the InterNations GO! Country Guide, you will learn about culture, languages, residence permits, and schooling for expat kids in Malaysia.
Life in Malaysia
Living in Malaysia is certainly a big adventure for most expats. This country on the tip of Southeast Asia has much to offer in terms of cultural variety. Spending a few years in Malaysia can easily turn into a life-changing experience.
Of course, there are positives and negatives about life in this country. When asked what they value most about Malaysia, most expats count stability, a good infrastructure (both in general and for foreigners in particular), and the friendly and welcoming locals among the top reasons they enjoy living here.
The Country of the Bumiputras
Malaysia’s population is multi-ethnic. Around 30 million people are currently spending their life in Malaysia, with the majority living in Peninsular Malaysia. 50.4% of them are Malays, while indigenous people make up roughly 11% of the population. The so-called Bumiputra status is granted to Malays as well as some non-Malay indigenous people who have been living in Malaysia for centuries.
A further 24.6% of the population is of Chinese descent, and 7.1% of Indian ancestry. Migrant workers and foreign residents may account for ca. 7% of the population.
Since the 1970s, Bumiputras enjoy a “special position” according to the constitution, giving them the right to preferred treatment in certain areas of public life, e.g. education. This policy was initially introduced to even out inequalities among the different ethnic groups in Malaysia, especially in view of Chinese Malaysian economic dominance. However, it has somewhat backfired and led to new tensions.
Over 130 Languages
There are as many languages spoken in Malaysia as there are people of different ethnic backgrounds. Bahasa Malaysia is the official language, but luckily for expats in Malaysia, English is an active second language which is widely spoken, particularly by business people.
The official term for the English used by people living in Malaysia is Malaysian Standard English. The use of “Manglish”, a form of colloquial English with Malay, Chinese and Tamil influences often heard on the streets, is being actively discouraged by the government. In total, there are over 137 different languages spoken in Malaysia. The most common ones – apart from Bahasa Malaysia and English – are various Chinese dialects as well as Tamil.
Religion is a defining feature of life in Malaysia. With more than 60% of the population being Muslims, Islam is the official religion. However, freedom of religion is enjoyed by everybody. Buddhists make up another big religious group in Malaysia, followed by Christians, Hindus, and various Chinese religions.
Different religious holidays are observed across the country, including Islamic New Year, Chinese New Year, Diwali/Deepavali, and Christmas. Many political parties are based on race, ethnicity, religion, and even in legislative matters, religion plays an important role.
All Muslims are bound by Syariah law and judged by Syariah courts in all areas of life regulated by religion. Civil courts deal with all other matters and with the members of all other religious groups.
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Malaysia's Visa Requirements
There are different types of residence permits available to foreigners who wish to stay in Malaysia for a certain period of time. One of them is the short-term social visit pass.
Despite the name, this is not merely meant for touristic and social visits. It also covers brief business visits, journalists on short-term assignments, competing athletes, and other purposes, provided they have been approved by the Director General of Immigration.
A short-term social visit pass is handed out to the visiting foreigner upon arrival. The following documents need to be presented in person:
- a valid passport
- a return travel ticket
- a completed form IMM.55
- any supporting documents (if applicable)
Getting Ready for a Longer Visit
A long-term social visit pass may be granted to foreigners coming to stay in Malaysia for a minimum period of six months. While it isn’t a work permit in its own right, it doesn’t preclude the possibility of obtaining one once you are in the country.
A long-term social visit pass may be granted for an initial period of five years to spouses and children of Malaysian citizens, expats or non-Malaysian permanent residents. It is also available for a period of 10 years under the Malaysia my 2nd home program for wealthy overseas residents.
The supporting documents and forms required depend on the applicant’s personal circumstances, but they usually include a marriage certificate for spouses and birth certificate for children.
Do You Want to Work or Study?
The student pass applies to foreign students enrolled in a program of study in a public or private educational institution approved by the Ministry of Higher Education. The annual fee is 60 MYR, and the application must be made via the HE institution (i.e. the university in question).
The professional visit pass is issued to foreigners with relevant professional qualifications and/or specialist skills who wish to take up paid employment. The period of employment cannot exceed 12 months. The employment pass, on the other hand, is a pass which especially applies to expats. It is subject to approval by the Malaysian Expat Committee.
The last two passes serve as both residence permit and work permit simultaneously. Please see working in Malaysia for further information. All necessary application forms can be downloaded from the Immigration Department of Malaysia.
Settling in Malaysia
Foreign citizens who wish to stay in Malaysia for an unlimited period of time can apply for permanent resident status, which invests them with the same rights and duties as Malaysian citizens. Permanent resident status can be granted to the following persons:
- High net worth individuals, i.e. individual investors with a minimum of 2 USD million fixed deposit in Malaysia. After five years, spouses and children also become eligible. Applications must be made to the State Immigration Office.
- Experts, i.e. highly talented/skilled individuals with a recommendation by a relevant agency in Malaysia and a certificate of good conduct from their country of origin. Please apply to the Immigration Department Headquarters in Putrajaya.
- Professionals with outstanding skills, who — in addition to fulfilling the same requirements as experts — must have worked in Malaysia for at least three years. Applications are accepted by the State Immigration Office.
- Spouses of Malaysian citizens who have been married and lived in Malaysia for at least five years.
- Everyone else who qualifies under the point-based system: Points are given according to criteria such as age, academic/professional qualifications, language proficiency, period of stay, kinship ties, investment (especially if employment is provided for Malaysian people), and previous employment. The pass mark is 65 out of 120 points.
Education and Safety in Malaysia
Malaysian Schools and the Alternative
Six years of primary education are compulsory for school children in Malaysia. Prior to that, most children attend preschool for a couple of years. After primary school, students may chose to attend secondary school for five more years.
Primary education takes place in national primary schools and in vernacular schools, the difference being the language of instruction. While Bahasa Malaysia is the language of choice in all national primary schools, teaching in vernacular schools is in Chinese or Tamil.
Unless your child is proficient in one of the languages above, it makes sense to send him or her to an international school. Fortunately, there are plenty in Malaysia, most of them centered in Kuala Lumpur. There is a list of international schools available on this website. On top of that, there are plenty of international nursery schools and kindergartens for expat children.
Dress Codes and Losing Face
Last but not least, there are a few things to consider if you are an expat living in Malaysia: First of all, don’t forget you are in a Muslim country. While you are, of course, free to practice your own religion, it is a question of respect for your host country to honor local customs and dress codes (i.e. dress conservatively).
However, Malaysia is also an Asian country, so the concept of “face” is very important. Especially when you are doing business, it is important not to lose face or cause someone else to lose face. Both are considered inacceptable and will harm your reputation in every respect.
Heavy Penalties and Air Pollution
Another important rule for foreigners in Malaysia is to stay away from drugs. You may well be accosted by drug dealers during your stay in Malaysia, but it’s best to avoid talking to them at all. If you are caught in possession of drugs, depending on the amount you carry with you, you may face whipping, prison, or even the death penalty.
When it comes to general health matters, expats should be aware of the massive concerns surrounding the air quality in Malaysia. During the relatively recent and large-scale industrialization of the country, a lot of damage has been done to the environment. Air pollution can reach levels dangerous to human health: the Department of Environment may be able to provide information on current levels of air pollution.