Malaysia is a rapidly developing country that combines excellent infrastructure and high-quality health care options with a very low cost of living. In 2015, the expatriate magazine International Living named Malaysia the fourth-best retirement destination in the world. The magazine noted Malaysia's affordability, its vibrant culture, its amazing food and its openness to expatriates, among other qualities. On top of all that, Malaysia has convenient and inexpensive travel links to countries throughout Southeast Asia, to which you may be able to travel with the money you save living in the country.
Where to Live
While there are numerous interesting cities to consider during your search for a new home in Malaysia, several destinations have proven especially popular among expatriates. Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia and a cosmopolitan gem in the heart of the country. Malacca is a 600-year-old city on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, home to a variety of cultural and historical attractions. It has undergone extensive development and has a burgeoning expatriate community.
George Town and its surroundings on Penang Island rank among the most popular expatriate destinations in the country. The area delivers the convenience of urban living with easy access to unspoiled nature on the island and the peninsular mainland linked by the 8.4-mile Penang Bridge. Off the peninsula in East Malaysia, also known as Malaysian Borneo, the city of Kota Kinabalu beckons adventurers and nature lovers to its shores to explore nearby jungle and rainforest parks, wildlife and plant conservation areas, and offshore island retreats.
Renting a Home
International Living magazine reports that most expatriate centers in Malaysia have plenty of luxury housing options in modern highrise buildings with on-site services, and eating and entertainment options. This kind of accommodation costs between $750 and $1,000 per month for two or three bedrooms. Prices in the center of Kuala Lumpur are a bit higher. A spacious condominium in a modern highrise is an option worth considering if you plan to share housing expenses with a spouse or friend. However, there are plenty of other good options in most cities for single expatriates living alone.
According to data collected by the international price comparison website Numbeo.com, a nice one-bedroom apartment in a neighborhood outside Kuala Lumpur's central districts costs less than $170 per month on average. Prices rise to almost $600 for similar accommodations in the city center. On Penang Island, a one-bedroom apartment in a desirable location near services, shopping and entertainment is about $310 per month. Prices fall below $170 per month for an equivalent apartment in an outlying neighborhood. In Malacca, a centrally located three-bedroom apartment averages only $260 per month. In Kota Kinabalu, a one-bedroom apartment in the city center is about $190 per month. A three-bedroom apartment in an outlying neighborhood goes for around $265.
Utilities are reasonably inexpensive in Malaysia. Numbeo.com reports that costs for electricity, water and garbage service average just over $30 in Malacca and Kota Kinabalu, around $40 on Penang Island and about $46 in Kuala Lumpur. Unlimited broadband Internet service averages around $36 per month in most areas of the country. Prepaid cellphone service costs around 6 cents per minute. You can also opt for a service plan from one of the major carriers in the country. It may be possible to bring your current phone to use in Malaysia.
General living expenses including food, personal hygiene products, household cleaning products and the like are usually substantially cheaper in Malaysia than in the United States. To make the best use of your money, stick to locally produced food and local-brand products. International brands are widely available in Malaysia, but prices are typically higher than domestic alternatives.
Malaysian grocery stores offer a variety of inexpensive consumer staples common to the American diet, including bread, rice, pasta, eggs and meat. Rice costs less than 45 cents per pound, bread is about 65 cents per loaf, chicken is less than $1.20 per pound and eggs are less than $1.15 per dozen on average. High-quality fruits and vegetables are plentiful and cheap, especially local produce. Outdoor markets and grocery stores are stocked with all kinds of familiar and exotic food options to keep your pantry full. While grocery costs ultimately depend on your tastes and shopping habits, most expatriates should have no trouble eating exceptionally well for less than $200 per month.
Restaurant meals are also a very cheap option. A tasty meal at a busy local restaurant or a hawker center, which is an open-air food court, costs less than $2. A three-course dinner for two at a mid-range restaurant costs less than $12, excluding alcoholic beverages. Alcohol is relatively expensive across Malaysia, at least compared to other countries in Southeast Asia. At a restaurant, a local beer is about $2.35 for a half-liter bottle, while an imported beer is about $3.25 for a 12-ounce bottle. Prices are only slightly cheaper at local markets.
Personal hygiene products and household goods are inexpensive. A budget between $50 and $100 is reasonable for most expatriates. However, regular spending on contact lenses, cosmetics, souvenirs and the like can raise spending in a hurry.
Transportation is generally easy to find in Malaysia and often relatively inexpensive. Most bigger cities have a regular public bus system. Kuala Lumpur also has several local train systems, including a light rail and a monorail. The price for a one-way trip on public transportation averages under 50 cents around the country. Monthly passes are less than $25. Taxis are plentiful and cheap in most cities, starting at 70 cents plus about 56 cents per mile on average.
Malaysian health care is very inexpensive compared to similar care in the U.S. Hospitals in popular expatriate destinations are first-rate. According to International Living, most doctors and specialists in Malaysia received the bulk of their training in the U.S., the United Kingdom or Australia. Penang Island, for example, has seven hospitals staffed with internationally trained and English-speaking doctors, and they are full of modern medical equipment.
As is the case in many low-cost destinations, many healthy expatriates in Malaysia choose to self-insure rather than purchase insurance. Seeing a general practitioner costs as little as $15. Tests, medical treatments and procedures are also exceptionally inexpensive. If you prefer the peace of mind that insurance provides, policies are available from domestic and international insurers in Malaysia.
A Budget Example
To live on Penang Island, for example, you might pay about $310 for a nice one-bedroom apartment in a central location; $200 for groceries; $105 for utilities, an Internet connection and cellphone service; $100 for personal expenses; and $40 for local transportation. This budget leaves $245 per month to allocate toward health care, dining out, entertainment and savings.