Malaysia, once an unknown destination for retirees has become known as being "paradise on a budget." The multifaceted and multicultural federation of former British territories in Southeast Asia has generally been avoided in the past due to its access and government policies, but its appeal has grown tremendously among expats seeking a tropical climate and relaxed lifestyle.

Malaysia is a kaleidoscopic mix of exotic jungle, unspoiled beaches, and urbane city centers. You may never have heard of George Town, but the city in the state of Penang was featured in a “Top 10” list published by CBS in 2017 as one of the best retirement cities in the world.

The 2 Malaysias

The Federation of Malaysia consists of two regions split by the South China Sea. Peninsular Malaysia, to the west, is home of the capital city of Kuala Lumpur and, on an island just off its shores, George Town. (The island city-state of Singapore, no longer a member of the federation, sits just off the southern tip of the peninsula.)

Malaysian Borneo, to the east, has a string of towns along the coast and a rainforest interior that is home to orangutans, Sumatran rhinos, proboscis monkeys, and a bewildering variety of other mammals, amphibians, and insects, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Parts of its wilderness are open to tourists, but vast areas remain untouched. A new mammal (an unknown variety of slow loris) was discovered in Borneo as recently as 2012, the WWF notes.

Malaysia’s population and culture are vastly diverse. Throughout the federation, the core of Malay native culture is overlaid with strong influences brought by Chinese and Indian immigrants. Add to that a lingering whiff of British colonial influence in social custom, law, and architecture. Expats brag constantly about the high quality and low price of the street food in Malaysia’s cities, the quality of which rivals that of the dual powerhouses of Southeast Asian cuisine, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Malaysia has been independent from Britain since 1957 and has an elected constitutional monarch, a prime minister, and a British-style legal system. Islam is the official state religion, but in the cities, Muslim mosques jostle up against Buddhist temples and Anglican churches. An unusual number of religious holidays are observed, but the country is well known for its openness towards religious beliefs.

The Great Outdoors vs. The Urban Center

One word of caution: Malaysia is for people who like it hot and humid–because that's what you’ll get for eight months of the year, from March through October. The rest of the year its monsoon season. Expats who can’t take the heat tend to spend a lot of time in air-conditioned complexes, which are common in modern city centers, but less so as you travel away from urban areas.

The country is ideal for those who want a panorama of world-class outdoor activities. Malaysia is home to two World Heritage sites that are national parks, dedicated to preserving unique and endangered animals and plants in their rainforest homelands. Adventurers can follow jungle trails or visit tea plantations in the Cameron Highlands. They can climb the limestone pinnacles of the Gunung Api or scale the summit of Mount Kinabalu. And, of course, there are those endless miles of unspoiled beaches for surfing, swimming, scuba diving, and Instagramming.

The vast majority of retirees won’t want to live in the wilderness full-time. Malaysia’s cities offer the modern amenities that Westerners are used to but in exotic surroundings and for an exceptional value. According to Numbeo’s cost-of-living figures, in 2020 a one-bedroom apartment in George Town averages $350 in the city center and $235 in the suburbs. A centrally located three-bedroom apartment runs around $580. For buyers, condo prices run $157 per square foot. (Overall cost of living in Kuala Lumpur will be 20% higher, with rents often costing three or four times as much).

Pocket money goes farther in Malaysia, too. A meal at an inexpensive restaurant runs as little as $3, and a three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant averages $13. A trip on an efficient mass transit system is 47 cents.

Cost of Living

The cost-of-living site Numbeo provides a breakdown of consumer prices, including real estate costs, in the Malaysian cities and towns most frequented by expats and retirees.

You will need to run the numbers for yourself to determine whether you require expensive or moderate shoes and other amenities, but it shows that a couple can live a “moderate” lifestyle in a one-bedroom apartment in the center of George Town for as little as $1,065 monthly, even if they eat Western food at home, dine out fairly often, and keep up a health club membership.

That estimate doesn’t include taxes or medical costs or other emergency expenditures. It also assumes your monthly expenses stay exactly the same, that your retirement savings don’t grow and that you won't have any other source of income. 

At the lower limit for a couple in George Town, some basic math suggests that $200,000 in savings would last more than 15 years, though only eight at the upper limit as described. Most Americans receive Social Security payments—an average $1,503 a month ($2,531 for a couple) in 2020. These will cover a good chunk of your monthly expenses, stretching your savings further.

The Bottom Line

For expats, Malaysia may be a distant but welcoming corner of their country’s former empire. Plenty of traces of the colonial past linger. To Americans, it may well appear more truly exotic and otherworldly. It’s certainly worth a visit to determine if this is the other world for you.