One of the most common questions I’m asked by expats considering a move to Malaysia is, “Is it a safe place to live?” My answer is always “Yes”. I feel very safe here, as safe or more so than I did in Sydney, my hometown. But safety in Malaysia is a complex issue and it’s not just about the crime rate.
First of all, to really get a feel for Malaysia you have to split her into three distinct geographical areas. Peninsular Malaysia is divided by a central mountain range that runs the length of the country. Very few expats live on the east side of the mountains. Yes, it’s where some of the best beaches and islands can be found, but it’s also where there are two very distinct wet and dry seasons. The east monsoon shuts the east of Malaysia down for five months of the year. The resorts close, the beaches close and very little can be done due to the adverse weather conditions.
It’s wet, windy and prone to flooding. There’s a small, expat community but it’s not that easy to meet people.
The west of Malaysia doesn’t get hit by that monsoon to the extent that they do on the east, as the dividing mountains take the brunt of the bad weather, stopping its destructive force in its tracks. Consequently, its beaches and islands are usable and it’s a very pleasant place to be. Penang is in the west, as are the idyllic islands of Pankor, Langkawi and Pankor Laut, and they’re accessible year-round.
The Malaysian sates of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo are different again—they don’t get the destructive monsoon either. They are historically known as ‘the land beneath the wind’. Meaning that they sit below where the monsoon strikes. Just above them are the Philippine islands and they do get cyclones there—but not in Malaysia.
While there are plenty of stories about bag snatching, especially in the resort areas of Batu Ferringhi, Penang and Bukit Bintang in Kuala Lumpur, I’ve never met anyone who has been personally affected by it. I’ve also never felt personally threatened, even when out and about in the early hours of the morning.
If you follow the same rules that you follow at home—don’t walk down dark alleys at night and use your instincts—then you’ll be fine. It’s all about common sense really. If something doesn’t look right or feel right, then steer clear. I must be doing something right because I’ve lived in Asia for over 20 years and haven’t had a single thing happen to me during that time.
Wearing expensive jewellery at night to a restaurant or to an event isn’t an issue. However, I’d advise not wearing it when you are going for street food or hiking in the jungle. Not that I think you’d be in danger, but why tempt fate? The average salary in Malaysia is just under $1,000 a month, but the cost of living is so low that it actually balances nicely.
When we go out to restaurants we take cash and cards and don’t feel threatened by taking either. If we are eating locally, at street restaurants or street stalls, we always take a number of small bills. In most cases you will have to pay for your meal as it arrives. If you order water, you pay for that when they bring it to the table. It’s the same with each dish that arrives thereafter, so small bills are a must.
If I head to a market at the weekend I’m always aware of wandering hands and I’ll keep my wallet in my front pocket. My wife, Lisa, always carries a handbag and as long as you carry it in front of you, where you can keep an eye on it, you’ll be fine. While walking along the street always make sure that your bag is carried on the side where there is no traffic. This isn’t just a rule for Asia but for anywhere you travel or live.
If you are using a rickshaw or a trishaw always keep your bag on your lap. If you’re in a cab follow the same rules. Some people advise locking the doors of the cab when you enter and if that makes you feel safer, go ahead.
Road safety in Malaysia is actually very good. The roads themselves are in amazing condition, better than most roads and freeways in Australia, and the toilet stop areas are fantastic. I know that seems a strange thing to say but they are clean and organised and often well planted and pleasant to look at—and that isn’t the norm in a lot of Asian countries.
Driving in Malaysia is another issue. Road rules here, although in force, are suggestive at the best of times. Drivers running red lights is a common occurrence. Motorbikes and scooters going the wrong way against the traffic is too and drivers overtaking on the inside instead of the outside is a given.
Always use your mirrors always and don’t turn or change lanes without checking. That may seem obvious because we all use our mirrors all the time, but Malaysians don’t. Most Malaysians don’t use their mirrors, don’t indicate when turning and talk on their mobiles when driving. All things that you get used to. And driving in Malaysia does make you a better driver because you are always looking in your mirrors and always looking for a potential problem.
When walking across a road, especially if you’re at a traffic crossing and you are green to walk, keep looking left and right. Motorbikes are known to run red lights and if they don’t see you, you could be in serious trouble.
Malaysia is a tropical, humid place and you have to keep your fluids up too. Drink lots of water throughout the day and if you are hiking make sure you take enough water with you to sustain you. Wear something bright or colourful too, not something green or black. If you get lost in the jungle, you’ll want people to see you, so the brighter the better. Last, but not least, carry a phone in a sealed plastic bag—in case it rains—and carry some sterile wipes just in case you scrape yourself or graze a knee.
So, is Malaysia a safe place to live? Absolutely, hands down, yes! Don’t believe a lot of what you read on the internet. Most of what I have read about Malaysia isn’t true at all. Don’t be afraid to be bold. Go trekking, drive your car, walk around and really experience the country for what it is. The vast majority of Malaysians are honest, hardworking and happy to have you in their country. A country that they are proud of and proud to show you!