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  • Writer's pictureKimberly OLeary

A tale of two cities: Singapore and Kuala Lumpur (so alike, yet so different)

Updated: Oct 20, 2023

In July, 2023, we spent a week in Singapore, and we’re nearing the end of our month in Kuala Lumpur (KL), Malaysia. One can’t help but notice how alike yet how different these cities are.

Singapore is a city-state island off the coast of the Malay Peninsula with a population of a little over 6 million people. KL’s greater urban area has a population of about 8.6 million, which is about 25% of the population of the country. Kuala Lumpur is the capital of Malaysia, a country which has a little over 34 million people, and is located on the Malay Peninsula (which is shares with a slender part of Thailand), on land bordering Brunei and Indonesia, and on some islands.

These two cities share history and culture but have chosen different paths in some significant ways. Here’s our observations.

The shared history & culture

Malaysia is home to more than a dozen indigenous populations. Some of these tribes are found on the Malaysian peninsula, the locale of KL and adjacent to and in Singapore. Of the original tribes, it was a precursor to the Malay people – an ethnic group originating in what is now Borneo – who came to dominate. The Malay people are found in parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Borneo, Brunei, and Singapore. The Malay people have been influenced by surrounding cultures since the first century, especially China and India, who brought both Buddhism and Hinduism to the region. In the 15th century traders from China, India and Arabia arrived in the great port city of Melaka and brought Islam to Malaysia. Virtually all ethnic Malays are now Muslim – by law, in Malaysia. Before the arrival of the British in the late 18th century, people in what is now Malaysia spoke a variety of Malay dialects, and some of those survive. Both Singapore and Malaysia were subjected to colonial rule. Portuguese, Dutch, and British took turns conquering and ruling various parts of Malaysia over a more than 500-year span. During WWII Japan occupied Malaysia and Singapore, but at the end of the war it was re-taken by the British and a process of decolonization commenced. In 1963, Malaysia achieved independence from Britain, and Singapore was united with Malaysia, but only two years later, Singapore was expelled over differences in policy related to ethnic diversity. This divergence is a strong part of both countries’ identities. Both are Commonwealth countries.

Ethnic & cultural make-up

Today, Malaysia is about 67% ethnic Malay (and other indigenous populations), 24.5% Chinese, and 7.3% Indian. Singapore is about 75% Chinese, 13% Malay, and 9% Tamil Indian with a small European population. Same mix of peoples, wildly different proportions. Chinese temples, Hindu temples, Islamic mosques, and European Christian churches abound in both cities.

How do the different locales treat this ethnic diversity?

In Singapore, there is a deliberate practice designed to integrate – but not assimilate – the ethnic cultures. I can’t do justice to the intricacies of the policies here, but I’ll try an overview. The Singapore government is comprised of a president, an elected parliament, and a prime minister. Singapore achieved independence from the U.K. in 1959, and joined Malaysia as a state in 1962, under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, its first prime minister, pictured here as a young man (he lived a long life and served as a statesman most of his life).

Lee was of Chinese descent representing a city-state consisting of predominantly Chinese. Malaysia, on the other hand, was crafting a nation to be run by ethnic Malay people and officially Islamic in religion. The merger did not work for either side, and in 1965, Singapore and Malaysia signed a separation agreement. In Singapore today, there are policies directed to ensure diverse voices are heard. One such policy, known as GRC (group representation constituency) ensures that some districts are represented by parties comprised of teams that include ethnic minorities along with those of Chinese descent. Singapore’s president is elected by the general population for five-year terms, and is currently a woman, Mdm Halima Yacob, born to an Indian father and a Malay mother.

Presidential terms are arranged to ensure diverse ethnic group leadership by reserving the spot for a particular group if it has not been represented by the last five presidents. Similar policies ensure ethnic integration in public housing, which provides housing to about 88% of Singapore’s citizens. One of our tour guides in Singapore said this policy was hard at first, since the ethnic groups were almost completely segregated when it commenced (think Chinatown, Little India, etc.) but most Singaporeans now appreciate and like the housing integration. Singapore has four official languages: Chinese, Tamil, Malay, & English, with English serving as a common language between them. Singapore children learn substantive subjects in English, then study their “mother” language (chosen by their parents) of Chinese, Tamil or Malay from an early age. Then, when they are older, they learn one of the other official languages. These policies have fostered an atmosphere of understanding and respect – honoring the multicultural identity written into their Constitution. This conscious respect for diversity appears to be a matter of great pride in Singapore.

KL is the capital of Malaysia, which formed into a nation around the same time as Singapore. It is deliberately Malay identified. The official language is Malay, and the official state religion is Islam. However, Malaysia prides itself on offering freedom of religion and language to its minority populations – Chinese, Tamil, and English. In both cities, you see a mix of races and religious practices evident in everyday life. However, in Malaysia, the Constitution guarantees protected status to Malay people. I must confess that I can’t easily figure out exactly how, but I’ve heard that stated numerous times since we’ve been here. There is a King (Yang di-Pertuan Agong) who is elected from a Conference of Rulers, and these rulers are all ethnic Malay. The current King is his majesty Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah.

The conference rulers (formerly sultans when the states were independent sultanates) are selected in their home states, mostly through family succession but some are elected. The role of King is mostly ceremonial but does play a role in ensuring Malay dominance. Moreover, it is illegal in Malaysia to criticize the King. Children in Malaysia attend primary schools based on their ethnicity, but also learn Malay and English regardless of the school they attend. Secondary schools are taught in Malay. All Malay people are by law deemed to be Muslim. If a Malay person marries a non-Malay, they are both deemed Muslim and Malay, as are their children.

When we walk around these two cities, how are they the same or different?

Singapore is smaller than KL in population (6 million compared to 8.6 million) but also in geography (710 sq. kilometers vs. 5194 sq. kilometers). Singapore consists of one main island and many smaller ones, so there is little room for physical expansion. Therefore, most expansion has been to build up – and there are many very tall buildings throughout the island. They also reclaimed land from the beaches to add land. KL was built in a jungle along the Klang River in the mid 19th century, when Chinese miners, financed by Malay Sultans, mined for tin. In 1880 Colonial British administrators moved in and began building the modern city. As such, KL is a more sprawling city – one with its share of tall buildings, but also wider, open structures surrounded in spots still by jungle.

Walking around Singapore, one gets the feeling of fresh, modern, innovative dynamics. Lush plants grow strategically in tall buildings, creating cooling features and skytop gardens. The city is so clean even the old buildings look new. Buildings are cleaned and painted regularly. There is little litter. The sidewalks are wide and clearly marked. The subway system opened in 1987, and feels totally modern, fast and easy to navigate. You can use a touchless credit card, making it easy. It is also very inexpensive, at about $1.40 SGD (about $1 USD) for a local zone. Traffic is reasonable in Singapore. This is because you need an expensive permit to own an automobile, and the transit system is everywhere and works well. The city doesn’t feel crowded, walking around. I asked our tour guide why, and he said because Singaporean leaders have been planning the city since 1965 on a 100-year plan. Housing and services are spread out all over the island and connected by transit. The water is safe to drink, although hotels hand out bottled water for free to ensure their guests stay hydrated when walking the hot and muggy streets. Singapore has advanced digital technology and excellent infrastructure. Singapore's port is the busiest in the world. It is the most popular city for Asian ex-pats to live. When we asked why, our guide said in Singapore, the rules are designed for ease of business, but in Kuala Lumpur and other parts of Malaysia, there is often corruption in business dealings.

Images of Singapore:

By contrast, KL is dusty and the old buildings look really old. The very old and the very modern are mixed throughout the city. On the modern side, the Petronas Towers rise gleaming and shining at night. There is a hustle & bustle. But, one gets the feeling the jungle might reclaim the city if given any opportunity to do so. On occasion, one can smell the sewer when out walking, but usually for a brief moment only. There are hotels and malls that offer modern conveniences in many parts of the city with amenities that rival any modern city. In other areas, it is hard to find anything that looks familiar. The city is congested with car traffic (interspersed with motorcycles and scooters darting in and out everywhere). It is difficult to even walk across the roads, and one gets the feeling it is not a city made for walking. The transit system is fine – a bit complicated and feels older, even though most of it was built after 2000. The lines were historically separate for buses, commuter trains, subways, and monorail lines. In the early part of the 21st century all systems were combined into one. Purchase of a single card will give you access to any part of the system. I think it feels complicated in part because it is a mix of systems combined into one. The water is not uniformly safe to drink, so you have to buy bottled water. Grab delivers large bottles from the local grocery, but it feels like a waste of plastic. The electric and internet have been good in our building, but are not uniform throughout the city. Some aspects of a fully modern city are missing. But, KL is growing. Its population is growing steadily, and we see big building projects. From our rooftop, we can see the Merdeka building, the tallest in Malaysia (and second tallest building in the world) is part of a larger complex that will include residences, office space and an observation deck.

From our apartment windows, we can see the Sunway Belfield buildings being constructed, and watch the workers in their hardhats walk home each evening. And, while ranking 94 on the EIU global liveability index (out of 173 cities), it moved up 19 spots from 2022 to 2023 and the Economist lists it in the second-highest category. Singapore ranks 92 on the list but has fallen 15 places. Images of KL:

Grab, the local version of Uber, is available easily in both Singapore & KL, but is especially cheap in KL. A ride across the sprawling city that might take 20 minutes by car costs about $6 USD. Shorter rides are often under $2 USD. A ride on the monorail costs about 40 cents USD per ride.

Both cities offer some benefits to citizens. Singapore boasts the support the government gives in housing subsidies and low-cost transit. While an astounding 88% of Singaporeans own their own residences, 77% of Malaysians are homeowners. Compare this to 66% homeownership in the U.S. We are told that jobs are easy to find in both cities. These home-ownership subsidies and transit make the exorbitant cost of living in Singapore a bit less for its citizens than for visitors, and jobs pay pretty well (we are told). In KL, everything is inexpensive. Food, especially, is cheap in KL, both in groceries and the numerous food-stalls throughout. As you tourist housing, we paid $1200 USD for one week in Singapore, in a small hotel room. In KL, we pay $2,000 for a month in a well-situated palatial 3-bedroom apartment on the 26th floor with a great view, two pools, and a fitness center.

The food in both cities comes from the same cuisines. Chinese, Indian, and Malay food abound, with a bit of British food popping up here and there. Both cities offer restaurants featuring cuisines from cities from other world venues. The food both places is good, although Paul found the food less spicy overall than he enjoys. But, we thought it was easier to find great food in Singapore. Both cities grew up with a culture of hawkers – food vendors tending to specialize in one or two main dishes. Historically, these vendors operated outdoors, moving along to sell their wares. In the 1960s, the Singaporean government moved these vendors indoors, into dozens of hawker centers. We were told these centers ensure safe, sanitary conditions for workers and customers. They still cook with traditional methods.

By contrast, in KL many of the hawkers are still outdoors and only located in certain areas. We are told that some moved from indoor to outdoor venues during the Pandemic and have remained as small outdoor businesses. In KL, we are told by our guide that the hawkers work 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. The workers traditionally work one of two 12-hour shifts. The hawker centers are easier to find in Singapore. In KL, you have to work harder to figure out where the good ones are and may have to travel farther to find them.

Both cities also have many modern malls with restaurants that offer food ranging from ok to excellent. In addition to Malay, Chinese, Indian, and UK food, you can find a lot of Japanese, Thai, & Vietnamese food and American burgers. The most expensive meal we had in a mall - Al Halabi, a middle eastern restaurant specializing primarily is Lebanese and Syrian cuisine - cost $50 USD for two, and we ordered too much and had to take some of it home. We've ordered from there twice more, always getting a variety but receiving enough for two meals. We did splurge for a night at the top of the KL Tower restaurant, and spent $200 USD for the all you can eat buffet and a bottle of wine. The view was amazing, the food was fine, but nothing great. But most of our take-away meals are between $8 USD to $25 USD for two in KL. In Singapore, there was a greater contrast between the hawker meals and the restaurant meals – the former costs about $10 USD for two, the latter about $50 USD for two.

Some of the hawker vendors have achieved a Michelin star, and while the line was too long for Hawker Chan in Singapore (where it originated) we were able to eat the famous chicken rice at the Hawker Chan in the Lalaport Mall in KL. That meal cost $9.50 USD for both of us.

Another interesting fact about food – many locals in KL and Singapore do not cook. They mostly eat at hawker stands or get take-away. We learned this when we discovered that our expensive (by KL terms) upscale apartment has no oven. It has a microwave and a toaster oven and a range top. When I asked the host about it she said “What would you do with an oven? If you want to toast bread, there is a toaster oven.” I said, “Well, for example, we might want to bake some chicken.” She replied, “I will get you an air fryer. It is faster and better than an oven.” We later discovered that a lot of Malaysian homes do not have ovens. This surprised us. A tour guide told us that during the Pandemic, it became a bit of a crisis when food vendors closed. He said that Malaysian men told their wives, “You have to learn to cook again!” This corresponds with the timing of more outdoor hawker venues to satisfy the demand.

What are some political downsides (from our perspective) to these cities?

While we applaud the social supports found in both cities (we rarely saw any homeless, for example, either place), there are some downsides, from our perspective. Neither country affords full status for LGBTQI individuals. In Malaysia, sex between men is illegal, although sex between women is not. Gay marriage is not recognized. The government takes a strict view on banning open expressions of gay identity, and only a few weeks ago a music festival was shut down abruptly when a British singer (who, ironically, is straight) in a rock band kissed another male singer on stage and made an anti-government speech about gay rights. Singapore, on the other hand, officially decriminalized sex between males last year, but had not been enforcing it for a long time. A majority of Singaporeans poll as supporting gay marriage but it does not appear that will happen any time soon. An even higher percent of Singaporeans broadly support trans rights, including sex reassignment surgeries. Singapore bans discussion of gay rights issues in the media, but Malaysia does not. There are LGBTQI activists in both countries, and a demonstration in favor of gay rights in Singapore in 2023 had thousands of attendees.

Both countries also have the death penalty. In Singapore, it is primarily used again drug smugglers & dealers, and a woman was recently executed for dealing. The death penalty is a downside for us in the U.S. as well. Both countries also use caning as a punishment. Singapore has strict laws banning littering and chewing gum. These are things that feel uncomfortable to us.

What about the weather?

Same in both cities! Hot, muggy. My phone often says 88°F (feels like 100°F). We wear light fabrics that breathe as much as possible, and do a lot of laundry since at least one of us comes home soaking wet from perspiration. But, in a way, you get used to it. And, all the indoor spaces are air conditioned.

What is there to do in each city?

We haven't spent enough time in either city to even scratch the surface of things to do. We only do tourist things occasionally, and even after a month in KL, there are lots of things we haven't had time to do. What have we done? We've walked through Chinatown & Little India, walked through the city streets to Central Market, then past the National Mosque and into the KL Bird Park.

We've been in a lot of malls - Lalaport (a Japanese mall), Merjaya Times Square, Pavilion, My Town, and others. We've seen three movies while in KL (the new Mission Impossible, Indiana Jones, and Oppenheimer). We met with other nomads, twice - people we are connected through in Facebook groups for nomads. KL seems to be on a lot of folks' journeys who travel in southeast Asia. We took a day trip to Melaka and have one planned to Genting Highlands (more on those in another blog). We did more tourist things in Singapore - visited the National Museum, took the cable cars to Sentosa Island, visited Chinatown and a rooftop garden and went on two tours. We get the feeling if we lived in either place for a long time, there would be plenty to do.

The highlight for me of our time in KL has been several visits to a batik store in Central Market. The store, Antakesuma, is on the Mezzanine floor (M-23) of Central Market. Their hand-stamped, painted fabrics are so beautiful Paul suggested I make myself a dress. The other items are equally lovely.

How about the people? Friendly, proud of their cultures, helpful. We ordered from a local restaurant, Nikka, using Grab (like Uber Eats) and when I go to our lobby to pick it up, the man from the restaurant recognizes me. “You are Kimberly?” “Yes,” I say. “I see you two walking by the restaurant on the way to the transit stop. In the future, you don’t need to order by Grab, just call us. We’ll bring it here with no delivery fee.” I thank him, thinking that the delivery fee is under a dollar and I really should walk to pick it up, but some days the heat just gets to you…. This is not like Fiji, where every single person says hello, nor like London, where people rarely speak to strangers - but something in between. Some of the Grab drivers are quite chatty, others are completely silent. But when asked, to a person, they have been helpful to us.

So as for our stay in Singapore and KL – it was the best of times, mostly, all the time. I will leave you with photos of the sun setting following by the rising waxing gibbous moon from our rooftop, taken a couple of days ago. We will be sorry to leave, and easily could have stayed longer.


Aug 06, 2023

Wow! You’ve really inspired us to visit BOTH places!

Kimberly OLeary
Kimberly OLeary
Aug 06, 2023
Replying to

That's great! We'd love to know what you think after you visit.

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