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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.