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Interview with Nicola - a British expat in Malaysia

Updated 7 Aug 2015

Nicola is a British expat who moved out to the small Malaysian city of Johor in 2014, when her husband took up a job at one of the town's university campuses. Her family has also lived in Singapore and Saudi Arabia, but she says the biggest plus of living in Malaysia is the opportunity to immerse yourself in a truly multicultural society.

About Nicola

Q: Where are you originally from? 

A: I’m originally from the north of the UK, but prior to my travels abroad I had lived down south for eight years.

Q: Where are you living now? 

A: We’re currently living at the tip of Malaysia in a place called Johor, which is a stone’s throw away from Singapore.

Q: When did you move here? 

A: March 2014

Q: Did you move here alone or with family? 

A: I moved here with my husband and four children.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do? 

A: My husband took a job at Newcastle University in Johor.

Living in Malaysia

Q: What do you enjoy most about Malaysia? How would you rate the quality of life compared to the UK? 

A: I enjoy being part of a very diverse, multicultural society that allows people to experience these cultures. I feel that our quality of life is higher here, as life moves at a more family-friendly pace. 

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about home? 

A: I sometimes miss the autumns of England and the spring flowers. And, of course, being able to see friends and family regularly. I also hate at times driving in Malaysia although I have adjusted to this over time - being aware of where to drive and at what times reduces this stress. However I would advise new expats to be careful on Malaysian roads.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Malaysia? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?

A: We have travelled to a fair few countries before, so I knew the first year is always tricky. Driving was my biggest difficulty and I can't say I have totally adjusted. We had recently relocated from Saudi Arabia and, although I’d never say Malaysian driving is as bad as Saudi, at times it’s not far off. 

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to home? What is cheap or expensive in particular? 

A: Cost of living is variable, and some things can be amazingly cheap. If you need to buy food, you can find some great places. If you want to have a massage, then come here and you can have a great Javanese massage at a great price. Education is the greatest expense and you really need to do your homework. There are a few international schools here now - Marlborough College, American International School, Tenby School, to name a few.

Q: How would you rate the public transport? Do you need to own a car?

A: A car is your only means of transport. Public transport is difficult at the moment, but there is talk of this improving. Expats normally get around via their own cars or taxis.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Malaysia? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?

A: Hospitals are popping up in Johor - Columbia Asia is one. I preferred the more established KPJ Johor Specialist as I found the doctors more experienced. Unfortunately, you do need to shop around and don’t necessarily listen to the newly landed expat - speak to the old timers who know the area better and have explored more.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Malaysia?

A: Dengue is something all expats need to be aware about. Learn what causes it, take precautions and read the news if there are outbreaks to protect yourself and family. Also driving is a concern - take precautions and strap yourself and kids in. Some expats take on the ways of some of the locals when they arrive and traffic accidents here are high.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Johor, Malaysia?

A: There is a huge range and, depending on your budget, you could get a condo or a very nice gated community house with a large garden. It pays to shop around and negotiate prices. A high number of people from Singapore have bought houses here because the exchange rate gives them a very good sized house.

Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?

A: Most expats either live close to the international schools in gated communities such as Ledang, Horizon Hills or Leisure Farm.  Some live in condos close to the causeway to be able to get to work or easily visit Singapore. 

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination?

A: There are a wide range of religions and religious celebrations in Malaysia and each faith is given holidays to celebrate them. As an expat, I’ve seen no obvious tension.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? 

A: People generally socialise through work or their children. People in Malaysia spend a lot of time outside their homes, especially eating, so if you are willing to do this you can make new friends.

Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends? 

A: Many people make connections through local Facebook groups that advertise what’s happening in Johor and then make connections. Locals have large extended families and so at times don't feel the need to open up to new people, but the few that do can be very friendly. They have often had friends or family who have travelled to the UK and can share their experiences.

About working in Malaysia

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit?

A: Fortunately, my husband’s company did this and this really helped to relieve that area of stress. People who have experienced Malaysia immigration have said it can be very stressful.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Johor? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? 

A: Johor is opening up international university campuses in Edu City. Newcastle, Reading and Southampton are the British universities on site. You search online for their current vacancies.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in the Malaysia?

A: Malaysia has a diverse ethnic mix, so being aware of the different cultures is important. Know what may offend or what may please your host. Malaysia celebrates many festivals and this could affect the best time to do business. The Chinese have long celebrations around Chinese New Year and will be visiting family and friends. The Malays celebrate after the fast of Ramadan. These festivals' dates change from year to year because they follow the lunar calendar. There are also the Hindu celebrations also to consider. 

Family and children

Q: Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?

A: Trailing spouses have to find their own role and niche within the new society that they are trailed too. Malaysia can be a very friendly place, but it can take time to get to know the locals. Try to surround yourself with adjusted expats not those who look for the negatives.

Q: Did your children settle in easily? 

A: My children settled into Malaysia quite quickly - Legoland Malaysia was a big plus for them. We had previously lived in Singapore, so it wasn't too much of a culture shock. They still get frustrated when people don't understand what they are saying. 

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions? 

A: Marlborough College, Tenby International School and Raffles American School.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?

A: Go with the flow, enjoy your time, learn about the different cultures and increase your palate. 

~ Interviewed in August 2015

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