Charis (not her real name) is a 34-year-old Malaysian who has been working in Singapore since the age of 26. In the following commentary, she talks about the differences between working and living in both countries and why she is unlikely to move back to Malaysia.
Everyone has different reasons to uproot themselves and work elsewhere. At the age of 26, I moved from Malaysia, where I’d been working for five years, to Singapore.
It was quite an easy decision to make, simply because Singapore is relatively close to Malaysia, and the commute between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur is convenient.
Yes, the exchange rate is favourable — at the time, it was about RM2.5 to S$1 — but it wasn’t the biggest factor.
I wanted to experience what it was like to work outside of my home country and find better opportunities here.
If anything, earning a salary in Singapore helped me to better support my parents, who were still back home in Kuala Lumpur.
I remember the first week I was in Singapore.
I was on the bus, looking out the window, and wondered: Why are there so many shirtless guys jogging on the street?
Jokes aside, for me, it wasn’t much of a culture shock moving to work here. In fact, I think it was the opposite.
I liked that I could take public transport any time of the day without worrying about my safety. Heck, I liked that there was public transport to begin with.
Back home in KL, I had to drive everywhere since the area I stayed in didn’t even have taxis or buses that go there, let alone trains.
Even if I do drive out to take a train from somewhere, I have to worry about whether my car is going to be safe. As a woman, I am extremely paranoid about safety especially when I’m commuting alone.
So, yes, I do like Singapore’s reliable public transport and not having to constantly drive.
You might be surprised, but food was also OK for me. Mainly because I could get reasonably priced meals at hawker centres.
I also noticed that I seemed to be walking a lot more. Again, not a problem as I quite like walking, and Singapore has quite a good amount of covered walkways.
I think I eased into working in Singapore quite well, in all honesty. However, joining the aviation industry came with its own set of challenges.
To elaborate, I think that was specific to the airlines itself, and not necessarily a reflection of Singapore’s working culture as a whole.
To put it simply, some of my friends likened it to National Service.
For sure, I wasn’t used to getting talked to like a school kid as a grown 26-year-old. It also took some time to “fall into line” and get used to apologising for mistakes I wasn’t responsible for.
The airlines’ standards were extremely high, and I had to adjust to that quickly. Quitting wasn’t an option because firstly, I refused to “fail” this challenge.
The second reason was more practical — I would’ve had to pay a five-figure sum if I quit before the bond period was up.
My refusal to quit spurred me on amidst the challenges of not only working in a new country but also in a demanding company.
But work kept me really busy, which helped, and thanks to the way training is carried out in the airlines, I’d formed very close friendships with my batchmates. Hell is where you form the strongest bonds, it seems.
Living on my own for the first time was probably my biggest challenge.
I did miss my family a lot, especially on tough days when you’ve kind of had enough of “adulting”.
Video calls are fine and all that, but it doesn’t really replace having your loved ones there physically.
Thankfully, after my training period was over, I was able to travel back to KL at least once every month or two to see my family and friends.
At this point, I should mention I had the privilege of discounted flight tickets and a salary that was decent enough to afford fairly frequent trips home.
I know that not every Malaysian working in Singapore has this, so I know I’m extremely lucky to have been able to do so.
After leaving the airline I worked at, I returned to the media industry — though this time in Singapore and not in KL.
I think I’m very lucky to have landed myself a job in a company where the work-life balance is great.
I’ve heard about the “cutthroat” culture in Singaporean companies.
However, I don’t see how this is different from my friends in KL who also work long hours and get mauled by their bosses’ harsh words over small mistakes.
Where I’m working now, it’s also a little more of a hustle compared to my previous experience working in KL, but I kind of like it.
It keeps me on my toes in terms of adapting to trends, improving myself, and being competitive in that sense.
I didn’t feel this way when I was working in KL because it was really laid-back. I didn’t have much of a push or guidance on how to challenge and improve myself.
That said, I do think about moving back to Malaysia to work all the time.
I worked in KL for about five years before moving to Singapore. I feel like the camaraderie and expectations are a little different there. There is room to breathe and let loose.
No offence to Singaporeans, but people in Malaysia are just a little more warm. That said, I also realise I could be biased because I grew up there and there’s a sense of belonging and familiarity.
This is definitely not to take away from the Singaporeans I’ve met.
I know plenty of Singaporeans who I love and have the biggest hearts, but it’s kind of society as a whole that I think is a little less warm.
I feel that Singaporeans are extremely cautious, so much so that sometimes a simple “please” or “thank you” seems like a huge effort to say to a stranger.
In KL, although it is not as “safe” as Singapore, I’ve seen so many more acts of kindness out in public, without people worrying about “saving face”.
I’ll give one example as well: live music concerts. With concerts in Malaysia, the crowds are fantastic.
People dance, sing, vibe, and help each other if anyone needs it. In Singapore, no one moves and no one talks to each other.
Don’t get me wrong though, I do love living in Singapore. Like I said, I’ve come to know some amazing people here.
My partner is Singaporean too, I moved from Malaysia to be with him, after all.
I don’t earn that much, but yes, I’ll say it — the exchange rate has been a wonderful perk to enjoy, especially since it allows me to support my parents at home.
I also love the fact that free and “healthy” activities like parks and such are accessible, clean, and safe, for the most part.
I can spend my weekends cycling to my favourite park and spotting wildlife, and it’s also nice to see many other people doing the same.
KL doesn’t have many of these easily available to everyone unless you live near a park. Even then, they’re not as well-maintained as Singapore’s parks.
One more thing, as a pedestrian in KL, even if it’s your right of way, you can never trust that cars will actually stop for you.
Until now, I’m still extremely cautious when crossing the road, and this amuses my Singaporean friends to no end.
Would I go back to work in Malaysia? To be very honest, I don’t think I could deal with earning MYR after earning SGD.
I’m not splashing cash like crazy in KL and buying houses and luxury items — like what many people might think of Malaysians working in Singapore.
But, in terms of value, it doesn’t make sense to work in Malaysia after experiencing a stronger dollar in Singapore.
Before moving here, travelling was bittersweet and I really had to stretch my dollar because the Ringgit was always rather weak.
Now when I travel, it’s more “affordable” in that sense, because the Singapore Dollar is so strong.
While I received my Permanent Residency and have been a PR for over five years, I’m not sure if I will convert to citizenship just yet.
This is simply because I need to have easy access to Malaysia in order for me to take care of my parents.
I should also point out that I ended up marrying my partner whom I moved here for, and we have a child together who is also Singaporean.
My expenses go to building a life here, so keyboard warriors — I’m not rolling in the green or anything like that.
So yes, I pay my taxes just the same as any citizen, but don’t quite get the same benefits Singaporeans get.
For where I’m at in life and my current priorities, I am happy with the way things are now — as a Malaysian working in Singapore.
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Featured image adapted from Charles Postiaux on Unsplash for illustration purposes only.
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