Retire in Malaysia: How Safe Is It for You as a Foreigner?

RetirePedia's Roving Reporter Jim VeinotBy Jim Veinot

Before you decide to retire in Malaysia, you want to know how safe it is to live there as an expat. Crime rates are better than they were and improving every year, but the rate of criminal activity is still high and regarded as dangerous by several organizations.

The police force has created smaller stations in tourist areas to protect the area visitors, and the army has an increased presence in rural areas. Checkpoints are more frequent, as are searches and arrests.

The criminal activity that is highest is petty theft; there is very little danger of murder or burglary.

The homicide rate is with 2.3 murders per 100,000 persons low. To compare: Spain has a murder rate of 0.7 and the United States of 3.9 (Source: WikiPedia). 

Kuala Lumpur has become one of the most unsafe places in the world for theft. Purse snatching, or theft of other valuables such as computer bags and smartphones occur regularly on the streets and anywhere pedestrians can be found.

These thefts are often accomplished by a motorcycle partnership with one thief driving and the other grabbing. Sometimes it’s done by car from the passenger seat, and sometimes the thieves are armed.

You are advised to keep purses and bags closed but not to wrap straps about your arms as people have been dragged by cars in attempted thefts.

Malaysian Tourist Police on duty inside the Danga City Mall, Johore BahruMalaysian Tourist Police on duty inside the Danga City Mall, Johore Bahru [© Rizuan (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons]

Credit card fraud is also a problem when shopping, even in supposedly legitimate storefronts. The information is taken from the card reader by a device hidden below the counter and stored for further use. Some time in the future a charge is made to your card; the amount depends on your card limit, but some charges have been reported up to $10,000 USD.

When you retire in Malaysia (or in some of the other countries we've written about), it’s wise to have two cards, one with a minimal amount which is used for shopping. Use of cards at ATMs is still fairly safe, but that leaves you in the position of paying with cash which can make you a target if spotted. 

A combination of taxi drivers and prostitutes can work their spell over unsuspecting customers, should one be so foolish. The driver will offer to procure, provide a crib and a sex worker, and then rob the john while he is otherwise engaged. He is then abandoned while the worker and driver leave together. 

Malaysia does not condone the use or trafficking of drugs and the penalties are stiff. If you are found guilty of trafficking you can face the death penalty. Quantities greater than 15 grams (½ oz) of cocaine or 200 grams (7 oz) of marijuana are considered sufficient to be charged with trafficking.

Impaired driving is also considered a serious crime here in Malaysia. Roadside checks are frequent, and everyone stopped is subject to a breathalyzer test. Failure to comply results in an immediate charge, suspension of license and seizure of vehicle. Blowing over in a test will also result in incarceration, in a system where process is notoriously slow.

Scams are on the rise as well; people are being approached on the telephone or in person with stories of immediate and dire consequences should they not be able to pay a fine or meet a financial obligation by a certain time. Con artists will pledge non-existent assets for a short term loan. The best advice is to turn such approaches away.

There have been incidents of kidnapping over the past decade, with murder the outcome if demands are not met. Such incidents are rare but have occurred, generally on the east coast in remote tourist camps and resorts. These areas are more heavily policed nowadays.

Retire in Malaysia: Tips for Your Safety

When you retire in Malaysia, the most important thing you can do is maintain a high level of awareness.

Don’t walk down a street talking on your phone because you won’t be paying attention to what’s going on around you (good advice anywhere!).

Walk on the inside of the curb away from traffic and always walk facing oncoming traffic so you can see what’s going on.

Don’t walk in poorly lit or poorly populated areas. In fact reduction in crime rates has been achieved in some parts of KL just by increasing lighting in parks and other public places.

Walk in groups if possible. Don’t walk in nightclub areas after midnight. Use a common sense approach to safety and abandon any sense of privilege you may have. 

Gated communities are generally pretty safe, as are hotels with security services. Burglary is not a top crime form in KL or other parts of the country. The emergency phone number in Malaysia is 999 and the RMP (Royal Malaysia Police) is very helpful.

For more information about the actual safety situation in Malaysia see the US Dept of State OSAC Report (2016).

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