Singapore or Malaysia: Which Southeast Asian Destination?

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So, it’s a choice between Singapore or Malaysia? Not a bad one to have if you ask us. These two countries in the heart of Southeast Asia have stacks and stacks of draws for the would-be traveler. They share a lot when it comes to culture and history since they are so darn close to each other. But they also have oodles of differences…

On the one hand, there’s Singapore, a city state that’s topped out by the great rises of Marina Bay Sands. That’s home to enthralling ethic quarters – Chinatown, Little India – and boasts big draws like Singapore Zoo and Sentosa. On the other, there’s Malaysia, a vast nation of islands and beaches, primeval rainforests and colonial cities that burst with culture.

You might have guessed that it’s not going to be an easy decision. But this guide is on it. It will run through a whole host of categories to see where comes out on top in each. You’ll learn where’s best for beaches, for culture, for food, and a whole load more. So, without further ado, will it be Singapore or Malaysia?

Singapore or Malaysia: Ease of Travel

bumboat in singapore
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Traveling around Singapore is easy for two reasons. First off, you have easy access to several forms of public and private transport, including, buses, trains, and taxis. Second, it’s a very small country. A round trip around the whole of Singapore would only take approximately four hours. Yep, that’s it!

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Singapore’s MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) system has stations all around the island. There are stops that serve almost all of the most popular destinations. There is also a huge public bus system that covers the majority of the island – it’s slower than the train but still comfortable and air-conditioned. Make sure to pick up a Singapore Tourist Pass (STP) so you’re not always fumbling with your cash or credit card. They’re cheap and generally easy to purchase at a station. Any places you can’t reach by bus or MRT can be reached easily via taxi. And if you want to take a more leisurely route, you can always rent a bicycle and navigate the city using Singapore’s extensive network of cycling paths. 

Malaysia, on the other hand, is much bigger. More than 300 times bigger, in fact. So it’s no surprise that one of the most common methods of transport for travelers here is by plane. Domestic flights are a relatively cheap and easy way to get to different parts of the country, including the mainland, smaller islands, and East Malaysia (on or near the Malaysian territory of Borneo). Trains are also a good way to travel, both in cities and around the peninsula (though there is no train system in Borneo). Taxis and rental cars are also available and very convenient, though much more expensive. 

Buses are also available in and around the cities, but they are not always recommended for long-distance travel – in more remote areas it is not uncommon for roads to be partially washed away in heavy rains and storms, so keep an eye on weather forecasts if you’re thinking of traveling between cities and towns by bus.

Winner: Singapore.

Singapore or Malaysia: Culture

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Often, people who haven’t visited Malaysia will forget that the country is split in two halves: The Malaysian peninsula that borders Thailand and Singapore, and Malaysian Borneo on the other side of the Riau Archipelago. Sabah and Sarawak, the two states of Malaysian Borneo, have a much smaller population than the mainland (mostly made up of Malaysian Chinese) and are still home to the indigenous peoples of Borneo.

Malaysian society has been influenced by many different cultures over the years – most notably Indian, Chinese, Malay, and Indigenous Austronesians, all of which make up the majority of the population. However, more than 60% of the population are ethnic Malay or indigenous, and Islam is the national religion.

Like many Asian countries, Malaysia was subject to colonial rule for centuries, before becoming an independent sovereign nation in 1963. Today it is a thriving, vibrant country, with mouthwatering cuisine and some of the most colorful cultural and religious festivals in southeast Asia, including the Mooncake Festival and Malaysian Water Festival. Malaysians are widely considered to be friendly and honest people, so you should find the country very safe to travel in and around.

Considering that it was part of Malaysia for many years, it’s easy to dismiss Singapore as simply an off-shoot of Malaysia, with largely the same culture. And while these two places certainly have strong similarities, they aren’t the same (and don’t let any Singaporeans catch you saying otherwise!)

Singapore is a unique country for many reasons, the most notable being that it is both an island nation and a city, the only place in the world with that descriptor. Like Malaysia, it is also a unique blend of many influences, particularly due to its long history as a trading port. But add the widespread cosmopolitan sensibility of contemporary Singaporean and a rather eccentric culture emerges – one that can be difficult to quantify.

This only becomes more obvious when you hear the string of languages spoken by the locals: English, Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay, and of course, the famous hybrid language ‘Singlish,’ which is unique to Singapore.

Perhaps one of the best-known aspects of Singaporean culture is their seemingly severe rules – most infamously, the public ban on both littering and chewing gum. Whether you agree with them or not, it’s best to take note of and respect these laws while you are visiting. One attractive cultural consequence of these laws is that Singapore is one of the cleanest countries in the world. Another consequence, however, is that Singapore does not have much of a drinking or partying culture due to the country’s strict liquor legislation.

Winner: Malaysia.

Singapore or Malaysia: Food

nasi lemak malaysia
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When traveling in Southeast Asia, you have to take the local food culture into account. Not only because this region has some of the greatest cuisines in the world, but also due to the strong flavor profiles that may not always be to your liking.

Unsurprisingly. given their extreme proximity and shared cultural influences, there are a lot of similarities between Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine. Both food cultures are highly informed by a blend of Chinese, Indian, Malay, and Peranakan, but they express these influences in varying degrees. For example, their Chinese influence – Hokkien and Teochew cuisines are more present in Singapore, compared to the strong Cantonese influence in Malaysia. One thing you will notice in both of these countries is that they share many, many dishes, but there is usually a notable difference between the two varieties. Consider the famous dish Laksa, which is a thick, coconut curry in Singapore, compared to its Malaysian counterpart which is a sour soup made of tamarind and fish stock.

Generally speaking, Singaporean food is simpler and uses less spice and seasoning. Malaysian cuisine tends to be richer and more flavorful, and due to the size of the country and its population, there is more variety of dishes, ingredients, and flavor profiles. Malaysia also has several famous food destinations – Penang, Kuala Lumpur, and Malacca. 

Keep in mind that the debate around which cuisine is better in these two countries is rather fierce – it’s sometimes even referred to as a ‘food war’ and the origins of such dishes as rendang and chili crab are hotly debated.

Winner: Malaysia.

Singapore or Malaysia: Things To Do

gardens by the bay Singapore
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Expect to see at least one festival if you’re visiting Malaysia for longer than a month, as there are many loud and vibrant events to partake in from Diwali to the Malaysia Water Festival to the Lunar New Year. 

For outdoor activities, join a day trip to Batu Caves from Kuala Lumpur and explore the limestone caverns and Hindu shrines within. Take a loved one or a friend to go swimming and snorkeling on the pristine Perhentian Islands, and don’t forget to block out several days to visit East Malaysia (Borneo) to hike through remote rainforests, observe the exotic wildlife and even stay overnight in an indigenous ‘longhouse.’

Georgetown in Penang is also a must-visit, with its fantastic street art and reputation as one of the best places in the country for foodies, with countless food markets, hawker stalls, and top-market restaurants. The historic port-town Melaka, further down the coast, is another great choice due to its intense and fascinating history.

Keep in mind that many of Singapore’s best activities and attractions are centered around city activities, due to its densely populated urban environment – don’t forget that Singapore is a ‘city-state’. But there are some notable exceptions.

Of course, you must stop by Marina Bay, Singapore’s tourist mecca. Beautiful views, live performances, and unique modern architecture make it a fantastic place to spend an afternoon. With museums, galleries, and occasional concerts, you’re sure to find something you like.

The Gardens by the Bay is undoubtedly one of the most popular tourist attractions and an absolute must-see. It’s a fantastically well-designed modern green space also found in Marina Bay, and its forests and gardens are a perfect example of horticultural excellence. Don’t miss the aerial walkways that let you look across the gardens from 400-feet above! The extensive Singapore Botanic Gardens are also well worth a visit.

Another great thing to do on your first visit to Singapore is to take a “bumboat” (water taxi) around the city waterways. It’s a cheap and delightful way of seeing some of the best attractions in downtown Singapore. You can even go in the evening to catch the sunset.

Winner: Malaysia. Due to the significant size difference between the two countries, there is much more to do in Malaysia in terms of cultural sights, outdoor activities, recreation, and entertainment.

Singapore or Malaysia: Nightlife

Singapore at night
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Looking out over the Singaporean skyline, it should be no surprise that this city-state offers a vibrant and exciting nightlife experience. But one thing to remember about Singapore is its strict alcohol laws. So if you’re looking for the kind of all-night raving you might find in Thailand, you’ll be disappointed. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of nocturnal delights here, from the glamorous award-winning cocktail bars and flashy nightclubs in Clarke Quay to the hipster craft beer bars in Haji Lane. For some of the best views in the city, head to one of Marina Bay’s popular rooftop bars to watch the Marina Bay Sands light up while you sip your drink. And if you’re looking for something a little more laidback, you can always stop by Chinatown for a meal and a few drinks, or Holland Village for ex-pat pubs and bars.

The dress code in certain places (particularly in the Central Business District) can be strict, so be sure to don smart-casual attire when you head out on the town. 

Malaysia is well-known as one of the most socially conservative countries in Asia. If you’re visiting from a western country don’t expect the same level of uninhibited fun and raucousness that you’ll find at night in major cities back home. While visiting you’ll find that much of the best nightlife is, unsurprisingly, found in the commercial hub Kuala Lumpur. Here you can find your fair share of rooftop bars and classy cocktail lounges.

KL is often lauded as a melting pot of cultures, but you might be disappointed to find that there isn’t much “melting” of cultures when it comes to the nightlife here. People tend to stay in their communities, so you’ll often find bars and clubs that are attended almost exclusively by Chinese, Indian, Arabic, etc. 

Tourist towns like Malacca and Penang, also have their own late-night cafes and bars that should keep you occupied during your evenings, and offer plenty of chances to meet and mingle with locals and fellow tourists.

Winner: Singapore. There is night-time fun to be had in both countries, but you may be more impressed by the cosmopolitan offerings of downtown Singapore.

Singapore or Malaysia: Families

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Singapore is just about perfect for introducing the little ones to Asia. The reason? It’s got the wild energy of a big Southeast Asian metropolis, only comes without the stresses and worries of other parts of the region. For one, it’s considered extremely safe, boasting some of the lowest crime rates in the world. For two, it’s exceptionally clean. You’ll be able to travel from A to B with ease, and can rest assured that there’s the infrastructure and support needed to bring the whole fam. There are also some top draws for the kiddos, including Singapore Zoo – the most celebrated zoo in Asia!

There’s no reason not to take the kids across to Malaysia but be warned that it’s going to be a whole different kettle of fish to traveling in Singapore. The country is much larger and has some regions that are exceptionally difficult to get to (Perhentians and Taman Negara, we’re looking at you). It’s sure to be cheaper, but it’s also sure to be a lot more planning work when the whole crew are coming across!

Winner: Singapore wins this one.

Singapore or Malaysia: Beaches

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You don’t go to Singapore for a beach holiday. That’s not to say that there aren’t any beaches in these parts. There actually are. It’s just that the city state lies right by some of the most iconic Southeast Asian beach destinations that it would be follow to pick it over next-door neighbors, Malaysia included.

However, if you want to find a beach for a dip between urban explorations in the big city, then you can head over to the holiday park of Sentosa. That’s got a couple of lovely manmade sands that are well-kept and protected from the pollution of the downtown core. The best of them are probably Tanjong Beach and Palawan Beach.

Malaysia, on the other hand, is a beach mecca. Start on the northerly island of Langkawi. That’s only a stone’s throw from the uber-famous beach destination of Koh Lipe in Thailand, so you can imagine the sorts of white-powder runs and palm trees you get. Other the other side of the peninsula is the Perhentian archipelago. They’re trickier to get to but have perfect shorelines and the clearest blue seas.

From there, you can head out to seek the remoter sands of Kota Kinabalu on Borneo, or travel the Riau isles by boat. The latter are incredible for snorkelers and divers, touting coral gardens and luxury dive hotels that you’ll never want to leave. Yep, Malaysia has to win this one.

Winner: Malaysia.

Singapore or Malaysia: Prices

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Singapore is famously expensive – it is by far the most expensive place to live in Southeast Asia, and is actually one of the most expensive cities in the world! This is mostly due to high rent prices, but even traveling in Singapore can be costly.

A mid-budget trip to Singapore will set you back around $120USD per day, including food & drink, transport, attractions, and sightseeing. The average accommodation for one person is $75, whereas the average price of a hotel room for a couple will be $150. 

It is definitely possible to make travel in Singapore more affordable, by staying in capsule hotels and hostel dorms and eating at hawker centers and food courts rather than restaurants. Taking part in free activities will also save you quite a bit. 

Malaysia, on the other hand, is much more affordable as a travel destination. It is close to what many travelers would expect to spend in most Southeast Asian countries.

Average daily costs for traveling in Malaysia will set you back approximately $70 USD for a mid-range holiday, including transport, food & drink, and tourist activities. The average accommodation for one person is around $40, although the average price for a couple’s hotel room is $80. Accommodation prices can vary widely depending on where you’re staying.

Similar to Singapore, you can significantly reduce the cost of your trip by changing where you stay, what you eat, and what kind of activities you do.

Winner: Malaysia. It is much more accessible for all travelers, particularly those traveling on a backpacker’s budget.

Singapore or Malaysia: Which Country Should You Choose?

Both Singapore and Malaysia offer their own distinct and unique attractions, and both are great travel destinations if you want to get a taste of life in Southeast Asia. But if you’re visiting either for the first time, we have to recommend Malaysia first. 

The reasons are simple – Malaysia is far larger than Singapore. There’s just more to see, do, and experience both on the peninsula and in Malaysian Borneo. Singapore is a very clean and green city-state, but it’s difficult to compare its green urban spaces to the vast equatorial rainforests, countless beaches, rivers, and extraordinarily diverse wildlife you’ll encounter in Malaysia. Not to mention it’s much more affordable – if you have to keep a close eye on your wallet while you’re traveling, then there’s no question that your dollar will go further, giving you the chance to experience more over a longer period than you would in Singapore.

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