Like other East Asian nations, Malaysia has experienced significant urbanisation, making it one of the most urbanised countries in the region, trailing behind Japan, South Korea, and Singapore.
This trend began after the Second World War in 1947 when a massive migration from rural to urban areas took place, driven by the pursuit of a better life. Now, it is projected that Malaysia’s urban population will reach 88% by the year 2050 from 76.6% in 2020 .
Due to this, 79% of Malaysia’s workforce is based in cities, towns and other urban areas and only 21% in rural locations in 2020 . Houses have been built outside of the peripheries of these cities, accommodating large numbers of human movement on a Monday morning.
Amidst the pandemic, the rise of remote work and the escalating costs of city living have prompted a growing number of Malaysians to leave the confines of the sprawling cities. The lack of comprehensive data on this demographic shift makes it challenging to gauge the exact trend of this counter-migration.
Nevertheless, property experts suggest there is a discernible shift in preferences, with individuals and families increasingly seeking housing options outside of major cities.
Currently, all the states we covered in the analysis (Kuala Lumpur, Selangor, Penang, and Johor) have similar trend of people are moving out from the city centres and are moving into the outskirts which offer bigger and more affordable units. – iProperty.com Malaysia 
Recently, we spoke to a diverse group of individuals who decided to leave the city and embark on a new chapter in their lives. Kalitha, a 26-year-old bachelor, shared her motivations, as did Omar Aiman* and Hanis Sofia*, a married couple aged 32 and 27. We also had the chance to speak with Maryam*, mother to a budding family, who made the bold move to leave urban life behind.
Our discussions delved into their reasons for relocating, their experiences in the new environment, and the challenges and joys they encountered along the way. Each person’s unique journey provided valuable insights into the motivations behind this growing trend of reverse migration or de-urbanisation in Malaysia.
The Diminishing Allure Of Urban Living
For Maryam*, a staff member at Monash University Subang, the daily struggle with traffic congestion was her undoing. Since 2015, when her small family lived in Cheras, commuting to her office posed a significant challenge, particularly due to the construction of a highway at the time. The ongoing roadworks added to her commuting woes, ultimately leading her to seek a better quality of life outside the city.
I was living in Cheras, and the traffic congestion was bad because they were building a massive highway, and we were stressed out. We compared our journey with other colleagues in Monash – those who live outside of the city, those who live near the city and those who live near Monash. – Maryam*
To make an informed decision about their relocation, Maryam and her spouse sought input from their colleagues regarding their daily commuting experiences. The comparison highlighted the challenges faced by those living in the city, leading her to consider relocating for a more convenient and less stressful daily commute.
Travelling outside of the city was comparatively smoother because, in the Subang area, there are seven traffic lights that we have to go through. Each of these traffic lights takes a long time before you can pass. – Maryam*
After careful consideration, the small family made a collective decision to explore the area of Hulu Langat and eventually moved there in 2020. Despite the longer distance from their previous residence, the shift has proven to be immensely beneficial for Maryam’s peace of mind during her daily commute.
For Kalitha, who was born and raised in Penang, her move in late December 2020, was due to a job offer in Pengerang, Johor. Kalitha, who previously worked in Kuala Lumpur, found moving out has given her a different taste than living in urban areas.
My mind isn’t cluttered with worrying about catching the crowded train, worrying about snatch theft. – Kalitha
Omar and Hanis’s decision to move to Sungai Petani, Kedah, was sparked by a close friend who shared his positive experience in the area. Intrigued by the idea, the young couple began surveying the location and considering the possibility of moving there. What ultimately convinced them to make the move was the remarkably affordable rental rates in the area, making it an attractive and cost-effective option for their new home.
We were seeing our friend who lives here in Sungai Petani. He was in Selangor for a work trip. We were hanging out and he said; “guys, why don’t you guys move to Sungai Petani? And then, he shared his experience living in Sungai Petani.– Hanis Sofia*
Putting An Affordable Roof Over Your Head
As urbanisation continues to surge in Malaysia, the quest for affordable housing is a challenging journey for many. In the urban hubs of Malaysia such as Kuala Lumpur and Georgetown, a family with two children would need to allocate at least RM 1,000 and RM 900 per month, respectively for housing alone .
Rental or loan repayment represents approximately 20% of the estimated monthly expenditures for those living in Kuala Lumpur . It was an observation that Omar and Sofia, a young couple that has been residing with their family since tying the knot, have meticulously navigated.
We were house hunting at the time in Selangor, specifically in Shah Alam and Subang. For 1,200 – 1,500 square feet houses in Subang and Shah Alam were about RM 1,500 to RM 2,500 based on the unit type. A landed house or an apartment, less than 1,000 square feet would range between the same rental price. – Omar Aiman*
It was also what drew Maryam* to look outward to newer development programmes in city fringes, as the houses in the urban areas, she found, were beyond their household income. Based on the house affordability ratings, the state of Selangor and Kuala Lumpur are amongst the category of seriously unaffordable houses at a median score of 5.1 and 5.0 .
The price of houses in the city is only mampu tengok (viewed from afar). So, options for affordable homes or properties are often on the outskirts. – Maryam*
It was also the dangling carrot for Omar and Hanis. The couple was enticed by their close friend’s recommendation to move to Sungai Petani, Kedah, when they discovered that rental rates are much more affordable, allowing them to make the most of their monthly budget. According to the housing affordability rating, houses in Kedah fall into the category of moderately unaffordable at a score of 4.0.
This affordability factor was significant in their decision to relocate to Kedah, as it enabled them to strike a balance between cost and quality of life in their new home.
In Sungai Petani, rent for a single-story house would be around RM 400- RM 450. I recalled that number because it was the first unit’s price on Mudah. So, if you want to live comfortably around here, a two-storey house can be up to RM800. And the pricier ones would be RM 1000 – RM 1200, but it’s a huge unit. – Omar Aiman*
However, what made it easier for both Maryam* and the young couple; Omar and Hanis* was the flexibility their jobs gave them. Maryam is fortunate to work in a hybrid setting and the daily commute to work has been minimised since the pandemic.
For Omar*, who runs a coaching and writing business remotely with Sofia helming the creative part of the enterprise, moving out of the city requires minimal changes in their profession.
But for Kalitha, whose move to Johor was driven by a job opportunity, the rental market poses a challenge with limited affordable options. Johor is one of the states in Malaysia with a severely unaffordable housing affordability rating of 5.0 . The high rental costs make it difficult for Kalitha to find suitable housing within her budget.
Room/house rental here is expensive. Back in KL, I was spoiled with options, which meant I could find cheaper options, but that isn’t the case here.– Kalitha
Escaping The Urban Jungle
For Hanis* whose family initially came from Sungai Petani, Kedah, to Klang Valley to create better livelihood and chances – their decision to move to the state in the northern part of Malaysia was met with confusion, especially from their peers.
When I brought this up to my friends, they had these sceptical looks on their faces. They asked whether we were sure about the decision, whether I’ll be okay. – Hanis Sofia*
Part of their scepticism is rooted in the perception that the northern states in Malaysia that are politically governed by a conservative-oriented party may pose trouble to Hanis*, a Muslim woman who does not don the hijab, fear of ill-treatment and confrontations as some pockets of the community would view her as too “social” as a Muslim and may ask “why aren’t you wearing your tudung (headscarf)?”
There’s one, there’s this stereotype that we think about, Kedah. And being in Sungai Petani, especially for me being free hair [ without hijab], are you going to be okay there? People are not going to bother you and stuff? – Hanis Sofia*
Thankfully, a year after they settled in – things have been great for the couple. However, Hanis noted the perception of her personal decision of not donning the headscarf may raise eyebrows in other parts of Kedah with a larger Malay Muslim demographic in Kulim or Sik. In Sungai Petani, with its proximity to Penang, the community is a melting pot of different racial backgrounds.
The people here are very hospitable and sweet. I tell Hanis sometimes I feel like a tourist here. So it’s nice to feel like a tourist in your home country. – Omar Aiman*
In comparison to the relentless race against time in the city, the couple have adopted a slower pace of life. However, whenever they visit their families in the cities, they are reminded of the stark difference in lifestyles, prompting them to reckon with the contrasting rhythms of life.
People here aren’t in a rush. When you’re at a junction or a grocery counter, you’ll let others go first and wait for your turn. – Omar Aiman*
Time also ticked slower for Kalitha. The move brought a notable gift of reclaiming her time and personal space.
I got to focus on myself and other important things. It’s a calmer life. Nobody wants to one-up the other materialistically. There’s no pressure to maintain appearance. – Kalitha
Similarly, for Maryam, the move is a welcome change that evokes memories of her hometown in Kelantan.
By sunset, the surrounding is already peaceful and calm. People are no longer on the road, just like in Kelantan. When night falls, cars are barely on the road because everyone is resting at home. – Maryam*
Reconnecting With Nature And Harvesting Connections
Whenever I drive back to Hulu Langat, I feel like I’m breathing fresher air. – Maryam*
Maryam*, who commutes from time to time to her workplace in Sunway, recognised the shift in the sky and the air she breathes in especially when departing Hulu Langat.
Omar and Hanis* observed that the communities truly embodied the petani (farmer) in Sungai Petani. Everywhere they looked, they saw neighbours engaging in farming activities, and roadside stalls were abundant, offering fresh harvests for sale.
Every house has either plants you can eat or beautiful flowers or cute bonsai. Some used their patches of land to grow crops. Vegetables here are cheap because you get them directly from the farm. – Omar Aiman*
And in the true Malaysian spirit, the availability of cheap eats in Sungai Petani and the roadside stalls selling tea-time treats in Hulu Langat sealed the deal for both the young couple and Maryam.
Good food is within our vicinity – ayam golek, nasi kandar, plenty of tom yum,Thai food. They are also cheaper. A RM 30 here can go farther here than in KL. RM 30 can buy a meal for three people sometimes. – Omar Aiman*
It’s easier for me to find food, find kuih, find goreng pisang. It’s nearby. It’s not as hard as when you live in the city. – Maryam*
Not All Are Rosy
For Omar and Hanis*, their move to Sungai Petani has allowed them to save, a reality that many of their peers may not have the luxury to do when living in the cities. However, the couple gave a disclaimer that they do not own a car, and it was part of their criteria to live close to local shops, clinics and restaurants. Travelling further would require them to hire the services of e-hailing.
We had a few criteria when looking for a house. It had to be within walking distance of essential facilities. So we are a few minutes away from the clinic, pharmacy, ATM, gas station, 7-Eleven and wholesale vegetable seller.– Omar Aiman*
Contrary to this, Maryam and Kalitha had a different experience. Maryam, in particular, shared:
The cost is on the higher end, but we are still able to survive because of our salaries. -Maryam*
And with the location of Pengerang being far flung from the nearby township of Kota Tinggi and Bandar Penawar:
Surprisingly my living expenses increased. I needed to get a car due to the lack of public transportation. I’m unable to cook and the options are limited here, the price range is above average per meal. – Kalitha
In addition, all concurred that amenities in their current residences would benefit from improvements. For Omar and Hanis, specialised healthcare practitioners are a rarity in Kedah.
Certain medical specialists are rare here. They’re not many chiropractors in Kedah, for example. – Omar Aiman*
Kalitha also has limited access to the hospital for emergencies and amenities aren’t well-maintained in her current residence.
Most of Maryam’s time is still being spent in the city, she still brings her son to the indoor playgrounds available in the urban areas, due to the state of the playgrounds in her residential areas.
The facilities like the playground in our neighbourhood are not at their best. For now, an indoor playground seems better.– Maryam*
Tallying The Gains And The Losses
Moving outside of the city can be a life-altering decision for individuals and families, the assumption that affordable costs, peaceful surroundings and close-knit communities are up for grabs. As we spoke to our respondents, it is essential to carefully evaluate the gains and the potential losses associated with the move.
For Omar and Hanis, their decision has been carefully deliberated and having old friends living in Sungai Petani has been a tremendous help for the couple.
We make sure that we look through everything first. We were fortunate that the house that we got has all this accessibility and it’s close by. And it’s not as strenuous as living in other parts of Sungai Petani. – Omar Aiman*
It was also the case for Maryam and her family, in ensuring her son grew up in a more peaceful surrounding – the move came at the right time. However, it doesn’t necessarily translate to lower household costs.
Kalitha is still adjusting to the inconveniences such as the limited amenities and facilities in the area.
For all of them, a trade-off has been made, with rural areas developing at a slower pace – in return, they have acknowledged the drawbacks and savour the advantages of moving away; peace of mind, cheaper food and better community.
Nevertheless, as remote work becomes a viable option and families seek more affordable housing options, the potential for more millennials to move away from the cities is uncertain. This trend would fracture the largely ageing population in rural Malaysia – whether they will drastically alter the dynamics of these communities in the future or bring the development they desperately need, only time will tell.
*Names have been changed to maintain our respondents’ anonymity.
Explore our sources:
- Mohamad Shukor Mat Lazim. (2020). Household Expenditure Survey Report. Evolution of Migration for Urban and Rural. Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM). Link.
- M.T.Schaper. (2020). Malaysia’s Self-Employment Explosion: Why So Many Own- Account Workers? ISEAS. Link
- Business Today. (2021). More Malaysians are moving out of the city and to the outskirts. Link
- Social Wellbeing Research Centre (2023). BELANJAWANKU:Expenditure Guide for Malaysians 2020/2021. Kuala Lumpur. University of Malaya Press. Link
- Ismail et al., (2019). Rethinking Housing: Between State, Market and Society. A Special Report for the Formulation of the National Housing Policy (2018 -2025). Khazanah Research Institute. Link