Both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are major gateways to Southeast Asia with plenty of air routes to regional destinations, making both popular stopovers on any Southeast Asian sojourn. If you are wondering which city is a better place for tourism and can visit only one, here are some points which can hopefully help you decide.
Culturally, both cities offer similarly themed attractions in the sense that both have cultural enclaves in the form of a Chinatown, Little India and Malay village. Both cities are also excellent places to visit for some colonial British architecture and fine examples are the Moorish-themed railway station in Kuala Lumpur and the Armenian Church and National Gallery in Singapore.
Check out my suggested Singapore itinerary HERE
If we are to talk about tourist attractions that are located solely within the city limits, then I would probably give Singapore a slight edge in this criterion. Aside from the cultural attractions stated above which are relatively equal between both cities, you also get to benefit from world-class family attractions and entertainment in Singapore through its theme parks (i.e. Universal Studios, SEA Aquarium, etc) and casinos. You will find casinos and theme parks if you drive from Kuala Lumpur as well but these are not located within the city limits.
Winner: slight edge to Singapore
A highly debatable topic, I would probably say that both cities are equal overall when it comes to the food aspect. Kuala Lumpur has a lively hawker and local food scene as well as some seriously imaginative cafes but Singapore has an edge when it comes to fine dining while also having a good local food scene and established cafe culture. Of course, Kuala Lumpur will have an edge when it comes to prices but this criterion doesn’t cover costs (the next one does).
Subsidies and an abundance of natural resources in Malaysia have made its capital, Kuala Lumpur one of the cheapest cities in Asia. Even the luxury hotels here are among the most affordable in the region and so are other travel expenses such as food, ground transport and basic services. The goods and services tax was also abolished recently making some consumer goods from foreign brands slightly cheaper than Singapore in some cases.
In Singapore, expect to pay 2x to 3x what you’d pay in Kuala Lumpur in terms of food and ground transport. As a general rule, food prices carry a similar quantum in both cities. For example, a plate of noodles which would go for SGD 4 to 5 in Singapore’s hawker centers will cost also MYR 4 to 5 in Kuala Lumpur’s hawker centers (exception are in high-end places such as the shopping mall underneath the Petronas Towers). With the SGDMYR exchange rate being almost 3.00, you’re essentially paying only 1/3 in KL.
Winner: Kuala Lumpur is the undisputed winner over Singapore when it comes to costs/prices
Singapore is the clear winner in terms of safety. As one of the safest cities in the world, pick-pocketing and other street crimes are almost unheard of in Singapore. Kuala Lumpur in general is also safe but tourists need to watch out for bag snatching which can happen around the tourist areas and scams such as foreigners introducing themselves as plainclothes police and asking for your passport.
Winner: Singapore is a city that’s hard to beat when it comes to safety and so has a definite edge over Kuala Lumpur
Day / Short Trip Opportunities
Both destinations offer plenty of day trip opportunities. From Singapore, you can head out to the nearby destinations in Malaysia or Indonesia. Johor Bahru, where you can find Legoland, is a popular short jaunt and so is Melaka which is 4 hours away. Further south, you can also check out the islands of Batam or Bintan in Indonesia which are known for their beach resorts and golf courses.
That being said, there are distinct advantages if you’re going for day trips from Kuala Lumpur in the sense that you won’t have to clear through immigration. Destinations such as Melaka, Genting Highlands or Ipoh are only a couple of hours drive away. Further afield, you can also fly in and out of Penang within a day if you so wish.
Winner: Kuala Lumpur offers more accessible day trip opportunities that require less hassle. In Singapore, you would need to cross international borders.
If you are wondering whether Singapore or Kuala Lumpur has better nightlife, you need to look past the quality and availability of clubs and bars. Both offer various types of nightlife options – from swanky and exclusive joints to neighborhood pubs – but generally there are less rules in Kuala Lumpur when it comes to alcohol consumption. In Singapore for example, people can’t consume alcohol in public areas between 10:30PM to 7AM with certain areas being designated as liquor control zones.
Winner: Kuala Lumpur
Where to Go If You Can Choose Just One?
You can’t go wrong with either Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. However, if it is your first time in Asia, I would recommend choosing Singapore instead as its pleasant environment, diverse cuisine and highly developed transportation sector serve as a good prelude to what this diverse continent can offer. For something slightly more authentic, Kuala Lumpur’s urban grit is certainly more reflective of Asia than Singapore and the former is also cheaper. Kuala Lumpur is also a better place to visit if you’re very keen on Islamic culture.
Where to Stay in Singapore or Kuala Lumpur
Singapore – Hotel Yan is a good midrange option. Located in the increasingly hipster Jalan Besar neighborhood, you’ll find plenty of cafes and charming eateries nearby.
Kuala Lumpur – For the best views of the Petronas Towers, you can’t go wrong with the Traders Hotel Kuala Lumpur.