The showdown: Singapore vs. Kuala Lumpur

The showdown: Singapore vs. Kuala Lumpur

Who's bigger, better, tastier, et cetera? Two Asian capitals duke it out
Which city is the bigger hitter: Singapore or Kuala Lumpur?

Just like all the greats -- Athens and Rome, London and New York, Paris and Berlin -- Singapore and Kuala Lumpur have had to endure a long-standing rivalry over which city does what best.

But for two capitals whose cultural similarities can sometimes outweigh their differences, finding a true winner in the great debate can prove difficult ...

Street food

Sweet, sour and spicy, Singapore's barbecued stingray doesn't compare to a simple plate of nasi goreng from a KL street trader. Without a doubt, the longest-running and most vociferous war between the two cities has always involved food.

In Singapore, street food equals hawker centers. And let's face it -- while they're supposedly cleaner, they just don't have the taste of a gritty roadside stall. While Singapore does do better Peranakan and Teochew cuisine, and a meaner chili sauce, there's something to be said about street food actually coming from the street.

And in Kuala Lumpur the stalls are never-ending -- from Ramly burgers to lok lok and satay. Their popularity proves something that oh-so-clean Singapore can't: when your street food is still in the street, you know you're in Asia.

Verdict: Kuala Lumpur


Quantity does not win over quality. Kuala Lumpur's less crowded and more affordable malls beat Singapore. Singapore may have more shopping centers -- ION Orchard (2 Orchard Turn, +65 6238 8228,, Ngee Ann City (391A Orchard Road, +65 6733 0337;, VivoCity (1 Harbourfront Walk, +65 6377 6860;, Marina Bay Sands Shoppes (10 Bayfront Ave., +65 6733 0337;, Mustafa (145 Syed Alwi Road, +65 6295 5855; -- but the shopping malls in Kuala Lumpur -- KLCC (Lot No. 241, +60 3 2382 2828;, Starhill (Starhill Gallery 181, Jalan Bukit Bintang, +60 3 2782 38556;, Berjaya Times Square (1 Jalan Imbi, +60 3 2117 3111; -- are just as good, if not better, and the prices tend to be around 10 percent cheaper.

With just as many high-end stores -- and an interesting mix of cheap local fashion -- Kuala Lumpur is the obvious choice, not least because Kuala Lumpur's malls are a lot emptier than Singapore's.

Verdict: Kuala Lumpur

Taxi drivers

Singapore's ComfortDelGro taxis may drive you to the point of profanity but at least you won't be ripped off. Taxi drivers in both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are annoyingly often as lost as the passenger. But in Singapore, drivers have GPS, the cars pass roadside safety tests, and the booking system is relatively easy and fast. And, while prices are high, they're regulated -- meaning there's no haggling. Ever.

In Kuala Lumpur, drivers are either indifferent or crazy and can charge four times the metered price. Traffic can be atrocious any time of the day and travelling at night -- especially for lone females -- is way more dangerous than it should be. So no surprise that Malaysia's taxis have been voted the worst in the world.

Verdict: Singapore


Singapore's swanky nightclubs are a bigger hit with party revelers. Whether it's live jazz, karaoke or a philosophical talk you're after, Singapore is the place to be. Thanks to its large expat population, it simply has more to offer in terms of nightlife, from rooftop bars and international dance acts, to celebrity restaurants and glamorous nightclubs such as Avalon and Pangaea (Marina Bay Crystal Pavilion, 2 Bayfront Ave.,, and Ku De Ta (57/F Marina Bay Sands, 1 Bayfront Ave., +65 6688 7688;

Kuala Lumpur, in contrast, has a more vibrant local music scene, with venues like No Black Tie (17 Jalan Mesui; +603 2142 3737) consistently providing awesome entertainment. But with standard nightlife centering around samey areas like Changkat, Kuala Lumpur City Center and Chinatown, things can get a little dull over time.

Verdict: Singapore


Outdoor massages in Singapore's humidity are no competition for KL's no-nonsense hammams. This simply wouldn't be Asia if it weren't for a massage parlor every few blocks.

But where Kuala Lumpur is known for its cheaper, traditional Malay variety, Singapore has a plethora of higher-end spas that make pampering an other-worldly venture.

That said, the fact that Kuala Lumpur has two hammams -- Singapore has none -- and you can get a really good two hour deep-tissue massage for RM80 (S$40) almost anywhere; the winner has got to be Kuala Lumpur.

Verdict: Kuala Lumpur


Singapore's new modern, eye-catching buildings beat out KL's Petronas Towers. A shared British history has left an interesting architectural legacy in both Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, although Singapore has better preserved its end of things.

The restoration of shophouse areas like Duxton Hill, Spottiswoode Park and Arab Street simply shows how much the city values its iconic buildings.

Then there's the vastly changed Marina Bay waterfront -- an area that simply didn't exist five years ago -- which, thanks to buildings like the durian-shaped Esplanade (1 Esplanade Drive, +65 6828 8222; and the Moshe Safdie design Marina Bay Sands -- is further establishing Singapore as a major player in the world of forward-thinking architecture.

Kuala Lumpur's large number of Islamic-inspired buildings, from the Kuala Lumpur Convention Center (KLCC, +60 3 2382 3359;, Petronas Towers (Jalan Ampang, +60 3 2051 1320; and Islamic Arts Museum (Taman Budaya Kuala Lumpur, Jalan Sultan Mohamed, +60 3 2274 2020;, to Putrajaya and Dayabumi, demonstrate its own cultural and religious ties.

But apart from the Towers, what new stunning architecture can be seen gracing its skies? Kuala Lumpur's shophouses and art deco facades are in desperate need of repair, and the city has already lost historical buildings like Bok Mansion and Pudu Jail to time. Let's just hope they don't lose more.

Verdict: Singapore


It's safe to breathe in Singapore's air, but we can't say the same for Kuala Lumpur. This really shouldn't even be a category -- but let's go for it anyway.

Thanks to public fines against littering and an obsession with cleanliness, Singapore -- or "Sterile City", as it's sometimes called -- is the cleanest capital in the world.

Kuala Lumpur, on the other hand and like many other cities in the world struggles to compete with the Singaporean fastidiousness with cleanliness. But that, some may argue, could bring a sense of roughness, chaos and excitement the city-state is lacking in.

Verdict: Singapore

Cost of living

It will cost you to live in Singapore -- approximately 47 percent more. No contest here -- according to, Kuala Lumpur is 47 percent cheaper than Singapore -- prices that are reflected in everything from a night out on the town to a 85-square-meter apartment (which is actually 70 percent cheaper in Kuala Lumpur).

But let's investigate. People in Kuala Lumpur tend to earn considerably less than Singaporeans -- so, technically, have even less money to spend when they do go out. That said, if you stick to basics in both cities, you'd need S$36,000 in Singapore for the same lifestyle that would cost just S$19,060 in Kuala Lumpur.

Verdict: Kuala Lumpur

Overall verdict: It's a draw!.

Freelance photojournalist Kate Hodal has filed copy from steaming volcanoes in Iceland, the Prime Minister's office in Tuvalu and the deforested jungles of the Amazon. When she's not behind the lens or in front of the screen, she can be found madly dashing away on those other keys -- the piano's -- or singing along with the buskers on Orchard Road.

Read more about Kate Hodal