Before I go any further, I just want to say that I have never worked illegally in Malaysia, but that’s mostly because the pay is pretty low, about AU$2 an hour. I do enjoy volunteering though, as you generally get free accommodation and food, and the workload is a lot less. If you travel through Malaysia and stick around somewhere for more than a week, it’s highly likely you’ll be offered work of some sort. I’ve met quite a few foreigners from loads of different countries, including Bulgaria, France and Spain, who enjoy living here so much they’ll work a bit to make their stay here free.
If you’re reading this, you’re likely to be fluent in English, so that’s a plus for communicating with Malaysians. However, interestingly many of the tourists are actually from Germany and France, so if you speak either of those languages as well, you’re much more valuable to employers. So, if you want to chill out in Malaysia for a while, find a super cheap hostel and hang out for a while, maybe hinting you’d be happy to stick around and work.
On the islands it’s a little different. First, the accommodation is a lot more expensive. My hostel in Melaka was AU$5 per night. You can afford to hang around and hope an employer needs someone. The cheapest accommodation on the island is likely to be closer to AU$15-20 a night, which is still cheap, but adds up for the backpacker on a budget. That’s why I recommend doing your research beforehand, using Couchsurfing, Work Away or similar websites.
On the islands your options are basically limited to working at a resort, but these resorts are very different to my idea of a resort. First, they’re usually quite small and it’s quite easy to meet people and have a conversation.
Secondly, people who travel to Malaysia are USUALLY more well travelled than say the people you meet in Thailand. The exception to this is all the people coming up from Singapore for the cheap holidays, and the Malaysian visitors.
Third, this being Malaysia, alcohol consumption varies a lot. I volunteered at the Aguna Resort (please check that they are still accepting volunteers before showing up) which was run by Chinese Malaysians (Malaysians of Chinese heritage)*. This meant that there was a lot more drinking happening than there would be at a Malay run establishment, but the strongest stuff we sold was beer, as a licence to sell liquor was too expensive.
That being said, Tioman is a duty free island, which means you can buy your own alcohol (AU$12-15 for a litre of Absolute flavoured vodka), some mixer and a bag of ice and you’re set. This is an option many guests choose, and the resort is fine with guests bringing their own alcohol to drink in the restaurant. If you drink, it’s going to be very cheap for you to DIY, but drinking at a bar is ‘expensive’ comparatively. For example, a cocktail might cost you around $6, but a full meal plus a non-alcoholic drink will cost about $3. Hmm, looking at these prices, maybe I’ve been in Malaysia too long. My sense of value is getting skewed.
Volunteering or working here, you’ll probably be expected to help pick up guests from the jetty and check them in, inform them about the resort and the island, help make up the rooms and probably help out in the kitchen. You can also help in the gardens or maintenance if you have the required skills. You’ll also likely be leading activities such as snorkelling and hiking.
Perks of the position include unlimited snorkelling everyday, living on a beautiful island, lovely people and delicious Malaysian food. I would look at staying in a place with decent WiFi, as you’ll probably have a lot of downtime, and unless you’re trying to get away from technology, the lack of internet might drive you insane. Note, you could always pick up a Malaysian SIM before you get to the island and not be dependent on the dodgy WiFi available on the island.
So, that’s it. Even if you don’t find work, Malaysia is an incredible place to visit, excellent value for money and I recommend that everyone** come and visit.
*The politics and policies of Malaysia are too complicated for me to get into here, but in short, the government separates people according to their ethnicity and religion, and everyone’s identify card shows what group they belong to. The majority group, Malays, get preferential treatment (no/low interest home loans, more places at university, the right to own land in certain places, such as Tioman, that other Malaysians are denied). Because God.
**Malaysia does not welcome Israeli nationals. I don’t agree with this policy, but then again I don’t agree with most of the stuff done in the name of religion (any religion). Malaysia discriminates against huge sections of its own population in the name of religion, so it’s unlikely to change regarding Israel anytime soon.