These two words are commonly confused by Malaysians. I will start off by providing the definitions of each (as per The Oxford Online Dictionary) along with the Malay and Chinese translations:
Live (Malay tinggal, Chinese 住在) – make one’s home in a particular place or with a particular person.
Example: I live in Kuala Lumpur or I live with my brother.
Stay (Malay duduk, Chinese 留) – live somewhere temporarily as a visitor or guest.
Example: I’m staying at the J.W. Marriot Hotel.
So we see that live is permanent – if you live somewhere, that place is your home. That is where all your things are. If you go away on holiday or on a business trip, you will stay somewhere, most likely a hotel. You don’t make your home in a hotel, so it is necessary to use the word ‘stay’ here. When you have finished your holiday or trip, you will return to your home – to the place where you live.
However, many Malaysians use the word ‘stay’ to mean ‘live’, not understanding the difference between the two words. Therefore, a Malaysian would ask someone “Where do you stay?” This is WRONG. The correct question to ask is “Where do you live?”.
When referring to the present, the verb “stay” is usually used in the Present Continuous tense, for example “I’m staying in Kuala Lumpur for 5 days”. This is because “stay” refers to continuous action which only takes place for a short period of time. The verb “stay” is not generally used a lot in the Present Simple tense. It is generally only used to describe repetitive actions, for example “When I go to Singapore, I stay at the Marina Mandarin Hotel”. This statement tells us that the speaker regularly goes to Singapore, and every time he goes there, he stays at the Marina Mandarin Hotel.
So the next time you need to ask someone “Kamu tinggal mana?” or “你住在哪里？” in English, remember to say “Where do you live?”