We have somewhat different experiences of Malaysia. I couldn’t live here for less than $650 a month. I think $1,500 is about right for comfort. But different strokes for different folks and all that.
You don’t need a VPN to access Medium (or indeed any other banned websites) here (I’m in KL at the moment). All you need to do is manually configure your internet connection to use Google’s DNS settings. Sounds complicated but Google it — it’s really easy to do. This works nearly everywhere (except China and Saudi in my experience) for dodging firewalls.
However, there are advantages to using a VPN over a DNS change. So don’t feel bad about buying a VPN. (I pay $8 a year for my VPN — it doesn’t have to be a big expense).