Recalling my last visit to the California Department of Motor Vehicles a few years ago, Diane and I cringed as the expiration date of our drivers licenses quickly approached. Usually looking more positively on a root canal than a trip to any government office, we’re glad we decided to hold off on buying a car or motorbike. But even though we don’t have intentions of buying a vehicle in Malaysia, we do plan moving into a suburban house in Chiang Mai, Thailand next summer which makes walking impractical so we’ll need to buy a motorbike. Legally speaking, many nations allow you to drive with a license from your home country but usually only for a few months (although every Brit expat we’ve come across drives here on their UK license since it’s almost perpetual with an expiry date of your grandchild’s 80th birthday). Having looked into the rules for obtaining a Thai drivers license, we decided no sane person would even attempt the long and tedious procedure that includes having someone act as your translator. Fortunately, it’s legal to drive in Thailand with a current Malaysian or Singapore license and Malaysia offers convenient conversion of foreigners drivers licenses so we prepared ourselves mentally for the trudge across the bay to the local JPJ office (a Malaysian acronym for the Road Transport Department).
Back in the good old days of the MM2H Forum they had extensive posts and topics on the conversion process and they all made it sound complicated, frustrating and tedious. Recalling obstacles like non-English speaking government officials not understanding the process and long waits at the office, we anticipated the worst. But sometimes life throws you a curve ball and as it turns out, our trip to the JPJ turned out to be surprisingly pleasant and quick. Although we only received a receipt because it’s a two-step process for foreigners whose home country doesn’t have a bilateral agreement with Malaysia, the experience was anything but frustrating and in fact may have been the world’s easiest navigation of government bureaucracy. Unusually generous rules even allow holders of expired foreign drivers’ licenses the right to convert to a Malaysian license as long as it’s not been expired for more than three years. Thinking it might somehow be helpful to visit the office before the expiration date, we took up our neighbor’s generous offer of a ride and headed out for what we all thought might be an all day event.
Eligibility requirements for converting a foreign drivers license depend on what country you’re from. Countries lucky enough to have bilateral agreements with Malaysia are eligible for an automatic conversion which eliminates the second step that Diane and I will need to complete once they approve our application from the head office in Putrajaya. Unsure why certain nations have the bilateral agreement and others don’t, there’s 32 countries on “Appendix A“, the lucky ones with automatic conversion privileges. From fully developed nations like the UK, Australia and Finland to developing countries like Nigeria and Myanmar, there’s no clear rhyme and reason to the list. Initially thinking it may have something to do with America’s mostly negative stance on all things Muslim, I threw that theory out because Canada also doesn’t have a bilateral agreement with Malaysia and the there’s a considerable degree of trade between them, mostly in the oil and gas industry.
Since Diane and I aren’t from a country on the lucky list, I’ll focus on “Appendix B“, the list of nations eligible for “non-automatic” conversion of a foreign drivers license. With the rules always changing, I’ll mention up front the most important requirement for American citizens which is prominently absent from the MM2H official website detailing the procedure. Similar to automatic conversions, applicants need to visit a local JPJ office and show the original and one photocopy of their current license (they accept expired licenses up to three years after expiry date), and a completed form called the JPJL1 which is an application covering many instances where you’d apply for a license, international permit or road test, Since the form is in Malay, Google translator comes in handy and most of the questions are self-explanatory. There is an “Appendix C” for nations not on either list and those unfortunate souls need to take a written and road test with but over 100 countries covered on the first two categories it’s not worth talking about.
Needing to certify that your passport and license are valid, the procedure changed for Americans last year and ONLY the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur can “certify” your current USA drivers license. Knowing this thanks to our awesome MM2H agent at Joy-Stay, Diane and I visited the Embassy last summer when we went to Putrajaya to complete our MM2H visa. Utilizing the Embassy’s website becomes the only practical way to get an appointment and there’s only a few per month so you need to stat scanning for available times as far as one month ahead but naturally, they don’t make the following month’s appointment calendar available until a few days before the end of the current month so plan accordingly. The embassy charges a ridiculous fee of $50 USD each, looks at your license and puts a pretty raised seal on a letter along with a certification that they looked at your license. Since there’s obviously no way an embassy employee based 7,000 miles from California even knows what a current license looks like, this procedure is either for generating cash or deterring Americans from converting. But they’ll turn you away if you don’t come with this letter.
Googling the JPJ offices, we found one on Penang Island and one across the bridge on the mainland in Sebaring Jaya so naturally we opted for the one on the island. Having done this procedure last year but with a Hong Kong license, our friend brought a large book and drove us down to the office just south of the University of Malaysia’s campus. Anticipating about three to four hours wait time, we walked in but unfortunately the sign on the information counter read
“Effective February, 2106 all license conversions are processed in Sebaring Jaya“.
Happy they had a sign, we figured they at least understood the procedure and since the bridge was so close, we went over to the mainland and found our way to the other JPJ office in the state of Penang. Only 15 minutes from the bridge, it was our first time on the mainland side (since we have no vehicle) and although the town itself looks like the island, it lacks foreigners and its large industrial section looks like any port city in the USA (except for the Malays of course).
Unlike the office on the island which was prominently marked with JPJ signs including signage off the main road, the Sebaring Jaya office seemed to be in a multiple occupant office complex and we saw no signage on the large six lane main highway so we took a right turn when the female GPS voice with the annoying British accent told us to. Entering a strangely empty parking lot gate, we said “JPJ?” to a security guard who smiled and said “Yes, JPJ” so we took a ticket, parked and headed to the building. Signed entirely in Malay and unaccustomed to no English, we asked another guard who also smiled and directed us to the second level. Oddly, the building had no lift (that’s elevator in Brit-speak) so we climbed the dark stairs and found ourselves with two options. Unable to read anything, we chose the left side for no apparent reason.
Noticing ten counters, a few offices and an information station (we knew the Malay words for customer service), we asked the attendant about converting a foreign drivers license and he immediately smiled, told us counter six and handed us number 1014. Looking at the board showing the numbers and counters, we saw they were on 1013 for our counter and since we noticed a white guy, assumed it must be for conversions only. Translating the counter sign, Google told us it was “surrender license” so that seemed close enough. Looking around, there was an amazingly low number of patrons that numbered about six or eight, half the counters appeared unoccupied and the mostly women employees looked kind of bored. After sitting at the MM2H office for three hours even though we had all the completed documents in hand and an agent that knew how to negotiate the process, we marveled at the emptiness, efficiency and friendliness (although that part didn’t surprise us since Malays treat foreigners with great respect). After only three minutes, the announcement said “satu ribu empat belas” (1014) and it was our turn.
Approaching the counter, we showed the woman our documents but she told us we’d need to speak to an officer first to certify them in person. Thinking here comes the long wait, she motioned us around the corner where an employee sent us into an office with two chairs and before we could even get comfortable in the chairs, a JPC officer in a cool looking uniform came in and the first thing he said was “Obama gone this year” as he smiled and looked at our documents. Before I could even ask about the few lines I was unsure about on the form, he smiled again and told us not to worry because the headquarters in Putrajaya would understand and fix any incorrect entries.
And then he launched into a conversation about California that included ex-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Disneyland and this year’s American election. Although straining for the right words, we understood perfectly as he changed topics and told us about his son, a doctor who studied in Germany, the improved quality of Korean made products and how much he liked Samsung phones. Continuing with friendly conversation in sharp contrast to the “business only” officers in the MM2H office, he recited a line from the Koran in English that mentions integrity and something touching on people’s rights to understand what’s going on but it began to sound a bit too political for foreigners ears so we tried to divert the subject as the fifteen minute conversation came to an end. Pleasantly surprised at his willingness to chat with foreigners like next door neighbors, it defied all American conventional wisdom when it comes to attitude and customer service among civil service workers and we walked out smiling. Oh, and he did scribble down the necessary information on our form stating how we wished to apply for a licence conversion.
Returning to counter six, we noticed the number board hadn’t changed since they called us and the office itself was empty so we presented the documentation again but she directed us to the hallway where we’d be able to pay about 24 cents USD for photocopies of our passports and licenses. Entering the hall, another Malay gentleman was requesting passport photos but as he stepped into the passport picture booth, they both stopped to service us first and smiled politely. Almost feeling guilty, we handed some change to the photocopy guy and walked back to the counter where the woman took everything and asked us to sit down while she processed the application. Having been there less than 30 minutes (of which 15 was conversation with the officer), we felt a sense of disbelief at how easy everything was and reiterated in our minds why starting early retirement in Malaysia with its long-term visa, respectful English-speaking citizens and relatively good infrastructure made perfect sense.
Less than ten minutes later as the lunch hour approached, the woman at counter six motioned us back and handed us printed receipts written in Malay and English that stated we’d applied for conversion of our foreign drivers licenses, Stating an approximate wait time of 30 days, the head office in Putrajaya should be mailing us an approval letter and then we’ll need to return one more time with the same documents (passport and drivers license), another JPJL1 form and an insignificant cash for the processing fees. Unsure if we need to surrender the California license, we’ll soon be the proud owners of Malaysian driver’s licenses even though there’s a 99% chance we’ll never be driving on a Malaysian highway. Permission to drive legally in Thailand was the main objective but should we ever need to drive while living in Penang, we’ll be good to go. Proving you can’t always believe what you hear, the first part of the process took less than one hour and nobody considering moving to Malaysia should feel discouraged about obtaining a local drivers license. Easy as pie.
On an unrelated but equally important issue, the US primaries roll on with a clear march to the nomination almost a mathematical certainty for the clown known as Trump. Although extremely disappointed with 50 million closed-minded voters in every state that refuse to see hatred, bigotry and isolationism as unacceptable for the highest office in the land, I’m encouraged by some educated mainstream articles challenging him on all his rhetoric. Equally encouraging are a slew of recent financial articles that are finally beginning to disprove all his incorrect comments about China, the economy, global trade and how Americans are “poor” (so statistically incorrect it’s off the charts).
As expats in a moderate Muslim nation, we’re very affected by the world’s opinions of American foreign policy and even more so when it comes to religious tolerance. Not a fan of either Obama or Hilary Clinton, I’m hopeful voters in November ultimately choose political experience and real qualifications over a demagogue addressing world leaders at a fourth grade reading level. Saddened by the recent terrorist attack in Belgium, my thoughts are that Trump will now be forced to discuss the terrorism issue in terms real solutions instead of ignorant comments like “Islam hates us” and hopefully, he’ll be his own worst enemy as soon as he opens his mouth. For proof of his simple and uneducated answers to intelligent questions, read the transcript of his meeting with The Washington Post’s editorial board here.
Cheers from hot and humid Southeast Asia.
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