A few months ago I wrote about our experience at the JPJ, Malaysia’s equivalent to The Department of Motor Vehicles and Licensing. With the expiration dates of our U.S. driver’s licences fast approaching, Diane and I thought we’d take advantage of a rather generous rule allowing conversion of foreign licences for MM2H holders. (Expats on work visas are often disappointed because they’re usually denied). Unfortunately, bilateral agreements only allow certain passport holders an “automatic” conversion and both Canada and the USA are not on that list. So a few months ago we visited the local JPJ office on Penang Island and discovered that conversions must now be processed at another office on the mainland. Arriving just after 10, the process seemed easy enough but after not hearing anything 45 days later, we searched the website and found a rejection letter printed in Malay that was never mailed.
Enlisting our property agent as a translator, it seems the local officer neglected to verify and attach a photocopy of our MM2H Conditional Approval Letter along with the application. As vehicular challenged expats, we put off the trudge of two bus rides and a ferry crossing and having successfully renewed both state license by mail, gave up on the idea. But we have some friends that just got their MM2H approved and were going there anyway to convert their licences so we took advantage of their generous offer and tagged along. Many readers ask us why they should or shouldn’t use an agent when applying for an MM2H visa. Always responding that it’s a personal choice, we used Joy-Stay, the country’s best agent by any standards. For us, our agent’s professionalism combined with her expertise and great relationship with the ministry assured a hassle free experience that made up for the few hundred dollars extra. Her fee comes with a money back guarantee that you’ll be approved and she won’t even accept clients unless she’s confident she can get them approved. Besides, If you choose a DIY method, you still need to put up a security bond that’s covered in Joy-Stay’s package.
Choosing convenience over professionalism is also possible, however, and some people prefer to use the services of a local. Preferring not to leave Penang, our friends chose Penang’s most popular MM2H agent. Unable to endorse their services, I won’t name them on the blog but will share our experience. Before my unexpected layoff I spent lots of time looking into MM2H agents. Knowing we’d be living in Penang but probably wouldn’t yet have our conditional letter once we arrived in Malaysia on a three-month tourist visa, using a local agent sounded very convenient. Their website looks very good and touts all they can do for you but due diligence goes a long way for something as important as retiring in a different continent (Even more so when you’d never even visited your intended destination). Having exchanged several investigative emails, the Penang agent sent straight forward details but refused to answer a multitude of questions. Additionally, his prices seemed quite steep for services anyone can rightfully do themselves.
Seeming overly aggressive and very impersonal, the agent must be used to dealing with clients that either never ask questions or need hand holding. Clearly frustrated with a series of intelligent questions, he surprised us one night by calling directly to our California home phone using California local time to increase the odds we’d be home. Sounding more like a sales pitch, his overly aggressive tone was more in line with mainland Chinese tourists than Malaysian Chinese people. (Of course we didn’t know that yet). Aggravation set in quickly and he basically insisted that we’d need to pay now or stop bothering him. Explaining our situation further, he seemed uninterested in hearing that we weren’t yet ready to file and implied that shopping around for agents wasn’t what people did. Clearly looking for a quick buck, we immediately ruled this agent out, opting to deal with Joy-Stay despite knowing we’d have to personally travel to Kuala Lumpur to complete our visas once the ministry approved us.
Fast forwarding to yesterday, our friends told us they had to meet their agent at 7:30 AM to arrive early at the local JPJ office. (They’re using the same agent we rejected). As UK passport holders, they’re both eligible for an instant conversion and although we explained how easy it is to do this yourself, the agent somehow convinced them they needed his help and charged them an exorbitantly high sum of money to hand over paperwork already in their possession and fill out one form (The form is in Malay but Google translator makes it easy to figure out and the friendly Malay agents at JPJ are happy to help you out anyway). Driving to the agent’s office in Georgetown, our friends followed the guy to the same JPJ office we visited a few months ago. Sure enough, as their agent got out he came right up to me and asked “Who are you?”. Probably smelling some more money, when I said our names, he claimed to remember us and we’re almost sure it was same guy we rejected three years earlier.
Parting ways, we walked up the stairs and approached the information counter. Knowing what we needed this time, we asked for a number for Counter Six and they handed us ticket number 1003. Currently serving number 1001, we noticed that our friends agent was met by an Indian guy carrying their paperwork and they’d beaten us to the office by using a faster back stairway but still didn’t get the first number and as they announced “Kini menjalani sifar difar dua kaunter enam”, both agent and runner didn’t notice so we told them it was their turn. Strangely, about less than one minute after the Indian guy approached, they clicked the next number and sent him away. Approaching the counter, we noticed the nice Malay woman who helped us last time was serving the next window and we explained what happened with our application to another very friendly Indian woman. Asking us for two photocopies of our MM2H conditional letter, we paid five cents for the copies and sat back down.
Apparently needing to re-process our applications, the woman disappeared for a while and must have been too slow for our friend’s Indian runner who hovered continuously around the counter. Having learned that complaining and rushing Malaysians only presents further delays, we know it’s considered very rude to argue, show anger and badger people so we didn’t ask any questions and soon the woman motioned for us to come back to the counter. About half an hour had passed since we first approached the counter and suddenly the Indian guy butted in front of us and started complaining to the woman, Unlike Malays, Indians are more apt to lash out and not wanting to take any crap from the runner, she clearly gave him a mouthful in a language we didn’t understand but we did hear her break into English and tell him rather boldly that she had to process our paperwork first.
Dejected, he finally walked away and sat down. Naturally, her scanner wasn’t working, the building’s air conditioner din’t work and the last few pages of our application jammed in her printer. But this is Malaysia and we’re not phased in the least because we understand that it wouldn’t be Malaysia if everything worked the way it should. That’s part of the fun of living in Southeast Asia and there’s just as many things that work better than they do in America. (Like healthcare, dentistry and food prices). Needing to waste time bullshitting to justify his fee, the main agent talked our friend’s ear off with mostly useless pieces of information designed to show how savvy he is and eventually his wife had enough and walked away. Eventually she finished our application and very pleasantly explained that they’ll re-process it and send another letter once they’ve approved us for a conversion. Only at that point did she begin doing whatever needed to be done for our friend’s “instant conversion” and we’re guessing they don’t like the Penang agent or his pushy runner much at the JPC international counter.
Interestingly, it seems there’s no longer any advantage to an “automatic conversion” anyway unless you live near Kuala Lumpur and want to travel to Putrajaya, the government headquarters of all agencies. Before the rule changes, you simply went to the local office and they handed you a Malaysian license if you’re lucky enough to be on Appendix A. Since our friends didn’t walk away with the license on the spot anyway, why would you pay an agent to drive your application 250 kilometers and walk it into the main government office when the local office can simply send it via interoffice mail as they’ll do with ours? Even if the runner gets them to approve our friend’s automatically eligible license conversion quickly, they’ll still have to visit the local office again for photos and fees. And the Penang MM2H agent will no doubt charge them yet another fee.
Basically, there’s no longer any advantage to being automatically eligible for a driver’s license conversion if you live in Penang. And once you get the feel of things, Malaysia is one of the easiest nations for DIY anything so in our humble opinion, your money is better used on something you enjoy and not paying someone to do things easily accomplished on your own. We’ll update you when we hear something from the JPJ.
Cheers from Penang and a huge congratulations to the Malaysian diver who won a silver medal in the Rio Olympics. Ironically, she beat out a Canadian but it’s OK when Canadians don’t score gold because it’s not a winter sport.