Asian Road Rage

Remembering the old saying “Don’t get caught in the system“, Diane and I recently went back to the JPJ, Malaysia’s version of the Motor Vehicle Department. Making our second attempt at converting our foreign driver’s license into a Malaysian one, our first trip resulted in two rejection letters. Back in the early spring I posted about how Malaysia allows an automatic conversion of foreign drivers licences for certain countries with bilateral agreements. Unfortunately, the United States and Canada aren’t on that list and citizens of “Appendix B” countries not living in the immediate Kuala Lumpur Area have to file some paperwork at a local JPJ office. After meeting with an agent and chatting about whatever they feel like talking about, the staff then forwards the application to Putrajaya, where the nation’s government offices are. Assuming everything’s in order, they’ll mail you an approval letter and then it’s back to the local JP office again for more paperwork, some fees and a shiny new Malaysian driver’s license. At least that’s what’s supposed to happen.

studentPart of the process involves an interview with a JPJ officer that’s supposed to “certify” all the paperwork including your passport, current valid foreign driver’s license and Conditional Letter of Approval for the MM2H Visa. Sadly, the head office forgot to train the rest of the nation on the procedure and the JPJ website for converting licences makes no mention of two very important requirements. Luckily, we knew about the first one thanks to our very competent MM2H agent. For anyone thinking of living outside of Kuala Lumpur, be aware that recently updated rules state that local JPJ field offices can’t certify a drivers’ license issued in the United States. For that, you’ll need an appointment at the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur to get a special letter thatcertifies your valid foreign driver’s license.

Even though we don’t have a car or plan on driving in Malaysia, we figured it couldn’t hurt to get the letter while visiting the capital to complete our MM2H. Knowing they only work four days a week and offer a few appointments per day, we monitored the Embassy website daily but found you can’t go past the current month. Securing the day we wanted, we paid a $100 USD fee and got a disclaimer lecture telling us that federal agencies are not authorized to authenticate a state issued license but they’re aware of the ministry’s rule and are actually swearing that they looked at something appearing to look like a valid license.

Considering the first JPJ office visit wasn’t so bad, it’s too bad about the second rule that the field office obviously wasn’t aware of. After not hearing anything after 30 days, we checked the website and found a rejection letter in JPG format that was never mailed to us. Completely in Malay, our local property agent translated and we found out the local office neglected to include copies of our MM2H Conditional Letter of Approval. (Apparently working expats are not allowed to convert their licenses since they consider their visas temporary and not long-term.) As vehicular challenged expats we resisted going back to the office on the mainland because it involves a long bus ride, a ferry and Uber. But earlier this month we tagged along with some British friends that just obtained MM2H and were going to JPJ anyway to convert their license. (For reasons unknown, they preferred to pay their Penang based MM2H agent to hand hold them through the process despite being eligible for automatic conversion).

JPJ Forms

JPJ Forms

Returning to the same window we visited a few months earlier, we showed the friendly agent the rejection letter and she sent us next door to take copies of our Conditional Letter of Approval. Paying two cents (literally) for photocopies, we handed them in and she told us to have a seat while she re-processed all the paperwork for re-submission to Putrajaya. Armed with two new receipts and a letter assuring a thirty-day window for a response we’ve been diligently checking the mail but after a few weeks we decided to check the website and found out that for one of us it was “Strike Two“. While Diane’s status is now “in process” mine was “rejected”. Pulling up yet another PDF letter in Malay, we used Google Translator this time and found out it was because my foreign license expired on April 15th. Crap.

Realizing back in the winter that my U.S. driver’s license was expiring soon, I wasn’t certain if I’d be able to secure a renewal by mail since we live overseas. Although the U.S. Postal Service offers free mail forwarding for one year, it was 10 months since closing escrow so I wasn’t certain the DMV renewal notice would make it to our mail drop. Hypothetically, this isn’t a problem because I’d read that a foreign license can still be converted up to three years after expiration date and many posters on the now defunct MM2H Forum confirmed this. (Most Google searches also confirm this but the government website is mostly in Malay so I’m unsure if it’s officially correct). Apparently, if this was once true, it’s been changed and that makes yet another MM2H rule that the ministry tightened up. However, my second rejection letter stated that I can reapply by re-submitting all the “properly certified” paperwork at a local JPJ office and having them send it back to Purtrajaya. Ambiguously implying that I’d need a valid and unexpired foreign driver’s license as part of the paperwork, they once again neglected to mention that only the U.S. Embassy can “certify” a U.S. Driver’s License.

The U.S. Embassy at Kuala Lumpur

The U.S. Embassy at Kuala Lumpur

With upcoming trips to Cambodia and Canada later this year, we have no intention of returning to the U.S. Embassy and paying another $100 for a new certification letter. Having sent the original one with the first application, I assume our friends at government HQ still have the first Embassy certification letter but who knows if they now want another one since I’m now presenting a license that expires in 2021. (We did both manage to get new U.S Drivers licenses; Diane’s old one expired just after we submitted the second set of applications but we assume she got a free pass since her status is in process and not rejected). Clearly becoming more trouble than it’s worth, we’ll now wait to see if Diane gets her approval letter and if so, go down the JPJ one more time. Although they’ll probably just re-submit my application with an “uncertified” copy of my renewed foreign driver’s license, I wouldn’t be surprised if I get a third rejection letter asking for a new letter from the Embassy. Hopefully one of us will at least be licensed to drive in our host nation.

strike threeOnly one of us really needs a local license anyway and for me, it’s three strikes and you’re out. If I get a third rejection letter, I give up. Walking is good exercise, buses are reliable and Uber is inexpensive. In fact, you’re probably wondering why we even care about a Malaysian driver’s license if we have no car or motorbike. As it turns out, it’s legal to drive in Thailand with a valid Malaysian license thanks to an ASEAN agreement that gives courtesies to all member nations. Planning on moving to the suburbs of Chiang Mai next summer even though we’ll keep our MM2H visa, transportation will be essential to enjoy the surrounding area and beautiful countryside. Although Thailand’s rules change all the time, holders of non immigrant visas supposedly need to apply for a Thai Driver’s license after three months of residency (to be legal anyway) and that requires time, luck, and a Thai translator so we’d rather take advantage of one of the only neighborly gestures between the two nations.

dotOften fascinated with Malaysia’s bizarre combination of “developing nation workforce” and “developed world infrastructure”, we haven’t had many blunders when it comes to getting things done and they do love to cross their I’s and dot their T’s. After the air conditioning incident where they sent a guest worker with a Chinese translator and called him a skilled technician, we’re reminded that even though we pay our bills online, stream our TV shows and live in a relatively modern condo, expecting government agencies to act efficiently with no bumps in the road would be like Southeast Asia banning plastic bags or not burning garbage. Part of life, it’s yet another fun aspect of leaving behind the overpaid union guy in favor of two dollar lunches, driving that resembles a demolition derby and a culture that always says “can” when you ask them if something’s possible to do. Even if it’s not.

Comments, questions and friendly lambasting are always welcome.

2 thoughts on “Asian Road Rage

  1. Stu

    Great info as always Rob – Thank you. I presume if you DO live in KL it’s all the same process and required paperwork but you deal with the main JPJ office in Putrajaya thru cutting out the back / forth inter JPJ office stuff? Hope 3rd time is a charm for you!

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