Three Demerit Points

After three relatively easy but frustrating trips to JPJ, Malaysia’s Department of Motor Vehicles, I’m happy to report one of us has a shiny new Malaysian driver’s licence. Unfortunately, all I got was a walk to the little room where I argued my latest rejection letter to the senior officer and another walk to Counter Six. For those unfamiliar, this all started six months ago when we decided to take advantage of Malaysia’s program allowing conversion of foreign driver’s licenses for MM2H participants. As I explained in an earlier post, there’s a host of nations with bilateral agreements that are eligible for an “automatic conversion” but the United States, Canada and the UK are not on that list. Instead, we fall under “Appendix B” which are nations whose citizens need to apply at a local JPJ office and wait for the government headquarters in Putrajaya to return an approval.

expiredHypothetically simple, Americans need a valid current driver’s license (more on that shortly), a special letter from the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur “certifying” your driver’s license as valid (even though regulations prevent a Federal agency from verifying anything issued at the state level), an application (it’s in Malay so you’ll need Google translator or a help from a local), the MM2H Conditional Letter of Approval and some cash for a fee. Thinking we were lucky to have a good agent that told us about the embassy letter, it turns out nobody at the local JPJ office knew about the rule requiring an officer to certify the Conditional Letter of Approval. Being Malaysia, that rule is nowhere to be found on the government website explaining conversion procedures nor did we see it on any expat forum like ExpatGo or InterNations. So the first trip in February was a waste of time resulting in two rejection letters.

Disappointed but undaunted, we returned a few months later, showed them the rejection letter and received a slightly sarcastic looking smile from the friendly Indian woman at Counter Six who processed our paperwork. Unapologetic, she didn’t send us back to the officer responsible for certifying paperwork but instead simply took copies of our Conditional Letter of Approval, told us to sit down, took about 35 minutes re-processing our applications and eventually handed us a new receipt of acknowledging our application. As our regular readers know, we have no vehicle and the JPJ office is on the mainland. Getting there requires a 45 minute bus ride, 15  minute ferry and 10 minutes with Uber. But thankfully, some British friends who just received their MM2H happened to be making their first trip to JPJ for their first application submissions so we tagged along.

Realizing my U.S. driver’s license had expired by the time we returned for the second time, I did some searching on Google about rules for expired licenses and came up with only one document on this topic despite multiple search phrases. Taken right from the MM2H Ministry’s website, the document now used by most agents, the ministry itself and various reliable expat forums like ExpatGo, the document states that a foreign license can be expired for up to three years and still be eligible for the conversion. Here’s the proof:


Unfortunately, when Diane checked the JPJ website a few weeks alter, they approved her license but rejected mine for the second time. Utilizing our property agent’s help to translate, my application was apparently rejected because my foreign driver’s license had expired. Never mind that it had 60 days left until expiry when we applied and they rejected it the first time because the local JPJ office was totally unaware of the rules for submitting the application and didn’t ask for our MM2H Conditional Letter of Approval. According to the above guidelines, the rules either changed (again) or someone at headquarters was just giving me a hard time for no reason. Luckily, our friends’ applications were both approved along with Diane so we all headed back to JPJ yesterday to collect Diane’s license and argue my case.

bindersSending us back to a little room on the side, the Indian woman at Counter Six was unable to resubmit my application a third time unless I explained the situation to an officer. Sending in a guy that spoke almost no English, he mumbled something in Malay and when we said “English, please” he simply walked away and searched or the supervisor. Five minutes later the senior officer came in. Completely contrasting our first visit where the friendly officer chatted with us about California, local politics and Malay culture, this guy seemed aggravated and as I explained the situation and showed him the only rules out there about expiry of the foreign license, he listened and then disappeared for ten minutes. Returning with one of those old world style manuals with plastic binders I used in my early working days, he plopped it down on the table, brushed off the dust and turned to a page with yellow highlights dated January 21, 2016.

And sure enough, effective early this year, there’s a new rule that states the following

“Only current (non-expired) foreign driver’s licenses are acceptable when submitting an application for conversion of foreign driver’s license”.

Of course this is according to Google translator since the manual is in Malay and the officer turned it around and showed us as if to blame us for our obvious incompetence. Keep in mind it was their mistake since they wasted our time by not knowing about the conditional letter of approval requirement and my license was still valid at that time. Asking if I had a new license I said yes and handed over my new foreign license that I somehow renewed by mail despite living overseas and he went to take photocopies. Returning with a copy that he signed and “certified” I debated bringing up the issue of the embassy letter. As a reminder, another recent rule states that only the U.S. Embassy can “certify” the authenticity of U.S. driver’s licenses. Although we did have and submit the letter back in February, it’s supposed to only be valid for one year and would now be certifying an expired license anyway.

an old binder comb apparatus; still used here

Against my better judgement I decided to mention the Embassy letter and explained how I really didn’t want a third rejection letter stating I needed valid certification letter from the U.S. Embassy for my new license. Appearing to listen, the officer clearly had no idea what I was talking about and handed me a piece of paper with the countries on “Appendix B”. Telling me I should drive with my new foreign license and show a police officer the piece of paper with the list of countries eligible for conversion of a foreign license if I got stopped, he obviously had no clue that he’s not allowed to “certify” my new foreign driver’s license and told us to go back to Counter Six. Returning back to the Indian woman for the third time, she sent Diane over to another counter to receive her shiny new Malaysian license and told me to sit down while she re-processed my application for the third time. Given how there was now about fifteen pieces of paper, it took about 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, Diane went over to the other counter and they asked her if she had passport sized pictures with a white background. Naturally, the passport photos we recently took at a kiosk near Tesco used blue background and they wanted to send Diane next door where it costs 16 ringgit for an “appropriate passport photo“. But since they have a digital camera right there and taking a digital photo is clearly easier than transposing a manual photo to the license, Diane told them to use the digital camera. Pushing the limits, I recommend against this because no matter what the situation is, there’s three things to keep in mind when dealing with any Malaysians, be it government employees or contractors.

They never do anything that’s not according to procedure. 

They hate doing any extra work more than anything even if simplifies their task

They rarely think outside the box. Everything is either “Can” or “Can Not”. (meaning yes, they can or will do something or no, they won’t even try to figure out a solution).

Eventually they gave in and took a digital photo but gave Diane a stern warning that next time she had to come with white background photographs in hand. Attainable in one year increments up to five years, the fee for the longest term was 200 Ringgit. Ironically, they dated Diane’s approval letter August 10th, 2016 and her U.S. Driver’s License expired one day later meaning she literally just made it or we’d both have two sets of rejection letters.

bribeOne other notable point is the license status. Our home state has no license for motorbikes because only developing nations put up with millions of horrible loud putt putts disrespecting every vehicular law and endangering both cars and pedestrians. Motorcyclists need a separate class of license and we’re only licensed to drive Class C vehicles (passenger cars). Using the same status, Diane’s license technically excludes motorbikes which basically defeats the entire purpose for us anyway. (Planning on moving to Chiang Mai next year and hoping to avoid the Thai licensing procedure, ASEAN courtesy rules allow Thai residents to drive with Malaysian licenses). Hoping to buy a motorbike but having no intentions of car shopping, we’ll probably just show our U.S. licenses anyway and deal with it should we get stopped for some reason. In Southeast Asia, most minor incidents like motor vehicle violations are easily resolvable with some local cash so we’ll take our chances.

openSo I walked away with yet another letter and an apology from the friendly Indian woman at Counter Six. Telling me once again I’d have to wait for a response, we’ll be checking the website once again but if I get another rejection letter telling me I need an updated letter from the U.S. Embassy, I give up. The score will be Malaysian Bureaucracy Three and United States Expat Zero. As the expression goes, three strikes an you’re out. Unwilling to make a special trip to Kuala Lumpur because of government inefficiency and a failure to understand their own rules we’re not in a place to shell out excessive cash because we’re on a fixed income until our small pensions kick in and besides, the monkeys of Penang are within walking distance. But I will write emails to ExpatGo, our MM2H agent and anyone else I can think of so they can update their websites with this annoying new rule. Changing the rules is common practice in developing nations but communicating this to anyone is not. Keep this in mind before you leave the comforts of your native homeland but don’t let it discourage you.

Just smile and understand you’re not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy. Cheers.

2 thoughts on “Three Demerit Points

  1. Stu

    Thanks again Rob. Super useful for vs. super frustrating for you, sorry. Glad Diane has hers. Might as well keep trying, seems like getting an accept / reject changes with each day over there – play enough times perhaps you’ll win 😉 Best to you both as always and enjoy the local wildlife while you wait for the next round!



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