Fundamentally, every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. Except when you live in Malaysia where situations get stuck in limbo until you force an ending. About a year ago, Diane and I visited the offices of JPJ, an acronym for the Malaysian Road Transport Division which is their equivalent of The Department of Motor Vehicles. Hoping to take advantage of a benefit given to MM2H holders, we wanted to get Malaysian drivers’ licenses despite the fact that we’ve had no vehicle since arriving almost two years ago. Being an ASEAN member state, residents can drive legally in Thailand with a Malaysian license and since we thought an eventual move was in the cards, it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. Instead, it turned into one of those developing nation bureaucratic nightmares you hear about and try to avoid at all costs. Mostly skirting any instances of endless hours in government offices (which we’ll quickly make up for when we move to Thailand), our streak ended and proved that the chances of successfully convincing a Malaysian to bend any rules even when t’s their mistake are zero to none.
Recapping the story, Malaysia allows “automatic conversions” of foreign drivers licenses to certain countries including the U.K. and Hong Kong. Not long after we arrived, our neighbors, who are fellow MM2H holders and ex residents of Hong Kong, brought their current foreign license to the local office, paid a fee and were in and out in about an hour. Unfortunately, The United States and Canada fall into a different class deemed “non automatic” conversions that need applications and approvals from the head office in Putrajaya, the government’s administrative district. While only a minor extra step for expats living in Kuala Lumpur or the surrounding Kluang Valley, expats that choose quieter environments like Penang need to either spend time and money making multiple trips to the capital or apply at a local state office. Complicating things, there’s a special requirement for American citizens that involves a trip to the U.S. Embassy in KL. Requiring “verification” of your foreign driver’s license, they’ve decided that a local JPJ officer can certify a Canadian or Bangladeshi license, but only an affidavit with a pretty stamp and seal from suffices for Americans. Nowhere to be found on their website, we knew about this rule because our agent at Joy-Stay (Malaysia’s best MM2H agent) told us before we left North America so when we visited KL in July 2015 to complete our MM2H paperwork, we also made a trip to the Embassy. Charging $50 for a citizen notary service, they have a standard form created for this but in theory it’s stupid because a U.S Federal agency can’t legally verify any document issued by a state.
Catching a ride from our neighbor one day in March last year, we went to the local office on Penang Island but naturally, we found a sign saying that effective about two weeks prior, all foreign conversions need to be processed in the Sebering Jaya office across the bay on the mainland so we drove over the Second Penang Bridge and headed to the office. With about a month left before my California licence’s expiration date, the rule used to be that conversions are valid up to three years after the expiry of a foreign drivers license so we didn’t see any issues. Unlike California, the large office with no air conditioning was empty and devotes one window to foreigners so we only waited about ten minutes before visiting an overweight Indian woman at the counter. Sending us to a room with a very friendly officer that spent thirty minutes chatting with us about everything from Malaysian politics to Arnold Schwarzenegger, he stamped the paperwork and sent us back to the counter to pay our fee. Handing us receipts that said to expect a reply in no more than 30 days, she sent us on our way and our applications were off to Putrajaya to be approved.
After 30 days passed, nothing showed up in the mail so Diane took the incentive and searched the mostly Malay language website for any news. As the patient one in our marriage, she usually handles stuff I can’t deal with and after fiddling with Google Translate for a while she stumbled on two rejection letters in PDF format that of course they didn’t bother to mail. After conferring with a friend who reads Malay and our MM2H agent, they determined the agency said we didn’t give proof of our MM2H status and they need a copy of our Conditional Letter of Approval. Apparently, the agent at the local office didn’t understand the rules and in Malaysia, nobody ever checks anything unless it’s necessary. So we went back a few months later, showed them the letter, gave them a copy of the Conditional Letter of Approval and asked them to resubmit the paperwork. Smiling and offering the usual Malaysian apology but unwilling to admit their mistake, she gave us a new reference number and sent us on our way again.
Understanding they never mail anything they’re supposed to, Diane monitored the website and after a few weeks found two more letters. Along with her approval letter, they attached a second rejection letter for my application. Translating again, they said my foreign license expired which was true but only because they made a mistake the first time and wasted our time making us reapply. (Ironically, Diane’s license expired two days after the date stamped on her approval letter so she literally just made it). Deciding we’d go back for the third time, get Diane her license and argue my case to the officer in charge, we couldn’t get a ride this time so we took a 50 minute bus ride to the ferry terminal, waited 20 minutes, crossed the bay and called Uber for a ten minute ride from the ferry terminal to Sebering Jaya.
By now the overweight Indian woman knew us by sight but when Diane went to the window this time, she argued with her for 10 minutes because we hadn’t brought two passport sized photos along. Seeing no need for that, Diane pointed to the passport photo camera two windows down and told her to take the pictures herself. Unlike mild-mannered Malay women that always smile and act polite, Indian women in Penang are a different case and when they want to be stand offish things can heat up. Refusing to give in, Diane always holds her ground as long as possible if she thinks she’s right and eventually, the large woman caved, got up and walked four feet to the camera to take Diane’s photo. Note to self: Always wait for the Malay women when dealing with Malaysian government offices. After ten minutes, they gave her a shiny new Malaysian drivers license and we headed back to the little office to argue my case.
Unlike the first time, a gruff looking short Malay officer made us wait ten minutes and when we showed him the second rejection letter, he spoke to us in Malay and when we told him “English, please”, he looked annoyed and stared at the letter a bit longer. Unable to communicate, he got frustrated and motioned for us to wait while he got the office supervisor. Taller and a bit more sympathetic, the head officer carried a huge three-ring binder like the ones I used about 20 years ago in the office before modern automation and online files. Turning to page 192, he took a yellow highlighter and showed us yet another new rule that apparently came into effect at the beginning of 2016. Now requiring an unexpired valid current drivers license for all conversions, he explained five times that my license expired and each time we responded by telling him it wasn’t expired when we submitted the first application and because of their mistake, we had to come back and resubmit the application after my license expired.
In Malaysia, a dead spot occurs in the conversation when they’ve exhausted their options and want you to simply say “OK, OK”. Saying nothing for another two minutes, he simply stared at us but surprisingly he finally asked “Do you have a new driver’s license?” Telling him yes and showing him my new license that’s valid until 2021, he reluctantly agreed to “validate” the new license and resubmit the application a third time. Knowing Putrajaya would clearly want a new Embassy letter, we debated if we should say anything but it didn’t matter anyway because when we mentioned the first embassy letter and asked if they could use that one given that it was their mistake, he gave us a confused look.
Clearly not aware of this requirement, expecting a local government official to know the big city rules is an exercise in futility so we gave up and went on our way knowing I’d probably get a fourth rejection letter. Not really willing to waste more time on this, by now we’d learned that getting a Thai driver’s license when you’ve got a valid foreign license is tedious but relatively straightforward so I was ready to simply give up. Concentrating a lot of my recent efforts on resisting Trump and spreading pro tolerance messages despite living 7,000 miles away from the homeland, Diane shares none of that zealousness and instead beats a dead horse on issues that often seem pointless to me.
So one day while having tea with our very educated and awesome Malay neighbor who’s also become a reliable friend, Diane asked her to call them and see if speaking in Malay might help get a response. By then, it had been six months since we last went to JPJ and according to the website, they hadn’t even logged in the last receipt number. Explaining what happened so far, our neighbor called and spoke for what seemed like a long time. Unsure if she’s joking or serious, sometimes she bad mouths her fellow Malays for being lazy and not aiming higher. Sounding harsh at times to us, we’ve found that education level plays a large role in how people perceive their homeland and while Malaysia ranks highest on the economic and developmental scale in the ASEAN block, you can’t really expect first world type attitudes when Jaguars and BMW’s intermingle with dilapidated motor bikes and they target their version of the one percent and wealthy foreign investors for all their new construction instead of helping to improve the lives of average citizens.
After ten minutes, they told our neighbor my application was “in progress” which is Malaysian speak for “the situation is too complicated so it’s in a dead pile” and told her to call Putrajaya directly. Diligently trying the number all afternoon, nobody bothered to answer so I thanked her and went on with life. But Diane never takes “in limbo” for an answer and apparently dug further. Discovering yet another rejection letter on a different part of the website, the translation was “foreign license expired” and of course, they never bothered to mail anything or even log in the response. Contacting them by email without telling me, her persistence seemed like it might pay off when my cell phone rang last week and a Malay representative of JPJ called in reference to Diane’s complaint. Speaking half decent English, he repeated the same thing again and I was about to hang up but Diane wouldn’t have it. Taking the phone and reiterating the story again, the agent did what anyone brought up with Malay culture does; he listened very patiently despite not having any answers or alternative suggestions.
Somehow, Diane got him to understand what happened and so of course, he passed the buck and said someone else would call me back later. Sure enough, a few hours later the phone rang and Diane hopped on the line and went through the entire situation again. Heavily accented with a Singapore style accent they call “Slingesh”, it didn’t take long until he asked for the affidavit and who had a copy of it. Explaining they had all the copies, he shuffled through the papers and figured out that our first embassy letter applied to my now expired drivers license and finally settled on us needing yet another embassy affidavit and a fourth trip to JPJ so we could reapply. Not usually rattled, this even frustrated Diane so she held her ground without raising her voice and repeated how the mistake was theirs, not ours. (Malaysians never respond to anger). Even though we could’ve gotten another letter a few weeks ago while in KL to get an affidavit we’ll need for a non-immigrant Thai visa, Diane was inherently opposed to paying another $50 USD so we decided against that.
What followed was almost comical. Similar to Chinese culture, not losing face is the number one factor in Malaysian business matters so Diane argued over and over that it’s expensive and tedious for us to travel again to KL when it was their mistake. Unlike our world where a foreign customer service agent would’ve hung up after telling us we need a new affidavit, Diane’s refusal to say “OK, OK” (the quintessential Malay response to anything) presented a dilemma for the JPJ agent. No doubt a devout Muslim, anyone familiar with the religion understands that being rude to foreigners is not an option and Malay culture makes it doubly difficult because they won’t bend any rules but also won’t dismiss you until you’re satisfied. So the standoff went on for ten minutes until finally he offered up a Malaysian solution; “Just drive with your current foreign license and show it to any officer because that’s legal” . Knowing that’s simply not true, Diane responded by telling him that Malaysian law requires new holders of MM2H to get a Malaysian license 90 days after taking residency if they wish to drive.
Spending so much time on the call that I had to plug my phone into a charger, I guess you can figure out the result. No matter how many times Diane explained that they had a copy of my new foreign driver’s license (which he acknowledged), he responded by repeating that the affidavit they had on file applied to an expired license. Like trying to move a concrete wall, asking a Malaysian to think outside the box, bend any rules, ask a supervisor for help or anything else that otherwise inconveniences them is pointless. Exactly like burning trash despite very prohibitive federal laws and driving like lunatics while pretending not to understand traffic laws, Malaysia is a nation of convenience. Accepting that fact makes living here a lot easier and the moral of the story here is sometimes even the patient one in the relationship needs to give in. Smiling at me and laughing, Diane made one last effort when he repeatedly asked “Is there anything else I can help you with?” and she said “Yes, you can issue the license“. Silence. More silence.
And finally the guy on the other line must have breathed a sigh of relief when Diane uttered the magic words every Malaysian wants to hear: “OK, OK”. Final score: Malaysian Government Agency: 1, Experimental Exapts: 0. Possibly the funniest part is how we’re trading Malaysia for Thailand where rules change daily, bribes are commonplace, and the only place for official immigration information is a website in Thai designed for Thai citizens that obviously don’t need immigration information. Looking forward to a whole new set of obstacles, my advice to potential new expats in Southeast Asia would be to come armed with a sense of humor, a sense of patience and driver’s license that’s valid until the next century. Cheers from Penang.