The Ultimate Expat Battle of Wits

Although it’s been over three months living in Chiang Mai, the stark difference between Malaysia’s stubborn indifference and Thailand’s Land of Smiles attitude still haunts us. About a month ago we registered our Thai bank account for automatic monthly direct debits to pay both the electric and water bills. Having read countless horror stories and complaints all over the internet about what happens if you miss a payment, we decided that using direct debit is the only practical way to ease all concerns. Granted it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do and it does involve a trip to the provincial offices of each municipality but it’s a one time thing and I’m realizing now that some local expats are just downright lazy. As the larger company, the electric company was easier and only required showing our bankbook and a passport. Despite limited English skills, the friendly clerk went out of her way to help because that’s what they do in Thailand. (especially when your wife looks Thai despite being a Canadian of Chinese descent).

The special slot for utility bills

Sure enough, when the little 4 X 4 bill arrived in the special mail slot the following month, it had no due date or bar code so we knew they set it up and a week after that we even received a paper receipt in Thai and English asking us to please make ample funds available for the amount due on a specified date. And the funds came out as expected with none of those pesky fees they charge at 7Eleven where almost everyone pays their bill. So later that first month we repeated the process and drove to the provincial water office hoping to accomplish the same thing. Unfortunately, they also speak very little English but determined we needed to take a form written in Thai down to our bank, have them fill it out and return back to the office. With little fanfare, a customer service agent at our bank filled it out using perfectly scripted little miniature characters (Thai people have the best handwriting the world). Returning to the water office later that day, we approached a well dressed woman at the information counter, made enough motions for her to understand, and she pointed at an in-box for us to leave the completed form. Figuring that wasn’t so bad, we decided on the quickest way home and went on with our day.

Knowing the water company told us it would take 25 days to process the direct debit paperwork, I probably should’ve become suspicious when no payment came out of our account by month end but like the electric bill, the following month’s bill was also a receipt with no due date or bar code so I figured maybe the bank would just process it on the same day as the electric payment. Unusually generous, they read our electric meter at 5 A.M.on the 18th and leave the bill but the payment doesn’t come out until the 6th of the following month. Without direct debit, the water and electric bills are due 7 and 10 days after they read your meter. Additionally, I read countless stories from people who say they were travelling so they missed the water bill and had suspended service when they came back. And then they go on with the usual Thai bashing that characterizes way too many culturally insensitive Chiang Mai expats.

As the beginning of the month rolled around, we received a few notices in the mail written in Thai. Not looking carefully, I photographed them and texted our rented house’s owner like I always do. Usually related to unimportant issues with our moo-baan, this time he called back right away and told us the water company was telling us they hadn’t been paid yet and we need to pay the bill by the 6th of the month to avoid disruption of service. Explaining we received a receipt with no bar code and were anticipating a direct debit from our bank, he told us we should go right away to the water office to clarify things since it was already Friday and the notice said to pay before Monday. Not wishing to skip showers in a tropical country, we meandered our way back but I realized I didn’t take a copy of the original paperwork since it was all in Thai.

Remembering my disastrous experience with JPJ,(the Malaysian version of The Department of Motor Vehicles), which ended in complete defeat despite it being entirely their fault, I felt a wave of agitation come over me but then remembered that Thai people are the opposite of Malays when it comes to an issue with foreigners. Showing genuine graciousness, Thai people often go out of their way to help unlike in Penang where their friendliness always felt contrived. Even if they don’t understand, they’ll try to find someone who does. Now, before you all rip me a new bunghole for this observation, let me offer a disclaimer. I am NOT referring to the Immigration department in Thailand since we used agents to secure our 90 day Non immigrant “O” visa in Penang and then extended it based on retirement here in Chiang Mai. Nor have we had any reason to deal with the police since we drive a car and not a motorbike, follow all the rules which is almost unheard of among the digital nomads and usually get a free pass for looking like another white guy with a Thai wife.

So we arrived at the office and returned to the information counter where we went the first time. Promptly interrupting someone already being served once she saw Diane didn’t speak Thai, we explained the situation using occasional gestures and whatever English words they knew. Showing them the non-payment notice as well as the receipt with no bar code or due date, they all looked embarrassed and proceeded to explain in their best possible English that the bank hadn’t yet processed their part yet. Asking us to simply pay the bill now, they assured us the service wouldn’t be shut off and then went to find a supervisor to see if the situation needed any further attention. As the fourth person attending to us, the manager on duty was able to confirm that she’s confident it will come out of the bank account this month and that perhaps it simply missed the first billing cycle. And then they all gave us an obligatory Thai wai and apologized once again for making us come down in person. And this is yet another reason we love Thailand.

And now for the “point-counterpoint part” of the story. While Malaysia ranks higher on the development scale than Thailand and the entire population speaks English, this means little when dealing with any type of Malaysian government entity. Aside from a pathetically sad world ranking for broadband speed and connectivity given its almost developed status, competition among internet providers is low and dominated by the state-run company known as Telecom Malaysia. (TM). Suffering through two years of the worst internet service we’ve had since the days of dial-up, living far away from the hub of Penang meant a never-ending process of rebooting the internet, constant interruptions to live sports and almost regular periods of speeds so low you can’t even check your Facebook page.

Unlike here in Chiang Mai where it cost us a one time installation fee of 600 Baht (about $18 USD), the rip off artists at TM demanded a deposit of 1,075 Malaysian Ringgit (about $250 USD) for all foreigners just to sign up for home internet service. Attempting to collect our deposit back when we cancelled service, they told us we needed to visit the local field office. Spending upwards of two hours at an old dingy room with no air conditioning, we asked about refunding the deposit directly into our Malaysian bank account and explained that we’re leaving the country and wouldn’t be able to receive a check. Having already had the private cell phone provider Maxis easily accommodate this request, it took about 45 minutes until they understood what we wanted. Finally agreeing to wire the funds after five incompetent clerks had no clue what to do, we provided the account number and bank branch and acknowledged the supposed four to six-week wait.

By late summer there was no sign of a refund so I used TM’s chat line to explain the situation. Surprisingly agreeable but taking about fifteen paragraphs and repeating the same thing over and over, they put me on hold, asked me for the banking information again and said they’d submit the instructions to customer service. The next day they sent me an email telling me they need a PDF copy of my passport to process the refund. Sending it the same day, this wasn’t good enough and they told me they need a PDF copy of my bank statement. Explaining this was unnecessary since I opened the account with my passport only, I complied anyway and sent a copy. A day later I got another genius response:

Upon checking the attachment given, we found that your name in your bank statement not same with your passport name as per below.

Passport/ Account name : ROBERT XXXXX XXXXXXX
We appreciate if you could provide us the bank statement name that same with your passport name within 7 days in order to proceed with your request.

Annoyed but not really surprised, I shot off another email telling them that our bank account is a joint bank account and that it’s not possible for the bank to issue a statement that doesn’t include both account holders. I also provided our address in Thailand and suggested maybe they’d send a check to our new address. Obviously hitting the always impenetrable Malaysian Wall which occurs anytime a Malay encounters a problem or needs to do anything slightly outside the box, they came back with this:

Thank you for contacting TM.Referring to the e-mail dated 18th September 2017 pertaining to refund, we acknowledged your issue. Upon verifying on the attachment and based on the report, we regret to inform that the account name as per bank statement is not matched with your passport name.

Therefore, we appreciate if you may revert us with following
document in (JPEG or PDF) format for further action. Bank Statement – With complete full name as stated in Passport/ Account name Your understanding on this matter is highly appreciated.

Beginning to think there’s some strict Muslim law prohibiting women from being co-owners of bank accounts, I responded by again by defining a joint bank account and telling them they’re unlawfully withholding funds from a foreigner. Then I said their response was unacceptable and asked what alternatives might exist for getting our refund. Again, I suggested mailing a check to Thailand. Typically Malaysian, they did what they always do when they can’t solve a problem. Stall and pass the buck. Here’s the reply.

Referring to the e-mail on refund issue, we would like to apologize for the unpleasant experience that you have encountered. According to our records, the issue has been addressed and lodge by our Respective Department.

For the time being, they are conducting a through investigation. We highly appreciate your co-operation to give us some time for this and we will do our best to resolve this matter. 

Finally, after a few more weeks of waiting, it seemed like hell froze over when they sent me this:

Referring to the deposit refund issue, we understand your concern on the matter. 
However, rest assured that our respective team is currently doing their best to refund the deposit as soon as possible. You will be informed should the deposit has been credited into your bank account. We apologize for the inconvenience caused

Yay ! Problem solved, right? Nope, this is Malaysia and the very next day they changed their mind and sent me this

 As checking in our system, we found that this issue has been attended by our respective department. Based on their remark, we regret to inform that we unable to proceed with the request to transfer refund amount to your bank account due to refund amount will be sent to your billing addressed via cheque. You will be received your refund cheque within 3 month


Frustrating me a thousand times more than they ever did, Malaysia’s solution is to wait another three months (which means they made interest off me for half a year) and send a check to an address I no longer live at. Even if the new tenants were nice enough to contact us, (which isn’t possible since we don’t know who they are), this might be the biggest example of Malaysian bureaucratic bullshit anyone’s ever seen. As I recount the story for this post, I can’t even believe it. So chalk up 250 bucks as gone forever and add yet another reason we enjoy living in Thailand much more than Malaysia. As government elections draw closer and an increased push for more Islamization continues from the Malay majority party, I’d use this example as a cautionary tale if you’re looking for a retirement destination in Southeast Asia. Despite the MM2H program still being Southeast Asia’s best retirement visa in terms of length and simplicity, I’d withdraw my recommendation for Malaysia as my first choice to any new expats now that I’ve lived elsewhere.

Following up one last time, I voiced my extreme displeasure and even threatened to contact a lawyer. Totally indifferent,  the latest message confused me so much I won’t even bother sharing but it sounds like they now want me to wait three more months for the refund check that nobody will cash to get stale dated and then “revert back after that time”. Yeah, revert this, Malaysia. Clearly an exercise in total incompetence, I’d call it unacceptable for a nation that prides itself on being so advanced that they’ve banned street food in the capital because it’s too “third world-ish“. Understanding cultural attitudes are hard to change, I wish the citizens of Malaysia and all future expats choosing Penang as their new home good luck. As for us, I think we’ll stay in Thailand for a while. Cheers.


Comments? Suggestions on how to get our refund back? Please leave some. Or not.

5 thoughts on “The Ultimate Expat Battle of Wits

  1. durbanroots

    Awful experience. I tend to get very het up about things like that so I must be careful where I decide to land as a semi-permanent base! Don’t you think blood pressure should be a consideration when deciding where to emigrate to? LOL. Anna.


    1. Wayne Bayliss

      Yes, living part time in Penang six months of the year to run our business being in our sixties & semi retirement certainly tests our patience as well, I understand your frustration in dealing with telephone and power companies, our previous home in Bali was far less stressful as paying a small amount of cash usually solved the problem.
      Wayne & Jill


  2. NCC

    Thanks for the detailed “in the trenches” experience. I have visited Malaysia numerous times and am tempted to move there, but I am still stuck in the “honeymoon” phase– so your smack of reality is needed. Thanks also for the wonderful link to ISEAS. I was reading through their articles and commentaries section… some interesting & enlightening stuff.



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