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 ASEANmember 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 JPJofficer 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.
Recalling my last visit to the California Department of Motor Vehicles a few years ago, Diane and I cringed as the expiration date of our drivers licenses quickly approached. Usually looking more positively on a root canal than a trip to any government office, we’re glad we decided to hold off on buying a car or motorbike. But even though we don’t have intentions of buying a vehicle in Malaysia, we do plan moving into a suburban house in Chiang Mai, Thailand next summer which makes walking impractical so we’ll need to buy a motorbike. Legally speaking, many nations allow you to drive with a license from your home country but usually only for a few months (although every Brit expat we’ve come across drives here on their UK license since it’s almost perpetual with an expiry date of your grandchild’s 80th birthday). Having looked into the rules for obtaining a Thai drivers license, we decided no sane person would even attempt the long and tedious procedure that includes having someone act as your translator. Fortunately, it’s legal to drive in Thailand with a current Malaysian or Singapore license and Malaysia offers convenient conversion of foreigners drivers licenses so we prepared ourselves mentally for the trudge across the bay to the local JPJ office (a Malaysian acronym for the Road Transport Department).
The JPJ office
Back in the good old days of the MM2H Forum they had extensive posts and topics on the conversion process and they all made it sound complicated, frustrating and tedious. Recalling obstacles like non-English speaking government officials not understanding the process and long waits at the office, we anticipated the worst. But sometimes life throws you a curve ball and as it turns out, our trip to the JPJ turned out to be surprisingly pleasant and quick. Although we only received a receipt because it’s a two-step process for foreigners whose home country doesn’t have a bilateral agreement with Malaysia, the experience was anything but frustrating and in fact may have been the world’s easiest navigation of government bureaucracy. Unusually generous rules even allow holders of expired foreign drivers’ licenses the right to convert to a Malaysian license as long as it’s not been expired for more than three years. Thinking it might somehow be helpful to visit the office before the expiration date, we took up our neighbor’s generous offer of a ride and headed out for what we all thought might be an all day event.
Proving all good things are worth waiting for, our return to the big city culminated with a full-page color stamp in our passports. Exactly 660 days after the Japanese owned and California based bank “eliminated my position” and then mysteriously hired two less experienced people six months later, Diane and I are officially MM2H visa holders. Bypassing all traditional and secure methods of early retirement, we filed the paperwork from overseas as soon as my 50th birthday arrived. Six short weeks after that we sold our overpriced but very comfortable suburban San Francisco Bay Area house, thereby rendering us homeless. Spending six weeks in Canada and probably overstaying our welcome with friends and relatives, we figured we’d take a chance and get a head start, knowing the visa would take about 10 to 12 weeks until we received our “conditional letter of approval”. Defying conventional wisdom according to dozens of forum posters and even our MM2H agent’s advice, we successfully opened a foreign bank account from overseas, bought a one way plane ticket to Malaysia and headed out the door with two suitcases, an Ipad, an Ipad mini and two old Iphone 4S phones that we’d need to replace and bid farewell to our old life in North America.
Fast forwarding six weeks later, we’d already been settling in to our awesome condo unit in the beachfront town of Batu Ferrenghi when our agent informed us the approval letter came through less than 10 weeks after filing. Allowing applicants six months to complete the rather tedious process of fees, medical check-up, buying medical insurance and placing two fixed deposits (MYR 100,000 and MYR 50,000), we needed to travel to Kuala Lumpur and ultimately to Putrajaya, the Malaysian government centre before our 90 day tourist visa expired or risk having to re-enter so we hit the road last week. Deciding to use the Malaysian train system instead of flying, we packed a week’s worth of light clothes into a newly purchased medium-sized suitcase, ensuring it would fit in the small overhead compartment of the train and contacted our Uber buddy for an early morning pickup. Penang’s airport is rather far from our house and KLIA, in the nation’s capital, is almost an hour away from the downtown core whereas getting to the train only takes a 20 minute drive to the ferry terminal and a 10 minute ride on Southeast Asia’s oldest continuously operating ferry. Conveniently located right at the other side, Butterworth’s train station allows easy access to trains that journey as far south as Singapore and as far north as Bangkok for about the same price or less than Air Asia.