Tag Archives: Kuala Lumpur

Impaired Driving; Malaysian style

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.

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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.

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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.

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Readdressing The “DIY” Issue

A few months ago I wrote about our experience at the JPJ, Malaysia’s equivalent to The Department of Motor Vehicles and Licensing. With the expiration dates of our U.S. driver’s licences fast approaching, Diane and I thought we’d take advantage of a rather generous rule allowing conversion of foreign licences for MM2H holders. (Expats on work visas are often disappointed because they’re usually denied). Unfortunately, bilateral agreements only allow certain passport holders an “automatic” conversion and both Canada and the USA are not on that list. So a few months ago we visited the local JPJ office on Penang Island and discovered that conversions must now be processed at another office on the mainland. Arriving just after 10, the process seemed easy enough but after not hearing anything 45 days later, we searched the website and found a rejection letter printed in Malay that was never mailed.

mm2h logoEnlisting our property agent as a translator, it seems the local officer neglected to verify and attach a photocopy of our MM2H Conditional Approval Letter along with the application. As vehicular challenged expats, we put off the trudge of two bus rides and a ferry crossing and having successfully renewed both state license by mail, gave up on the idea. But we have some friends that just got their MM2H approved and were going there anyway to convert their licences so we took advantage of their generous offer and tagged along. Many readers ask us why they should or shouldn’t use an agent when applying for an MM2H visa. Always responding that it’s a personal choice, we used Joy-Stay, the country’s best agent by any standards. For us, our agent’s professionalism combined with her expertise and great relationship with the ministry assured a hassle free experience that made up for the few hundred dollars extra. Her fee comes with a money back guarantee that you’ll be approved and she won’t even accept clients unless she’s confident she can get them approved. Besides, If you choose a DIY method, you still need to put up a security bond that’s covered in Joy-Stay’s package.

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An Indoor Enthusiats Mecca

Revisiting Kuala Lumpur seven weeks after arriving as “fresh off the plane” North American newbies, our perspective was a lot different the second time around. First impressions aside, although we loved the modern flair, food and luxurious five-star hotels at cut-rate prices (by Western standards), the first three-day stay was really just a quick glimpse and a chance to deposit some cash and meet our banking relationship manager. Impressed with how modern the city centre was, second thoughts set in about Penang when we first viewed its rustic environment compared to “the big city”. Fortunately it only took six weeks of island living to realize that KL is the place to be for working expats, especially those with spouses looking for social activities, big city amenities and nightlife. For the rest of us, it’s a smaller version of Singapore where shopping centres and massive office towers dominate the landscape, construction never stops and traffic rivals any big Southeast Asian city (in fact, it almost rivals San Francisco). Basically, it’s where you go when you need some pampering and a few goods unavailable in the laid back island up north.

imageEnjoying the beautiful view of Malaysia’s most iconic landmark from our luxurious room in the Traders Hotel, we settled in and had visions of hitting all the local places we didn’t have time to see the first time. As outdoor lovers, we chose the KL Bird Park as a day trip last time and decided to soak in the big city culture this time. Flipping through the local brochures describing the city’s top ten attractions, it takes minutes to realize the city’s biggest draw is the unspoken national sport: Mall hopping. Notice I didn’t say shopping because Singapore still owns that title. Patronized by a multi-cultural combination of locals and tourists, most of the cash seems to be doled out in the unbelievable multitude of food outlets that come in every size, taste and ethic flavor. Visiting the upper floors of the high-end malls offers a chance to shop prcatically distraction free since nobody seems to be interested in shelling out three month’s salary for a Kate Spade handbag. Mesmerized by the sheer size and volume of retail shopping space crammed into one square mile, Diane and I spent about an hour negotiating the air-conditioned indoor walkways and finally meandered our way to the Pavillion, KL’s answer to Orchard Road. Rodeo Drive and New York’s Fifth Avenue.

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Truckin’ by Train

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.

imageFast 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.

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Monkey Business

No, we didn’t fall off the face of the earth. It’s been a long week back here in the big city and yes, we did accomplish our mission. We are now officially MM2H Holders and are free to come and go in and out of Malaysia for the next ten years, although we will have to renew the pass in six years since my passport expires in 2021. Shelling out lots of cash, they ask you to pay an annual fee up front for as many years as you want up to ten but most people only pay until their passports expire since you have to return anyway at that point. But more on that later. Once we return back to Penang, I will post about our entire trip. For now, however, I have to share something that’s basically made the entire process worth it. No, it’s not some new career or volunteer job that fulfilled our dreams. It’s spending some unexpected quality time with the world’s tamest silver leafed monkeys.

Before you judge me, let me run the disclaimers. Obviously, I’m fully aware that these monkeys belong in the wild foraging for their own food instead of hanging out on people’s shoulders eating bananas that tourists feed them from vendors that make their living selling huge burlap sacks of monkey treats for only 10 ringgit. But I love monkeys so much I could spend weeks with them and never be bored. Intending to volunteer helping animals at various wildlife shelters throughout Southeast Asia, Diane and I will spend time doing things besides being dumb tourists. But this caught me so off guard I had to treat it for what it was; an incredibly enjoyable and heartwarming half hour with monkeys so friendly and interesting, it’s amazing more people don’t know about this area so close to the big city.

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Knowing we’re not in Kuala Lumpur very often, we decided to spend six days even though we only needed a few hours on two days to complete the MM2H visa. Possibly the world’s coolest premier banker, our new friend and relationship manager at our bank agreed to spend some time with us on Saturday to show us the KL Tower and eat some Nasi Kandar where the real (overweight) Malaysian Indians hang out. Having completed the visa on Thursday, we searched for a day trip that didn’t involve visiting ethnic neighborhoods, mosques or walking tours since we walk more than 99% of the population. About an hour outside of KL is Kuala Selangor, a charming seaside town with a unique attraction. One of the few places in the world where firefly colonies are visible, it seemed like an interesting few hours and leaves late in the day since you can only see the fireflies at night.

Touted as a “nature park”‘ there’s a small reserve where the guide books and internet reviews say it’s possible to view birds and “sometimes monkeys if you’re lucky”. Not really making much ado about monkeys, our guide picked us up and told us we’d be making a stop at a lighthouse where the straits are so narrow you can almost see Indonesia. Apparently someone told the monkeys that it’s easier to hang out in the trees near the parking lot and simply wait for the bus loads of tourists to arrive. Named Bukit Malawati, the area is a beautiful spot with an old lighthouse on the top that overlooks the Straits of Malacca.  Featuring some canons that nobody seems to know anything about, the guide was trying to convince our group to leave the parking lot and walk up the hill to experience the view. Totally ignoring her, Diane and I spent our half hour with  sack of bananas and some incredibly awesome “wild animals”.

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Known as “silvered leaf monkeys”, they’re actually Silvry Lutungs, a medium-sized monkey living in Peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. Technically langurs, you’ve probably seen them in zoos described as “Francois Langurs”. But even working at the zoo wouldn’t get you as up close and involved with hundreds of them. Big and small, even mothers carrying little babies will enthusiastically eat from your hands and they’re more than happy to jump on your shoulder and eat their bananas while you explore their little fingers, pet them and just get to know the  like they’re your own personal pets. Unusually non smelly, they don’t poop on you and have the most adorably human eyes. Like dogs, they all have individual personalities and some are more dominant but only with the other monkeys.

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So please forgive me for going ga-ga over something as ridiculous as monkeys that learned how to eat well by simply acting less aggressive than others. Maybe I’m being childish or even irresponsible by feeding wild animals that belong in the trees but they’re not threatened, endangered or any worse off since nobody feeds them dumb shit like potato chips. For us, it was the absolute best anormal experience so far in Malaysia, albeit slightly unethical.

imageOh yes, we did see the fireflies but it’s too hard to take pictures that look like much so instead I’ll just show you the view from our dinner stop. Scenic and reminding me of Borneo, the downside is a horribly disgusting environmental situation that includes garbage everywhere and toilets that literally flush into the murky river. Malaysia has a long way to go despite KL looking like a big city in any G8. Anyway, apologies to the animal rights activists and anyone else offended by feeding monkeys that shouldn’t be this tame but our blog is about our own personal experiences as expats so that’s what we write about. Promising posts detailing the test of our trip including the semantics of MM2H, we’re off to eat some incredible food unavailable in Penang. Perhaps the best part, we love the food but wouldn’t ever have chosen KL or any big city because we’d windup chubby like so many Malaysians living here already are. Ah, progress and its downfalls.

Cheers from the beautiful Traders Hotel in KLCC.