What’s it Like Driving in Malaysia?

Malaysia is best explored by a private vehicle because of our unsophisticated public transportation system.

Even with the mass availability of ride-sharing apps like GrabCar, driving your own car makes the most logical sense most of the time here. So if you plan to be driving in Malaysia, you’re probably wondering what’s it like driving in Malaysia?

I have been driving in Malaysia for over 10 years and have also lived and drove abroad in Europe, Singapore, and the USA. So I can write about my experiences and my observations on driving behavioral differences that I notice driving in Malaysia as compared to these other countries.

Let’s get the boring bit out of the way first, the license:

Driving License

The requirement for foreigners driving in Malaysia (by the books):

  • You need a valid driver’s license from your home country.
  • You need to apply for the International Driving Permit from JPJ.

By law, you need to have both of the above to be able to drive legally in Malaysia. Application for the International Driving Permit (IDP) can be done at the Malaysian Road Transportation Department (JPJ). Details on their website.

The IDP is a temporary driving solution if you are planning to drive not more than 90 days. If you have moved to Malaysia, it would make more sense to apply for the normal Malaysian Driving License at any local driving school.

Be prepared for a lengthy slow government style service. I advise you to show up first thing in the morning.

Typical Cars in Malaysia

Compared to our neighbors, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam etc, cars in Malaysia outnumber motorcycles in urban areas. The safety mindset alongside a higher-income compared to some of the lesser fortunate neighbors contributes to this statistic.

Despite most of us Malaysians daydream (when being stuck in traffic) to weave through traffic jams on a zippy motorbike, we acknowledge that it’s really dangerous and if you look at how almost all motorists text while driving, I don’t blame them.

Car Body Types: Cars here follow the UK being right-hand drive (meaning the driver sits on the right but you drive on the left side of the road).

Right-hand drive in Malaysia

Cars are typically compact 4 door sedans, 4 door hatchbacks and SUVs. You will rarely get to see a 3 door car and due to the hot weather climate, most cars do not have sunroofs. Convertibles are also extremely rare.

Engine & Fuel: The majority of car engines in Malaysia run on petrol and are less than 2L in engine capacity. Only buses, pickup trucks and selected luxury vehicles imported from Europe run on Diesel.

Car Brands: The most common car brand in Malaysia is locally owned Perodua. They collaborated with car giant Toyota-Daihatsu to engineer and produce reliable, cheap compact cars which lead to their huge sales success here. Most GrabCars are of this brand.

Perodua Myvi

The other Malaysian car company is named Proton which has a lot of bad rep for reliability issues. But their sales have been picking up in 2019 as they’ve merged with Chinese car giant, Geely and now selling trending SUVs.

Malaysians generally still prefer Asian cars for their reliability and high resale value. Which is why there are loads of Peroduas, Hondas, Toyotas, and Mazdas. Unlike in Europe, European cars such as BMW and Mercedes are reserved for the financially advantageous (or foolish).

Fuel in Malaysia

The lowest grade petrol that you can get is RON 95. Most Japanese and local brand cars can run on this octane. Whilst more sophisticated European and sports cars are recommended to run on the higher octane, RON 97 which is obviously more expensive.

Not all petrol stations have diesel and Natural Gas is typically only used by taxis or self-modified cars.

Petronas is the most common petrol brand as it is locally owned. Other foreign petrol companies are Shell, BHP, Petron, and Caltex.

How to Save Money on Fuel in Malaysia

Petronas launched its own E-Wallet app called Setel. This is to promote its Mesra loyalty program. You can pay for your petrol and redeem points using an app on your mobile phone.

Unfortunately as of now, it only works at selected Petronas petrol station in Klang Valley (Kuala Lumpur city and the populated suburbs surrounding it).

This app is great if you are staying in Malaysia for an extended period of time like a couple of months. But if you are just on a few week’s holidays, it won’t make much sense for you to buy into their loyalty program.

Highway Toll Payment

As of 2018, all toll payments are cashless to avoid horrific traffic jams as people queue to pay in cash. This is a very smart move from the government.

The only way for you to pay for tolls is through the Touch N Go (TnG) company. You can make toll payments using their own TnG E-Wallet app or with a TnG physical prepaid card that you can purchase at any 7 Eleven or Petrol station.

  1. A physical TnG card (with or without SmartTag).
  2. RFID sticker fitted to the headlamps of your car with the TnG E-wallet.

TnG Physical Card with SmartTag

Back in the days, you drive into the toll gantry and have to roll down your window and tap the TnG card at the toll booth sensors to make the payment.

At some point, the Smart Tag was invented, which is an electronic reader for the TnG physical card.

Your TnG card slides into the Smart Tag device and as you drive through the toll booth, a scanner at the toll booth will communicate with your Smart Tag reader to deduct money automatically from your TnG card. All this without rolling your car window down.

Perodua Myvi, the best selling local car brand has a TnG card reader and receiver built-in right into the dashboard. Talk about an ingenious localized solution:

Built-in TnG reader and receiver in the Perodua Myvi

Unfortunately, the company has stopped selling the Smart Tag device as they are shifting focus to the newer RFID technology:

RFID Sticker & E-Wallet App

The latest way to pay for tolls is to install a metal tag called an RFID sticker on the headlamp of your car. The tag will be linked with your TnG E-Wallet account and when you drive through the toll booth, it’ll deduct the money from your E-Wallet via the PayDirect function shown below:

TnG E-Wallet app & PayDirect

Toll payment via TnG E-Wallet

THINGS TO NOTE: Oddly enough for some reason, your E-Wallet balance is not linked to the balance you have in your physical TnG card.

Pretty ingenious but there are a few drawbacks with the RFID technology as of now:

  1. There are not as many toll gantries that accept RFID as compared to the normal Smart Tags.
  2. Not all tolls accept PayDirect. You can’t pay using your E-Wallet when using the North-South Highway as of this article.
  3. Your E-Wallet balance and the TnG balance are not linked and make it hard to explain to older people.
  4. I don’t think foreigners could be bothered to download the app. So this method is only best for people who are staying in Malaysia for an extended period of time.
  5. You can only register RFID for Malaysian registered cars.

More details on TnG RFID on their website.

Typical Malaysian Traffic Behaviors

  • 60% of the time won’t use turn signals when turning or changing lanes.
  • In a 3 lane highway, people will drive in the middle by default.
  • Nobody abides to speed limits unless they know there’s a speed camera.
  • When merging into traffic or T-junction, it is a first come first serve basis and not like in the UK where it’s fair, you go, then I go.
  • Unlike in India where people drive all over the place and honking is as to say ‘hey caution, I’m here’, in Malaysia, honking is usually something a bit more serious, like “hey you almost hit me, watch it pal!”.
  • Unlike in the west, pedestrians do not have the right of way. In the US, cars will always be at fault for hitting a pedestrian no matter what. That does not apply here, and this doesn’t mean that you can start mowing people down, but pedestrians usually are cautious of you and wait for you to let them cross the road rather than the other way around.
  • People change lanes willy nilly over here. So if you want to change lanes yourself, using the turn signals and looking at your side mirror is not enough. Make sure you turn your head over your shoulders and look out the side windows to make sure you cover your blind spots.
  • Motorcyclists typically drive however they want and they always weave in and out of traffic at will without any care in the world. Make sure your car’s side mirrors are not too close to the car next to you to allow motorcyclists to weave around traffic.
  • Traffic Lights: Yellow doesn’t mean get ready to stop, it means pedal to the medal before the light turns red. So be extra careful of your surroundings at traffic lights.

Traffic Jams and Rush Hours

Avoid driving during rush hour traffic at all costs. Rush hour traffic is one of the reasons I choose to work at home.

Morning rush hours: any roads leading into the city center, typically from 7 am – 10 am.

Evening rush hours: any roads leading out of the city, typically from 4:30 pm – 8 pm.

Special Occasion Extra Bad Traffic:

  • Not sure why, but if it rains, massive traffic will ensue. It rains almost every day during monsoon season (November – March).
  • Every Friday evening as people are heading home for the weekend.
  • The worst 3-factor combo: Friday evening where the following Monday is a holiday + it’s raining. More people are dedicated to go home at the same time and enjoy the long holiday.
  • The last day of work before a massive holiday: Hari Raya & Chinese New year holidays.

Useful Traffic-Related Links

  1. To check on live traffic cameras, go to www.jalanow.com.
  2. For Malaysian public holidays, go to this website.

Typical Parking in Malaysia

Street Parking

Malaysia is overrun by cars. Most shop lots premises only offer street parking for their customers and it is quite a hassle to find an available space.

To save space, most of the shop lot parking is 70% diagonal or horizontal parking and parallel parking is not as common as in the UK.

Typical street parking

Double Parking: This is a common bane when parking in Malaysia. Due to the lack of available parking spaces and Malaysian mentality to park exactly in front of the shop that they want to go, they will simply double park (sometimes triple park) as long as they can park where they want.

IT’S NOT OK TO DO IT: This is greatly discouraged and shows a lack of education and empathy towards others. If everyone jumps off a cliff, would you do it too?

What you should do if you get double-parked: Check the car that blocked you, most of the time, the driver will leave their contact number on a piece of paper on the dashboard. This is the best case and all you need to do is call the owner and politely ask them to move their car.

No number at the dash? Now here is when things get tricky. What most people do is to honk your car horn until the owner shows up. You must keep your cool and not flip out on the driver or else you’ll probably end up circulating as a humiliating viral Facebook video.

Payment for Street Parking

Scratch Coupon: Most street parking can be paid using a scratch coupon. Just ask any store nearby where you park where you can purchase some. The coupon is typically sold per booklet. This is best if you are a visiting tourist.

App Payment: Depending on the city area that you are in, E-wallets for parking is quite scattered at the moment (there’s no 1 app for all the areas). As of Kuala Lumpur city center, you can download the app: Jom Parking to make easy street payment.

Jom Parking App
Payment via Job Parking

If you are in the suburbs such as Kajang, Bangi or Shah Alam, you need to download another app, Flexi Parking. Although some areas of coverage are overlapping between these 2 apps, having them both on your phone would make the most sense if you live and commute within Klang Valley (Kuala Lumpur and Selangor).

Mall & Apartment Complex Parking

The most convenient and secure parking would be at malls, offices and apartment complexes. You’ll have a dedicated parking spot along with CCTV coverage for added safety.

Payments at malls are typically by ticket and cash or using the TnG physical card that you use to pay for tolls. As of now, paying for parking using Visa or Mastercard in Malaysia is very rare.

Renting a Car in Malaysia

Whichever method you use, I personally recommend not renting some random person’s car. Because you will not be covered by the insurance if anything bad would’ve happened.

Make sure you ask the person you rent the car from how would you deal with refueling and toll payments. Some cars will include a TnG card in it, some won’t.

Traditional Car Rental Companies

This is pretty straight forward, charged per day. Perfect if you want to rent a car for vacation for a couple of days.

A quick Google on car rentals in Kuala Lumpur will show you plenty of results. Make sure you compare prices for the same model between different companies.

Personally, I would recommend getting insurance coverage for the rental car just in case anything bad would’ve happened.

There’s nothing that will spoil your vacation than dealing with the legal mess of being in an accident or damage to the rental car.

New Age App-Based Car Rentals

Nothing better than getting a car rental service through your smartphone without any human interaction. App-based car rental companies are tapping the demand that traditional car rentals are not doing well.

  1. More than a 1-month lease.
  2. Really short term lease by the hour.

As of now, I recommend 2 leading car-sharing apps in Malaysia:

  1. GoCar
  2. SoCar

What to do if you got into a road accident in Malaysia

If you sustain serious injuries, call the ambulance immediately.

If it’s a minor fender bender, you have to settle it directly with the other person. Lodge a traffic police report to protect yourself anyways.

If there’s no injury but your car is damaged to the point it needs towing, follow the instructions below as a guideline:

  1. Stay calm, do not provoke the other person involved in the accident.
  2. Take evidence of the damage, pics, and videos.
  3. Exchange contact info of the involved individual, especially their car number.
  4. If the damage is substantial and your car needs towing, call your insurance company (their number is usually on the windscreen sticker or contact the car owner) and wait for it to arrive.
  5. Do not accept any tow truck that is not from your insurance company.
  6. Your car will most probably be towed to the area’s traffic police station where you need to lodge a police report of the incident.
  7. Have a talk with the traffic police after he inspects the situation to see what is your next action (claim insurance etc.)

Fun Fact: In an unfortunate event your car got hit by a motorcyclist, the road law will always side with motorcyclists and you will never be able to claim their insurance.

Wrapping it Up

Driving in Malaysia has its differences compared to other countries, hope this article helped you out with what to expect and to blend in with the local traffic 🙂

I have mentioned about E-Wallets a few times in this article. To know more about this, check out my article on Malaysian E-Wallets.

Helmi Hasan

Hi, I'm Helmi Hasan, the founder, and writer for the personal finance blog, Balkoni Hijau. Read more in the 'About Me' page or follow me on Twitter.

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