Driving in Malaysia

Driving in Malaysia

Simon Lai tackles unpredictable traffic and poor build quality as he reports from Malaysia.

Driving in Malaysia
Scooters are a common sight.

My latest trip is to the land of my parents’ birth, Malaysia. More specifically the island state of Penang which in recent times has become a hub for global businesses and foreign investors making it an important part of the nation’s economy.

Situated in the tropics of Southeast Asia, conditions in Malaysia are humid all year round so locals are constantly moving  between air conditioned environments – the home, the office, the shopping centre and of course the car.

And behind the wheel is where I also spent a lot of my time. The driving experience is completely different from Australia’s. The streets are populated by cars and lorries and, like other countries in the region, motorcycles. These are smaller cc bikes which we’d classify as scooters. While car ownership in Malaysia has increased (and is certainly higher than their neighbours), there’s still a high percentage of bikes on the road with most households having a combination of both. And while most adhere to safety rules and don a helmet, it’s not uncommon to find another person riding pillion along with a couple of kids all masterfully balanced with their groceries.

On a relative scale, cars cost more than in Australia leaving the Malay, Chinese and Indian population to purchase local brands like the familiar Proton which shares the market with the even less inspiring Perodua. The rest are made up of Japanese makes like Toyota, Honda and Nissan while Mercedes is considered the prestige foreign brand.

Having been a British colony, they also drive on the left. Lights at major intersections have a timer countdown to warn drivers how long till they can go or need to stop.

However, lights are the only thing road users follow; line markings it seems are only a suggestion. Back home, you can be assured that adjacent drivers will stick to their lanes but over here, drivers will drift in and out of lanes and into your ‘bubble’ without warning. Many a time I was cut off at a moment’s notice and pushed out of my lane suddenly finding myself stuck in no man’s land.

But all of this chaotic driving is aided by the fact locals drive at a slower average speed and take their time. We have greater distances to cover and drive a lot faster, always try to get up to the speed limit as soon as we get the green light.

Driving in Malaysia
The rather interesting Perodua Kelisa.

A good driver is a matter of perspective. In our country, people from this part of the world are often considered bad drivers. But they in fact are quite skilful, just not very good at following rules. The trick is to ignore the lines and treat the road like a race track driving to the vehicles around you and the space between the gutters. I would have to say, Malaysians are also quite tolerant as, quite surprisingly, I rarely heard a horn being sounded.  In Australia the smallest of indiscretions would incite a tirade of profanity, horn-leaning and maybe even the finger.

As is always the case with travel, it opens your eyes to other ways of life and makes you really appreciate how good we’ve got it here. Selamat Jalan!