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Since arriving in Malaysia in 1997, I have tried on many occasions to buy a copy of the Malaysian road rules, but have come to the conclusion that no such publication exists (or if it does, it has been out of print for years). Therefore after carefully observing the driving habits of Malaysian drivers, I believe I have at last worked out the rules of the road in Malaysia. For the benefit of other expatriates living in Malaysia, and the 50% of local drivers who acquired their driving licences without taking a driving test, I am pleased to share my knowledge below:
Q: What is the most important rule of the road in Malaysia?
A: The most important rule is that you must arrive at your destination ahead of the car in front of you. This is the sacrosanct rule of driving in Malaysia. All other rules are subservient to this rule.
Q: What side of the road should you drive on in Malaysia?
A: 99.7% of cars drive on the left hand side, 0.2% on the right hand side, and 0.1% drive in reverse (be on the lookout for drivers reversing at high speed in the left hand lane of freeways, having just missed their exit). Therefore on the basis of 'majority rules', it is recommended that you drive on the left. However, be aware that only 90% of motorcyclists travel on the left hand side - the other 10% ride in the opposite direction or on the sidewalk. Fortunately, motorcyclists traveling in reverse are rarely seen.
Q: What are the white lines on the roads?
A: These are known as lane markers and were used by the British in the colonial days to help them drive straight after consuming their gin and tonics. Today their purpose is mainly decorative, although a double white line is used to indicate a place that is popular to overtake.
Q: When can I use the emergency lane?
A: You can use the emergency lane for any emergency, e.g. you are late for work, you left the toaster plugged in at home, you are bursting to go to the toilet, you have a toothache or you have just dropped a hot latte in your lap. As it is an emergency, you may drive at twice the speed of the other cars on the road.
Q: Do traffic lights have the same meaning as in other countries?
A: Not quite. Green is the same – that means “Go”, but amber and red are different. Amber means “Go like hell” and red means “Stop if there is traffic coming in the other direction or if there is a policeman on the corner”. Otherwise red means the same as green. Note that for buses, red lights do not take effect until five seconds after the light has changed.
Q: What does the sign “Jalan Sehala” mean?
A: This means “One Way Street” and indicates a street where the traffic is required to travel in one direction. The arrow on the sign indicates the preferred direction of the traffic flow, but is not compulsory. If the traffic is not flowing in the direction in which you wish to travel, then reversing in that direction is the best option.
Q: What does the sign “Berhenti” mean?
A: This means “Stop”, and is used to indicate a junction where there is a possibility that you may have to stop if you cannot fool the cars on the road that you are entering into thinking that you are not going to stop.
Q: What does the sign “Beri Laluan” mean?
A: This means “Give Way”, and is used to indicate a junction where the cars on the road that you are entering will give way to you provided you avoid all eye contact with them and you can fool them into thinking that you have not seen them.
Q: What does the sign “Dilarang Masuk” mean?
A: This means “No Entry”. However, when used on exit ramps in multi-storey car parks, it has an alternative meaning which is: “Short cut to the next level up”.
Q: What does the sign “Pandu Cermat” mean?
A: This means “Drive Smartly”, and is placed along highways to remind drivers that they should never leave more than one car length between them and the car in front, irrespective of what speed they are driving. This is to ensure that other cars cannot cut in front of you and thus prevent you from achieving the primary objective of driving in Malaysia, and that is to arrive ahead of the car in front of you. If you can see the rear number plate of the car in front of you, then you are not driving close enough.
Q: What is the speed limit in Malaysia?
A: The concept of a speed limit is unknown in Malaysia.
Q: So what are the round signs on the highways with the numbers, 60, 80 and 110?
A: This is the amount of the ‘on-the-spot’ fine (in ringgits - the local currency) that you have to pay to the police if you are stopped on that stretch of the highway. Note that for expatriates or locals driving Mercedes or BMWs, the on-the-spot fine is double the amount shown on the sign.
Q: Where do you pay the ‘on-the-spot’ fine?
A: As the name suggests, you pay it ‘on-the-spot’ to the policeman who has stopped you. You will be asked to place your driving licence on the policeman's notebook that he will hand to you through the window of your car. You will note that there is a spot on the cover of the notebook. Neatly fold the amount of your fine into four, place the fine on the spot, and then cover it with your driving licence so that it cannot be seen. Pass it carefully to the policeman. Then, with a David Copperfield movement of his hands, he will make your money disappear. It is not necessary to applaud.
Q: But isn’t this a bribe?
A: Oh pleeease, go and wash your mouth out. What do you want? A traffic ticket? Yes, you can request one of those instead, but it will cost you twice the price, forms to fill out, cheques to write, envelopes to mail, and then three months later when you are advised that your fine was never received, more forms to fill out, a trip to the police station, a trip to the bank, a trip back to the police station, and maybe then you will wish you had paid ‘on-the-spot’.
Q: But what if I haven’t broken any road rules?
A: It is not common practice in Malaysia to stop motorists for breaking road rules (because nobody is really sure what they are). The most common reasons for being stopped are: (a) the policeman is hungry and would like you to buy him lunch; (b) the policeman has run out of petrol and needs some money to get back to the station; (c) you look like a generous person who would like to make a donation to the police welfare fund; or (d) you are driving an expensive car which means you can afford to make a donation to the police welfare fund.
Q: Does my car require a roadworthy certificate before I can drive it in Malaysia?
A: No, roadworthy certificates are not required in Malaysia. However there are certain other statutory requirements that must be fulfilled before your car can be driven in Malaysia. Firstly, you must ensure that your windscreen is at least 50% obscured with English football club decals, golf club membership stickers or condo parking permits. Secondly, you must place a tissue box (preferably in a white lace cover) on the back shelf of your car under the rear window. Thirdly, you must hang as many CDs or plastic ornaments from your rear vision mirror as it will support. Finally, you must place a Garfield doll with suction caps on one of your windows. Your car will then be ready to drive on Malaysian roads.
Q: What does a single yellow line along the edge of a road mean?
A: This means parking is permitted.
Q: What does a double yellow line along the edge of a road mean?
A: This means double parking is permitted.
Q: What does a yellow box with a diagonal grid of yellow lines painted on the road at a junction mean?
A: Contrary to the understanding of some local drivers, this does not mean that diagonal parking is permitted. It indicates a junction that is grid-locked at peak hours.
Q: Can I use my mobile phone whilst driving in Malaysia?
A: No problem at all, but it should be noted that if you wish to use the rear-vision mirror to put on your lipstick or trim your eyebrows at the same time as you are using a mobile phone in the other hand, you should ensure that you keep an elbow free to steer the car. Alternatively, you may place a toddler on your lap and have the child steer the car whilst you are carrying out these other essential tasks.
Q: Is it necessary to use indicator lights in Malaysia?
A: These blinking orange lights are commonly used by newly arrived expatriate drivers to indicate they are about to change lanes. This provides a useful signal to local drivers to close up any gaps to prevent the expatriate driver from changing lanes. Therefore it is recommended that expatriate drivers adopt the local practice of avoiding all use of indicator lights. However, it is sometimes useful to turn on your left hand indicator if you want to merge right, because this confuses other drivers enabling you to take advantage of an unprotected gap in the traffic.
Q: Why do some local drivers turn on their left hand indicator and then turn right, or turn on their right hand indicator and then turn left?
A: This is one of the unsolved mysteries of driving in Malaysia.
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For information on the best places to visit in Malaysia, check out our Malaysia Travel Guide