Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ah, the insanity of driving in Malaysia

Below: Cruisin' the highway to Penang. Note the girly sunglasses. I forgot to bring my own.

Malaysia is a nation of 28 million people. Of those 28 million, I'm not convinced there is a single one of them who knows how to properly drive a car. Seriously, it's just terrible.

(Btw, hello to all my Malaysian friends. I wasn't referring to you, don't worry.)

I'm not saying Australian traffic is perfect by comparison. But at least it makes sense to me. Of course, it has been suggested that all traffic systems have their own internal logic, which may seem baffling to outsiders but works once you are ensconced in it. And I get that - Jakarta's seemingly insane and perpetually jammed roads are horrible at best, yet they do have their own logic, in which drivers are strangely laid back yet hyper-vigilant to the frequently unexpected eventualities. But Malaysian driving, generally speaking, is a free-for-all. Surely there do exist some road rules in Malaysia, but I'm not sure anyone actually knows what they are. "Keep left and try not to crash" might be as specific as they get.

The most noteworthy features of Malaysian drivers are: their inability to stay in a single lane; absolute refusal to indicate when changing lanes; unwillingness to let anyone else merge; tendency to slow down to look out the window while trying to locate wherever it is you are going, even though you are clearly holding up all the cars behind you; and their high likelihood of being involved in a mobile phone conversation, or even texting, while driving.

One of my least favourite aspects of Malaysian traffic is the enormous variation in speeds that you'll encounter on the major roads. The standard highway speed limit is 110kph, but that means nothing really. Drive out in rural areas at the speed limit and you'll regularly find yourself being passed by drivers who think nothing of going at 160kph. Even speeding at 130kph, which is faster than I've ever driven in Australia, anytime I strayed into the right-hand passing lane for more than 30 seconds, I constantly found myself suddenly being tailgated and flashed by some madman who had hurtled from beyond the horizon in the blink of an eye.

At the other extreme are the almost medieval trucks that trundle down the highways seemingly with a maximum speed of 60kph, spewing black smoke as they go. The huge variance in speeds being done by these vehicles on the highways makes for a dangerous combination. But on the wide multi-lane highways are not as insane as the lesser highways that I encountered in rural Terengganu, which only have one lane going in each direction. Inevitably while travelling these roads, you will get stuck behind one of these slow-crawling lorries. It is very common to see a line up 8 or 10 cars stuck behind a truck, or slow elderly driver, because very few such drivers ever conceive that it might be nice to move over once in a while and let the others pass. The only way to do anything even approaching a decent speed is to "cut him" (overtake), while trying not to get hit by oncoming traffic as you move out into the other lane. This is dangerous at the best of times, but considering that the nearest oncoming car may be doing speeds of anywhere between 60kph and 160kph, it is exceedingly hard to judge whether or not you can make it safely. And by the same token, even when you are the driving free and unencumbered by a truck in front of you, your safety is constantly jeopardised with oncoming cars speeding into your lane to cut across oncoming trucks.

By the way, if the road you are on goes through a kampung (village), watch out for crossing chickens or other livestock. Should you happen to hit a chicken, it might seem like a nice thing to stop and check if it's ok, but I'm told it's best to keep going, lest some incensed villagers come chasing after you with a machete. Obviously this doesn't happen every time, but it must have happened enough to make people think twice about stopping.


Malaysia has a number of locally-produced cars, such as the Kancil (a tiny car named after the tiny mouse deer, a heroic and cunning character in traditional Malay folklore) and the Kenari. Once apparently rated as the worst car in the whole world by Top Gear, the Kenari looks a lot like an SUV that has somehow been shrunk to half the size. Yet it is this car that I found myself roaming the freeways in at high speeds, since my better half owns one. And somehow, she reached around 140kph in it without it self-combusting. (Ok, it did rattle quite a bit, but that's it)


Like most Asian countries, motorcyclists are common in Malaysia, since cars are inordinately expensive. And the sheer number of them, combined with the way many are liable to weave and drift through traffic, make their presence risky. But a more serious hazard on the road is an encounter with the mat rempit, pictured above in their signature "superman pose". The nicest way to describe these guys is "motorcycle enthusiasts". More accurately, they are the Malaysian version of a criminal bikie gang, usually young Malay guys whose favourite activity is illegal street racing. Of course, they have other hobbies as well, including armed robbery, drug use, assault, and intimidating people just because it's fun. Mat rempit can be spotted alone, or in groups of 40 or more. If you find yourself sharing a patch of road with any number of mat rempit, the smart thing to do is to avoid eye contact and don't do things that may provoke their ire, which is just about anything, to be honest.

KL folk speak of "the jam" like it's a fiendish monster that lurks in the streets waiting to ravage the unsuspecting. Suggest going anywhere between 4pm and 7pm and the locals will shudder as if reliving trauma. Now Melbourne traffic gets pretty nasty in the afternoon rush period, so my initial thoughts when hearing about the daily KL jam were dismissive. I've been in traffic jams before, guys. Get over it, I thought.

Of course, once you actually experience KL's traffic jam first hand, you gain a better understanding of why just the prospect of getting stuck in it makes Malaysians shudder. The photo above was taken heading into the city centre in the afternoon (normally you expect the outbound traffic flow to be the worst at that time of day). It's a nice view of the city skyline, but after 15 minutes of sitting in the exact same spot, I was well and truly over it (below).

The cause of that particular jam was a roundabout up ahead, which was made nasty because of the complete lack of etiquette displayed by so many Malaysian drivers, who blocked up the intersection and prevented any kind of traffic flow.
And while the late afternoon and early evening is the prime jam time, one drawback of KL's vibrant late-night eating and entertainment culture is that you can run into severe jams at 11pm as well. KL's jam is probably not as heinous as what Jakarta has to offer, but it's still nightmarish enough.

As an aside, after returning to Australia, I noticed myself driving like a Malaysian. Which in Melbourne, with its own internal logic and unofficial rules, is not a good thing at all.

Like this? You may like:

Asian drivers are safer. Seriously?

The guide to ordering food in Malaysia

Communication challenges in Malaysia

Malaysia - Kuala Lumpur, Sarawak and Sabah


Penang, street food capital of Asia


  1. I know what you mean. I was there too and they're crazy. At least in Jakarta it's not as dangerous. And I've been driving for many years, but only just started driving in Jkt and am getting the hang of it. Yes there are rules. It's: I wanna go, I wanna go, let me, let me - and you keep going till you're about to hit someone. You take turns doing that and beware of the motorcycles. It's kinda fun once you get the hang of it (when you're not stuck in traffic). And awesome that there's not much road rage.

  2. @ fromthetropics: I take it you are Indonesian as well?
    Yeah, its interesting how chilled out Indonesians are behind the wheel, in comparison to Australia. Aggression manifests itself in different ways from country to country. Jakartans would rarely rage on the road like Australians do, yet you wouldn't see Australian mobs patrolling the streets with spears looking for Malaysians either.

  3. >yet you wouldn't see Australian mobs patrolling the streets with spears looking for Malaysians either.

    Uh. I wouldn't call that rage. I'd call that stupidity. Uh, first degree stupidity. sigh.

    yeah, dad's Indonesian.

  4. Hey, dont think u know me. stumble upon your blog whilst looking for my research material. and its about highway. well, being a malaysian that is currently stuck in brisbane. i understand that some people couldn't take all the things malaysian roads throw at them. one of my mates once says and i quote, "get your driving guts from malaysia and the skills from indonesia and you'll be alright driving anywhere in the world. period!". reckon that sums it up ain't it? cheers bud

  5. @ Hang Tuah:

    it's funny: in a sense, Malaysian drivers are awful. Yet paradoxically, you need to be a fantastic driver to survive Malaysian roads because everyone is so awful.

    My partner is Malaysian and displays this strange blend of dangerous habits combined with sharp reflexes and high-level awareness of her driving environment.