Adventures in Bureaucracy

Dealing with any kind of bureaucracy is always fun in Kuala Lumpur, not least because of the language barrier. It seems like there are always multiple levels and each of these levels seems to be inefficient and potentially unnecessary from my perspective. For example, unless you would prefer to pay out of pocket for a routine medical visit that is 100% covered by your insurance and then submit a claim form to be reimbursed, you need to get a guarantee letter from your insurance provider before your appointment. Once you have this guarantee letter, and you show up to the medical center for your appointment, you start by going to general registration. Then you get a number and a form to complete authorizing the doctor to look at your medical records. When your number is called, you go to the counter where they ask for your guarantee letter and call up your patient file. If the clerk was previously able to access the letter your insurance emailed to the medical center, you should not assume that on your subsequent visit the clerk will be able to access the same letter. You need to bring a hard copy for the clerk to physically attach to today’s paperwork that you will bring to your doctor yourself. It’s a mystery why a PDF of the letter can’t be kept in your electronic patient file. So every time you see the doctor for a regular, routine visit you have to plan an additional 20 minutes to go through this process. (For readers outside of the U.S., doctor’s offices generally keep your insurance information on file there. You give them your insurance information about once a year, or whenever it changes, rather than at each visit.) This whole process just feels beyond unnecessary to me. And these unnecessary layers seem to be the case for many other bureaucratic channels also.

Recently I was fortunate enough to experience the bureaucracy of the customs office. We have bought things online through Amazon and not had a problem with receiving them at our hotel. Sure, you pay a lot for international shipping, but apparently Amazon also takes into account the customs duties so your parcel just magically arrives at your door with no further effort on your part. I have discovered that clothes in Southeast Asia are not made for Western bodies, and I have a really hard time finding my size. When I can find my general size, the cut is often not quite right for me and so it’s very uncomfortable to wear. Lately I have needed to integrate several new pieces into my wardrobe, and it just wasn’t working for me to shop here. I tried multiple stores at multiple malls, even specialty stores. So I finally ordered a bunch of stuff online. The international shipping was going to be close to $100 USD, which seemed excessive, so I had it shipped to my dad and his wife in Massachusetts instead for $7. They graciously agreed to ship it to me when it arrived, which was good because I placed the order in the middle of the night on the East Coast, so if they didn’t want to ship it to me they would have been the proud new owners of a lot of clothes they probably didn’t want in 5-7 business days. I thought the shipping would be around $50 USD (it was closer to $70 USD), so even though this was going to be a pain I thought it would save money in the long run. Famous last words.

Around the time I was expecting the package to arrive, I received a letter at the hotel saying it was being held by customs. The letter was primarily in Malay with English translation in parentheses after each paragraph. The English text was clearly written by a non-native speaker, so I didn’t feel confident I understood the full content very well. I brought the letter to the concierge guys, asked for their help, and of course they saved the day. (At this point, let me say that I have never really utilized the concierge desk before, not that I’ve stayed at many hotels nice enough to have them. The guys at our concierge desk are incredibly friendly and helpful; navigating life in a new city – never mind a new country – has been immensely easier with their help and advice.) Sharma, the concierge who was there when I asked, explained the letter to us. If Daneal is the head man, Sharma runs a close second in the hierarchy.

The letter basically said that customs was holding our package, probably because we owed some taxes, and we had three options for getting it discharged: 1) for a fee of RM50.00 we can appoint the Malaysian postal service to act as our agent and have it discharged. 2) The addressee can appoint another party to act as his/her agent to discharge it in person. 3) The addressee can go to the customs office at the airport and discharge it himself. Sharma and another concierge both recommended that we go to discharge it ourselves, they didn’t offer a reason why we shouldn’t authorize the postal service to do it for us but they “suggested” rather strongly that we would be better off doing it. We took their advice.

Since the addressee was technically Micah, he had to fill out the form to authorize me to discharge the package. So, armed with every possible piece of identification either of us possesses, the letter identifying the package, and only a vague idea of where I needed to go and what I needed to do while there, I set out late on a Friday morning to deal with this fun bit of bureaucratic nonsense. Sharma explained to the cab driver that I needed to go to the customs office, we showed him my letter and the driver said he knew where it was. (Of course he did, why would he say he didn’t know and refuse a fare?) The driver, I should note, was very nice and very grandfatherly. He didn’t speak a lot of English, but I felt OK because Sharma had told him where I needed to go. Plus I had the address, worst-case scenario I could use the GPS on my phone.

The airport is about 45 minutes from the hotel, and there are two separate terminals (actually 3 terminals, as I found out) in distinctly different locations. As we approached the general airport area, the driver said, “KLIA, right?” I said, “I don’t know, I have to go to the customs office.” “At KLIA, yes?” (KLIA is the main airport.) I have no idea where it is, didn’t you tell Sharma you knew where it was? Then I remembered something from a blog post I had read about how to collect things from customs. It’s past the LCC Terminal, which is basically the cargo terminal. So I told the driver this and he said, “Oh! LCCT is 18 km from KLIA!” Good thing we figured that out early enough. As we approached the Customs building, it was pretty clear that cabs would be few and far between. I was starting to worry about this a little when the driver said in a very sad voice, “I don’t know how you are going to get home.” I explained my plan to use the “My Taxi” app to call a cab- it uses GPS, so I thought that might be my best option- and explained that I was OK with waiting.

We arrived at the office a few minutes later and I checked in at the front gate, where I got a visitor’s badge and they told me the office was closed from 1-2pm…it was currently 12:58pm. When I looked at the office’s operating hours, I neglected to take notice of the fact that the office closes every Friday from 1-2pm for afternoon prayers. This is pretty common in Malaysia, so it should have occurred to me. But it didn’t. The guards said I could wait inside and I didn’t really see any other options. Again in a very sad voice, the driver said, “I don’t know. I don’t think you will find another taxi here.” Then, in a much more confidant voice, “I will wait for you.” That was so nice! But I didn’t want to pay for his meter the whole time. I made clear that I might have to wait a long time and I didn’t think I could afford to pay him to wait. He said he would come back at 2:30 and not charge me for the time. I really think he took pity on me because I was very clearly in over my head with this errand, and as a woman in a Muslim country I think he doubted my ability to take care of myself. Sometimes being a woman works in my favor here! (For the record, I think using the app would have worked. I would have had to wait a while, and it would have been a pain, but it wasn’t like I was somewhere off the grid. Worst case scenario I could have called the concierge guys, tell them where I was, and they could get a cab to come collect me. So I had a plan, just not a great one.)

The office was a long room with many different counters and different waiting areas. I was the only one in the building, as far as I knew, since everyone was at prayers or lunch. So I settled into a comfy chair in a corner and took the time to get the lay of the land. I think sitting for an hour really helped because I had time to read all the signs and see what was where. There were four different counters, so it seemed reasonable that I would need to visit each one in turn. Since I was certainly the only customer in the building, I felt pretty sure I would be served first when business hours resumed and perhaps they would be more patient if I needed help.

The Customs Office, empty during Friday afternoon prayers.

The Customs Office, empty during Friday afternoon prayers.

At 1:50pm, I took a seat directly in front of Counter 1, so there would be no mistake that I was there and waiting when the office reopened. At 2:05pm a clerk turned the lights on behind the desk and seemed surprised to see me sitting there already. I brought her everything I had, in terms of paperwork and identification. She asked me if I was the same person that my husband had authorized to pick up the parcel (yes) and she took everything I brought. She made some copies and I think added a form or two because I walked off with more paperwork. I next went over to Counter 2, where I waited for a few minutes while the clerk got herself situated even though it was now about 2:15pm and the office had been “open” for 15 minutes. She took my pile of paperwork and my passport and found my parcel. She manually logged it into her book, because apparently they keep track of parcels’ comings and goings in an actual written logbook rather than with a computerized bar code system. I signed the book and took my paperwork, passport and parcel to Counter 3.

At Counter 3 I was instructed to open the package for inspection. After I pulled out two or three articles of clothing, the clerk asked what else was in the package (all clothes) and how many pieces there were (about 10). She said, “The listed value on the customs form is over RM200, so that is why the parcel was detained. Do you know the actual cost of the items?” I had my original receipt for about $150 USD, which was definitely over RM200, so I showed that to her and hoped she wouldn’t actually check the package. I knew there were a few surprise pieces of clothing included as a present, but I didn’t know how many and I had no idea of their cost. She wrote down the actual cost of the clothes, converted it to ringgit, and then divided it by the number of items. She took this, along with all of my paperwork…but not the package…back to an office. Apparently some bean counter with a Magic 8 Ball would determine how much I owed in customs duties. About 5 minutes later, it was decided I owed RM60, a little less than $19 USD.

In retrospect, this step might be why it was strongly suggested for me to discharge the package myself. Perhaps if we had authorized the postal service to discharge it, the inspection would have been more thorough. I also had to declare that the clothes were for my personal use, that I wasn’t going to resell them or something. Maybe without the “personal use” declaration the import duties would have been more. Without the receipt, they also could not have known the actual cost I paid (several items were on sale, so the price on the tag wasn’t necessarily what I paid), which could also lead to more import duties. Besides, who knows how long it would take the post office to get itself together to clear it and how long before I got it at the hotel.

Leaving Counter 3, I take my growing pile of paperwork, my now-open parcel, and my passport to Counter 4 to pay my tax. The clerk there looks at the paperwork and tells me again how much I owe. Of course it is cash only, no credit cards. I was prepared for this, but I thought I’d ask anyway. Nowhere in the original letter did it say “cash only.” If I hadn’t read it in someone else’s personal blog, I would never have known and probably wouldn’t have brought enough cash with me.

At this point, I have been through Counters 1-4 in order and I think it’s likely that I’m done. I have my parcel and I’ve paid my fee, what else can there be, right? After getting my receipt, I asked if I was finished. “No. Go back to Counter 3 and then back to Counter 2.” Ugh. Seriously? I take everything back to Counter 3. I have no idea what I’m doing there as she’s already inspected my parcel and rendered a judgment on the amount that I owed and have now paid. So I just handed her my stack of paperwork. She looked through it, stamped several pages, and took one copy of the receipt for her records. Rather than having all of this information scanned into some central database that could be easily accessed by everyone in the building (with less tree death), apparently multiple hard copies of the identical paperwork are the preferred method. Then I went back to Counter 2 and handed that clerk my pile of paperwork. Again, I have no idea what I’m doing there, because as far as I know she is just responsible for handing the appropriate parcel to the right customer- a duty she has performed admirably in my opinion. She did the same thing: stamped several pages and took a copy for her records. She also handed me my visitor’s badge back, apparently I would need this to leave the compound. At this point, I have been counter hopping for a little over 30 minutes. While I think the process was incredibly inefficient, the overall time wasn’t terrible. Someone at the hotel who had gone through this process suggested it might take as long as three hours, so the hour and a half to include afternoon prayer time felt like a real win to me, even if much of the process was a mystery.

Finally released from the bureaucratic maze, I walked outside and, true to his word, my grandfatherly cab driver was waiting out front. He waved to me, as if there were a large queue of cabs for me to choose from when in fact he had the only taxi in the vicinity. I got in and he said, “So! You got your parcel! Back to your hotel now?” I explained I had to check out at the guardhouse and he said, “Ah, of course.” Even he expected more bureaucracy, because 30 minutes clearly isn’t sufficient. At the guardhouse I returned my visitor’s badge and signed out in their book. They asked to see my paperwork and my parcel. Apparently no combination of the 6 different stops I had been through so far was sufficient to make sure that I did in fact have the right parcel and all of my paperwork was in order. The guards briefly looked over everything and said I could leave. Woo hoo!

When we made it back to the hotel, it had been about a four hour round trip. Not my preferred way to spend an afternoon, but it could have been worse. The driver pulled in and I was very nervous to hear my fare total since I had neglected to negotiate whether he would charge the regular flat rate airport fee or use his meter on the return trip. I thanked him profusely for being so nice to me and said how much I appreciated his help. I hoped this would be sufficient kissing up for him to charge the flat rate rather than the meter, plus I was genuinely very thankful. He made a stressful situation much easier for me. He did in fact charge me the flat rate for each leg of the trip and did not charge me for the time he was waiting. Whew! Tipping in Malaysia is not expected, but it’s acceptable in some situations- like if someone has gone above and beyond for you, as in this situation. Standard gratuity is 10%, so I gave him about that (a little more, to make the math nice), for an even RM200 or about $62 USD.

Remember 2500 words ago when I said “Famous last words”? This whole adventure was because I had my new clothes shipped to my dad because $100 USD seemed like too much to pay for shipping. So let’s tally this up. I paid about $7 USD to get the parcel to my dad, he paid about $70 USD to ship it to me ($77 USD so far). I paid about $19 USD in duties, for a total of $96 USD in overall cost to get the parcel into my possession. Considering the international shipping from the original source would have been $100 USD, I managed to save a whopping $4 USD. But then I also had to spend an afternoon dealing with it as well as pay cab fare, so the overall monetary cost was about $158 USD plus my (clearly priceless) time and the stress to collect it.

The moral of the story: Just pay the international shipping when you order online because they will also pay the import duties, and your package will magically show up at your hotel. You won’t have to deal with the ridiculous and inefficient bureaucratic processes. But you will also miss out on meeting a really nice cab driver.

4 thoughts on “Adventures in Bureaucracy

    1. kspoints Post author

      Thanks! I have learned that preparation and patience are key for most new experiences here. I had to get the package no matter what, losing my cool about it wouldn’t make it any easier!


  1. rodi (Rob and Diane)

    Ah yes
    We can’t wait for this kind of fun. Thanks for sharing. Diane worries about finding clothing that will fit her (and so do I but I can live in the shorts and t-shirts I’m bringing for years). Thanks for sharing the story. PS – Wanna get together when we are in KL to finalize our visa? (probably August). I forgot if we have your email address; drop us a line via our contact page
    Rob and Diane


    1. kspoints Post author

      Just emailed you. As for clothes, the “local” options are likely better than what I get at the malls. So Diane might find more options in Penang. But I would recommend stocking up on UV clothes and wicking clothes. As well as any light weight or natural fabrics, most of the options I’ve seen here are poly blend which I don’t care for personally.



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