Driving to KL... taking your life in your own hands?

MAY 31 — On Tuesday night, I decided to go to Kuala Lumpur the next day to see a friend, attend an event and hopefully squeeze in a plate of Malaysian Hokkien mee.

It was a bit of a whim and I knew I had an unmovable work commitment on Friday morning — so I had to be back in time. Fiddling with flights or trying to catch a bus at 3am to return in time seemed like too much of a logistical nightmare.

I checked with my family and the shared car wasn’t needed for anything pressing and I could — if I wanted — use it.

So, that was it I thought. I will just drive, giving me the flexibility I needed to depart or return whenever was most convenient.

With the logistics settled in my mind, I went out for dinner and in the course of the chit-chat shared my plans: “Tomorrow I am driving up to KL and coming back Thursday night.”

Except the reaction I was met with was anything but ordinary chit-chat. Immediately, the couple I was with baulked and issued the sort of stern admonishment that, it seems, is taken as biblical truth in these parts.

“Oh no! It is very dangerous, you know... you can’t do that. Just fly.”

Over several subsequent conversations, I was told in no particular order that I would be:

1. Driven off the road by a manic truck driver.

2.  Smashed against the railing by a manic bus driver.

3. Rammed, forced to stop — and robbed, by someone manic I suppose.

4. Forced to pull over and robbed at knife-point.

5. Forced to pull over and robbed at gun-point.

6. Find myself stuck in KL traffic gridlock and have my windows smashed — this warning wasn’t completed so I presumed it ended with my being robbed at some point, probably by someone manic.

7. Bullied by a bribe-seeking fat cop.

8. Seduced by a pontianak (I am not making this up).

Driving from Singapore to the heart of Kuala Lumpur — as seen here in this picture of the iconic Petronas Twin Towers — is really not a hassle as the writer found out.  – Picture by AFP
Driving from Singapore to the heart of Kuala Lumpur — as seen here in this picture of the iconic Petronas Twin Towers — is really not a hassle as the writer found out. – Picture by AFP

Effectively, I was told that the undertaking was going to be more like a scene from Mad Max than a pleasant Sunday drive.

My mother tsk-ed tsk-ed at my plan and suggested I join the legion of Singaporeans who take the annoyingly short flight to an airport kilometres outside the destination city.

Only my brother — clinching the title as most sensible loved one this week — simply rolled his eyes when I relayed the warnings I had been given.

“Just top-up the Touch & Go, buy a daily data plan on your phone for GPS, stay within the speed limit and don’t dream when you drive.”

So I did exactly that and it was: seamless.

The crossing at Tuas was virtually deserted, startlingly different from the trauma of the Woodlands checkpoint I’m more used to (it costs S$2(RM5.43) more on the Singapore side to use the Tuas link and for occasional visitors that’s two dollars well spent.)

With no serious traffic jams or road works in my path, I pretty much flew to my destination. Mainly thanks to KL’s relatively new Smart tunnel which runs from the toll plaza at Sungai Besi to central KL, teleporting you through the city’s notorious traffic.

While I stuck to my original plan of not stopping anywhere — no cheap Malaysian fuel, no mamak store, no bathroom breaks, for fear of Mad Max-Malaysians by the end of the remarkably uneventful journey I was beginning to feel a little silly.

I might have had a more comfortable journey if I availed myself of rest stop facilities at Pagoh and a more delicious one if I had taken a scenic detour at Muar for some otak-otak.

But OK that was a daylight hours trip — what about the night time return journey — that apparently is when our northern neighbours are apparently at their bestial best (or worst).

I left my event moments before midnight, I did not leave a glass slipper, but I did get straight into my carriage, a battered old SUV, and drive off into the witching hour.

Armed with only a bottle of water — definitely no stopping at night, I took to the road expecting a lonely highway punctuated by the odd careering truck and maybe some chain wielding biker gangs.

But again everything was perfectly orderly.

The highway is lit continuously from KL to Seremban and there were plenty of other vehicles on the road.  Far from the spike toting madmen I was warned of, most of my fellow night drivers maintained remarkably high driving standards.

With trucks sticking largely to their lane and giving way, cars flashing their lights well in advance to tell me they were overtaking.

There was a lot of courtesy on the road even from the infamous buses, though of course the odd maniac did flash past at 160km an hour — though at least one of these maniacs in a flashy German made conveyance was rocking an S plate.

I’ve driven in various parts of the world and there was really nothing particularly frightening about my  Malaysian highway experience.

It was highly different from driving in the US or Europe, and as a single woman I felt pretty safe, though it helps that lot of the toll booths are manned by women,

You add to that a reasonable toll cost — from Tuas to Sungai Besi about RM50 in toll fees, some additional internal tolls around KL, plus RM7 at Tuas on the Malaysian side and S$3 on ours — I’d estimate the costs at around S$40. Plus fuel — three-quarters tank each way and I’m driving an old gas guzzler.

It’s really sufficiently smooth and cost effective you could do it as a reasonable day trip. Leave for KL early morning — grab breakfast on the way, spend a full day in the city and head back through the night. Practice for the promised SG-KL high speed rail service that will bring our two nations closer together starting from 2020.

And I think that’s the point of my relating my little on-the-road adventure. Singapore and Malaysia are as geographically, culturally and historically close as two separate nations can be. Yet for some reason, on both sides, expectations and reality don’t match. We just don’t seem to be able to perceive each other clearly.

So many Singaporeans really believe that a trip on the North-South Highway involves a degree of mortal peril, when in reality it’s as safe or dangerous as any other highway you’re likely to encounter in any part of the world.

I’m not saying Malaysia doesn’t have some serious crime problems, my family once had an entire car stolen in JB, but for a traveller with a modicum of awareness, its highways are modern and pleasant. The setting, of course, is totally familiar for any Singaporean and it’s cheap, so it’s a shame so many of us let misplaced fear keep us from KL.

2020 is still sometime away so in the meantime, my fellow Singaporeans, just shut up and drive.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.