Driving in Malaysia is not for the faint hearted. Practically everybody in Kuala Lumpur has a car, so very few people walk, cycle or ride public transport. The expats who work here always get incredulous stares when we suggest a stroll to the nearest mall, or offer to walk home after an evening with friends. As a consequence the roads are absolutely packed. Combine that with a road system that looks like a cross between a plate of spaghetti and the race circuit at LeMans and you have a driving nightmare. Even the locals here will admit that drivers in KL are notoriously aggressive.

Cars don’t drive in lanes towards a common destination; they hurtle towards each other, changing lanes and directions seemingly on a whim, with no forethought that there might be other traffic in the lane they have just decide to move into. And the speed! I am a fairly fast driver, as my many tickets and family anecdotes will attest, but to travel at 170 klics through heavy traffic is not fast driving, it is recklessness!

I was chatting to a colleague who rented a car to take some visitors to the east coast for the weekend, asking him how he liked seeing the highlands of Malaysia, and if he enjoyed the drive. “Not at all,” he replied, “we were scared out of our minds.” He recounted a horrific accident they had seen on the way; several cars completely demolished and little chance that anyone survived. He noted that the road was completely free and dry for miles in both directions, yet somehow these drivers had managed to hit each and several others. We shared ideas on the causes of this cultural phenomenon.

He suggested that it was a function of their culture and religion. The screws are turned pretty tight in this Muslim country with not much room for individual expression or freedom. All Malays are Muslim by legal fiat on the day of their birth and the only practical way to leave their faith is to leave the country. Their faith allows them few diversions or escapes, so he saw their excessive and erratic behavior on the road as a kind of “acting out” that their religion does not allow through alcohol, dance or nightclubbing. Another teacher thought they used their faith as a kind of ‘magic talisman’ to keep them from personal injury, and so felt immune to consequences as long as their karma was intact. He also suggested that the recent acquisition of wealth in a country that was not used to being able to afford a car might have something to do with it. Western countries that have had motor vehicles for a hundred years treat them as less of a novelty and more of a responsibility.

Another colleague suggested that it was the frustration of having to drive on such congested streets all the time that led drivers to go flat out the moment they saw a bare stretch of road. Another colleague thought it was the lack of driver education in a country where a 500 ringgit bribe could get you a driving license with no questions asked. Still another thought it had to do with a sense of community responsibility. In a culture where family is sacrosanct, those outside the family have little value. He thought this might translate into homicidal behavior behind the wheel.

This last one does not explain why parents are often seen hurtling down the road at breakneck speeds with their child standing in their lap with their tiny hands on the steering wheel. Perhaps it has to do with the inability to predict outcomes, something I see all the time. A man will stop his car on the side of the road and leave the traffic side door wide open. City planners will build three levels of flyover rather than plan out in advance how to manage the traffic at that intersection. Renovations are being conducted on our condo using the “trial and error” method. In a culture that has stressed rote learning and memorization from infancy, the cognitive skills involved in predicting outcomes of current behaviours are simply not taught or practiced. The fact that this shows up in their driving is not surprising. However, all of this cognitive speculation is of no avail if you are caught in a pack of semi-homicidal drivers all careening down the highway under the influence of their own personal demons without a thought for the consequences. Then it is simply terrifying!