Trials & Tribulations of a Learner Driver – By Iona Khong

Trials & Tribulations of a Learner Driver – By Iona Khong

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The Trials and Tribulations of Learning how to Drive.

After years of watching peers grow up, I’ve finally reached the age when I can take that same step and proudly put a simple card into my wallet. A card that bestows upon its bearer the right to operate a four-wheeled vehicle (besides two bicycles lashed together with twine or industrial wire), a card that for many is a symbol of rite of passage.
In my family, obtaining said card is a monumental achievement, one step closer to taking part in assorted forms of automotive entertainment as a driver, co-driver or otherwise. Being a back-seat driver tends to come to mind, but since that is greatly frowned upon …

However, this rite of passage has been a tough, taxing and long one. Many grueling hours of wrestling with pedals with obscure uses and wondering where all the cars on the road suddenly pop out from have been endured, and finally… what awaits me at the end?

We shall see.

Day One – ‘Have you driven a car before?’

The standard white Kancil complete with the driving school’s details emblazoned all over its doors pulled up outside my house today. He was right on time, which seemed like a promising start. It idled with a muffled, shaky murmur that was both alarming and reassuring at the same time. Through the spotless windows, I could see the driving instructor with a huge smile on his face, a smile that conveyed volumes of reassurances and friendly greetings.

I walked to the door, opened it and got into the car, and that reassuring feeling quickly faded when he started talking in Cantonese.

He must have sensed immediately that I didn’t understand all the words he was saying … maybe it was because of the blank, quietly puzzled look I assumed. To my relief, he could speak English too. I suppose I could have got along with him speaking Cantonese, but just to make sure…

He looked really surprised when I said I’d never driven a manual car before. As he asked that, he glanced warily into my yard and saw my pet dog running around my brother’s massive rally car. I quickly shook my head when he asked if that was mine. I don’t think my brother would let me anywhere near the pedals of that car… I’d probably break the gearbox on my first try at changing gears.

He drove the Kancil like a master. Personally, I’ve never really seen a Malaysian driver use their signal lights. I guess this instructor believed in the proverb ‘teach by example’ – and teach by example he did! At every junction, at any instance when he was changing lanes, he used signal lights. That’s a habit I’ve seen very few Malaysians cultivate. He started me right at the basics…

‘This is a steering wheel.’

Needless to say, it was a long two hours in that car park in Taman Tun. The first lesson was simple. Objectives of it were to just tell me that ‘if you turn the steering wheel left, the car will go left.’

By the end of the lesson though, enough knowledge had been knocked into my brain to let me drive the precarious white Kancil home. I had never thought that driving was truly difficult until that very first day in the tiny car park. Just two hours of driving had made me exhausted, and I fell asleep the minute I sat on the sofa at home.

The driving instructor had told me that I’d need 16 hours of mandatory driving experience before I could go for the exam. It had seemed like such a long period of time at the beginning of the lesson, but by the end of it, I was pretty convinced that I’d need more…

Day Two – ‘Where did all the cars come from?’

The driving instructor came again today. All sorts of bad omens started appearing the minute I got out of the house.

Bad Omen #1 – He wasn’t in the driving seat. He wanted me to drive around as part of the training. That seemed logical at the time – after all, what kind of experienced driver would I be if I didn’t know how to drive around the traffic congested roads in KL?

Bad Omen #2 – The handbrake was ‘sticky’. It was not totally stuck in place, but whenever I did have to use it, it kept getting stuck and the car would lurch as it engaged or disengaged.

Bad Omen #3 – He announced I was going to learn how to go uphill in aforementioned and described car.


It started out innocently enough. I got into the car, did the five point check (seat alignment, mirrors, wipers, signal lights and finally, seat belt). Depress the clutch, first gear, and release clutch slowly while balancing the accelerator… and the engine promptly died.

I looked up quizzically at the instructor, and he pointed at the hand brake. Right.

Disengaging the handbrake, I repeated the process again. Balance the clutch, slowly, slowly…

A resounding lurching sound announced grimly that the engine had died again. ‘Slowly,’ the instructor mouthed, switching off the air-conditioner and pulling the handbrake in one swift motion. ‘Try again.’

On the third try, I finally got the hang of it and the Kancil proceeded to trot gaily down the road outside my house, threading the way carefully between the two solid walls of cars on either side of the road. Don’t these cars have any other place to park? I never really realized how treacherous those motionless, driverless cars were until I had to weave carefully in and out of them.

I also never realized how easy it was to lose track of where you were going when you were driving – it just requires too much concentration! Maybe I’ll get better with practice…

Before I knew it, I was at the bottom of a very long uphill slope somewhere in Taman Tun. This road was definitely wider, and so the alleyway created by the cars on either side of the road was markedly broader. At least it’d give me more room to move before I crashed into something.

‘Okay, go.’ The instructor gave me the signal, and the Kancil obediently trotted up the hill. About halfway up the hill, he stepped on the brake pedal on his side of the car, forcing it to stop.

‘What now?’ I asked him, engaging the handbrake hurriedly. Put the gear back in neutral…

‘Okay, go again.’
‘This is part of the exam. Go again. Balance the accelerator and the clutch and go.’

Without thinking, I reached down and disengaged the hand brake. The car started to merrily roll back down the way it had just come from …

The instructor pulled the hand brake up sharply and, after two failed tries I finally managed to get the car moving again.

Now I know why my mom loves driving automatic cars. They’re so SIMPLE. I’ve come to learn to hate the existence of the clutch… just four hours into the task at hand.

Day 3 – ‘Three-point-what?’

We headed to Taman Tun again today. I think that the residents around there are very used to Learner drivers puttering around their housing estates now. According to the driving instructor, it’s really common for schools to take learners there. There are uphill climbs, downhill sectors, and as I found out today, lots of dead ends that crop up for no apparent reason whatsoever.

To him, it was instructor’s paradise. To me, though, it just smacked of poor planning…

He took me to the same hill again with his directions, and I finally got the hang of it today. The key to it is to listen to your car. Just when you think the car can’t possibly shake any more, press the accelerator and release the handbrake as fast as you can, and hope that you won’t slide down. Prayer seemed to help.

He noticed today that I was relying on the rev meter of the Kancil to guess when to press the accelerator. He promptly covered it up with a piece of paper that just happened to be lying there, but seemed just cut out enough to block the rev meter and nothing else. Apparently, I was not the only one who had tried to use the meter.

‘Cannot use meter! The test there, the Kancil VERY old! No meter one!’

The car’s engine died twice more today on that same hill. Consecutively.

He taught me how to do ‘three-point-turns’ today. He was directing me around Taman Tun’s houses, into this alley, into that… when suddenly he’d ask me to turn into a dead end road.

Three-point-turns are surprisingly easy. They follow a very simple logic. I guess the same could be said for the uphill stop-and-go routines I’m having so much trouble with, though. The concept just totally escapes me right now… maybe I’ll go look it up later. I did my first three-point-turn perfectly, and proudly drove out of the dead end road.

The instructor smiled. Then he directed me to the same hill.

I think I have a long way to go, still. Six hours over, just another ten to go. He reminded me today that if I was not confident enough driving yet, I could sign up for more hours… we’ll see, though.

My arms ache from all that turning the steering wheel. The Kancils the driving school uses to teach us have no power steering. It really hurts when doing three-point-turns. I never knew power steering helped so much. I had better get used to it quickly, though – if the Kancils at the testing center are older I’m assuming it’ll be harder to turn.

Oh dear.

Day 4 – ‘Federal Highway? Are you insane?’

‘Where are we going today?’ I asked the instructor.
‘Highway driving.’
‘Malaysian-mah. Must learn to handle traffic jams.’
‘I still make the engine die at traffic lights, you know?’
‘Don’t worry. Highway no traffic light-wan. Just a lot of cars.’

And so, we proceeded to the Federal Highway turn off. The previous lessons were all in the mornings, short two hour sessions before the roads got really busy. Today’s was right smack in the middle of rush hour though…

And sure enough, the minute we turned down into the Federal Highway, we got stuck in a jam. I’m sure that this training is necessary, but really – throwing an ‘L’ driver into rush hour traffic is not exactly the safest thing to do, is it? Especially when said ‘L’ driver seems to be as inept as me.

The logic of why ‘jams’ are called so became immediately apparent to me. The cars are just so tightly packed together! Traffic was at a total standstill at first, as people kept coming in from my turn off and taking up whatever space was available. It started to move after a while, though, and I let the Kancil creep along in first gear.

It started to go a little faster after that, and the instructor tapped the gearshift with his pen. I dutifully changed up to second gear. Precisely two seconds later, though, he tapped the gearshift again.

‘Change down.’
‘But I just changed up!’
‘Doesn’t matter, look, stopping already.’
‘Too close!’

The engine died. In the middle of that road totally clogged by cars, the engine died. Surprisingly, no one honked their horns at me – I think they could see the huge ‘L’ printed on the side of the Kancil. I hope they sympathize with me… because the alternative (which probably involves a lot of private cursing) does not exactly appeal to me.

Yesterday, my arms really hurt from doing all those three-point-turns. Today, my feet hurt from controlling the clutch and gas through that traffic jam. It was the first time I had ever seen someone who wanted to get caught in a traffic jam that crawled seemingly interminably for kilometers at a time.

Then again, it was my first time actually driving in a traffic jam. Well, there is a first time for everything, I suppose.

Including, probably, getting swore at for being such an inept driver. On the plus side, there are just another eight hours to go.

Day 5 – ‘Are you sure this is safe?’

The instructor told me that we were going out for four hours today. Driving is not as tiring now as it was in the beginning – I think my arms have got used to turning steering wheels of uncooperative Kancils extremely quickly for long periods at a time in alternating directions.
‘Today, we going JPJ.’

‘JPJ’ referred to the JPJ driving circuit in old town, PJ. He directed me to a place that was full of white Kancils that looked just like mine.

Today, apart from learning how to park, I’ve learnt how hazardous we ‘L’ drivers really are in a collective. The only really good qualities we all possessed were the tendency to use signal lights all the time (even when there isn’t any other way the car can possibly turn) and the compulsion to drive very slowly for fear of injuring other drivers encased in their pristine white metallic shells.

There are three components to the parking test, according to my instructor. First, stopping at the top of a hill, with your front tires between two lines at the top. You have to brake, stop the car on the line, and then move again. He called this component the ‘slope.’ Secondly, you have to parallel park the car. Then, last but not least, the most tiring component of all – the three-point-turn.

Simple enough. Parking is fun. The Kancil is so small compared to the rectangular parking box painted on the asphalt. I could handle the three-point-turn as well – the Kancil is TINY. Turns out that ‘slope’ is my biggest problem.

It is just simply impossible to tell where your front wheels are from inside of the car. The instructor recommended I wind down my window to look outside and check. Sadly, though, I could not see a thing… maybe it’s because of my height. Walking the fine line between making the engine die and driving very slowly is also very taxing… and nerve-wracking at the same time.

The engine died four times today before I got the hang of it. And that was just stopping the car and going again. Placing the wheels of the car was another matter entirely.

After about five tries, the instructor got out of the car and walked around to my side.

‘Okay, your wheels are inside the line now. Remember ah!’
‘Remember what?’
‘This is how the poles should look like from inside,’ he explained. Two poles marked the boundaries of the line.
‘Between wiper and mirror!’ he said, smiling. I looked over at the wiper and mirror, and sure enough, the pole was placed square in the middle of them.
Problem was that I had to leaaaaaaaaaaan over to the front and to the right to actually see the pole’s placing.

Whatever works, I guess. We were there for four hours today, spending two hours learning how to park and do the separate components confidently, and another two hours on my own driving up the hill, parking the car and doing three-point-turns one after another.
Just four hours left, and then it’s testing time. I wonder if I’m really ready.

Day 6 – ‘Where are we going again? Bangi?’

Another four hour session today. I only realized that this would be my last practice session before the actual test at the end of the whole thing. I am really not sure if I’m ready to sit for this test… But I have to give it my best shot anyway!

We went to Bangi today. That’s where the exam is going to be taking place. I drove all the way out there and all the way back today! I never realized how far it really was from KL. Thankfully, traffic was not heavy today either… I think my instructor might be a little bit psychic. I really thought it would be hellish driving on the highways in Malaysia, but really, it’s not all that hard. Then again, one must consider that I was going at the so-called ‘national speed limit’ for ‘L’ drivers, which would be around 80 k/ph.

Even then, every now and then the instructor would tell me to slow down. He did that quite a lot today, actually – I don’t really see why. Driving fast gives me a sense of exhilaration, a sense that I’m flying… well, at least when I’m driving fast on an empty road.

We reached the driving center in Bangi relatively early, but there were already white Kancils puttering slowly around the course. It was exactly the same as the course in old town PJ, at the JPJ station. The only difference was that there, there were bushes and trees dotting the landscape. Aesthetically speaking, the JPJ driving course in PJ looks like a barren wasteland… but at least it gets the job right.

I peered at all the other white Kancils going around the circuit, doing the same drills I was doing in PJ, and not one of them was from Bangi itself. I thought I was seeing things at first, but the addresses printed on the sides of the Kancils told me that they were from Ampang and Puchong.

It really does make you wonder. Why go so far away to just do an examination? There were little huts here and there at each of the component stations, where presumably the officers would wait and assess you as you went through the parking drills.

It took me about one hour for me to get to Bangi, and the instructor basically left me to my own devices as I maneuvered around the course over and over again. After about an hour of driving around in circles, he stopped me as I pulled out of the parking section and got into the car. He then led me out of the center and took me around the ‘on the road’ route.

It’s not very easy. There are some parts that seem very dangerous, and most of the stops at junctions are on uphill slopes. I just hope that I don’t make the engine die on any of them. The roads in Bangi are not in the best condition either – the white lines you are supposed to stop at are so faded that they look like someone spilt milk on the road. Part of the route passes by a school – the speed limit there is 30 k/ph, the instructor tells me.
I drop the speed of the car to 30 k/ph, and I crawl through the section carefully. One can never be to careful, right?

The instructor briefly glanced at his watch, and then showed it to me. ‘Now school holiday-lah. Got murid-murid-ah?’

It started to rain intermittently on the way back. It wasn’t a lot of rain, but there was enough to warrant switching on the windshield wipers. I counted five cars on the road that had their hazard lights on. That can’t be safe… if visibility was really bad, I probably would have thought they were stationary and rammed into them before I realized they weren’t.

We went home shortly after, and he told me that he’d pick me up at about 7 am for the examination the next week.


I failed the examination today.

I’m still getting over that fact.

I failed the examination today. It’s not entirely my fault though… or so I believe.

Parking went fine. At 7:15 am, the instructor came to pick me up, and he took me to the main driving school here in PJ. There, I met a group of people who would be taking the test today too – we all got into a Toyota Unser and set off to Bangi.

Everyone fell asleep in the MPV. I did too, but it took me a very long time to. The whole MPV was silent. I guess everyone was nervous that they stressed themselves to sleep. We eventually arrived there and the bumps on the road leading to the driving center woke everyone up.

We shuffled out of the MPV and stood in line for about half an hour to be assigned our component listing. Parking was first for me, so off I went to wait my turn. There were a number of Kancils being used for the parking component, and out of every three at least two had white smoke coming out of their exhaust pipes. This definitely unsettled the bunch of us who were doing this component first.

We all watched nervously as people pulled up in Kancils and drivers were exchanged. There was a car that sputtered so badly that all of us marked down the license plate number and solemnly promised that we weren’t going to use that car. Eventually, I was called and I walked up to my assigned Kancil.

I’ve never even been a passenger, let alone a driver, in such an old Kancil model. Ever. The whole car was stripped to the bare necessities – which apparently didn’t include the air-conditioner. It was so hot in the car! Thank goodness it wasn’t noon yet. The windows were already wound down. The car looked like it was going for a rally event, and seemed so light that a gust of wind could have blown the car right over the trees…

At any rate, parking was a breeze. I was pretty nervous at first, but I guess everyone is. I proceeded to the waiting area for the ‘on the road’ component, and did just that – waited. And waited and waited and waited… until my number was called.
I got into the car and might as well have promptly failed, since the examiner spoke exclusively in Bahasa Malaysia. He only knew enough English to tell me that he couldn’t speak it.

Never mind, I figured. I just needed to drive, right?

I drove up the hill and stopped at the first junction. Check both ways, and then slowly go up…

It was at the second junction when I had problems. The white line painted on the road was so faded that I crossed it before I stopped.

‘Henti, henti!’ the examiner cried out, and promptly whipped out his sheet of paper and failed me. He said a number of things in incomprehensible Bahasa Malaysia to me, before giving me a 5/20 mark and failing me utterly.

I still don’t really know why I failed so quickly. After all, the test was not even halfway over yet… and the pass mark was 16/20. I scrutinized the paper carefully too, and apparently I had broken six rules, which included ‘not giving way to people crossing the road.’

It was a Tuesday morning. There were no people on the road. Maybe he saw phantoms…

Day 8 – ‘Sloooooow motion.’

I passed my driving examination!

I actually passed!

It turns out that I wasn’t the only one who failed the last time. Two of the people who had gone for the same test previously had come back today – they had failed too, in very similar fashions.

Ah, well…

I made sure to drive at 40 k/ph all throughout the examination. The examiner this time seemed nicer. He was not as grumpy as the previous one, at least… and he spoke English.

I could have kissed the steering wheel when he spoke to me in English. Building rapport with people is important, after all. He gave me tips on gear handling when he saw that I had trouble switching gears on slopes – he marked me down for that, but in the end…

I passed!

Thank goodness this milestone is over and done with. The next step is convincing my mother to let me drive around.

That might be an even greater achievement relative to getting the license itself…

Iona Khong


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