Notes from a pilot's kid

License Plates in Malaysia

Malaysian license plates are issued, made, and regulated differently from the plates of other countries in the region (although they may share some similarity with Singapore).

When most countries issue license plates, they come from the state, usually made of metal, in a standard size, with official government logos, symbols, colors and design to demonstrate their authenticity, as well as a unique license plate number that the state keeps in a registry to associate with the primary driver’s identification information.

The only aspect that the Malaysian government seems to regulate is the color and plate number (and maybe the material, which is plastic rather than metal), and that this space is kept fully exposed and unaltered. This post from an auto enthusiast’s community shows some examples of license plate modifications that may be met with a penalty after the state’s announcement this fall of a crackdown on illegal modifications.

Walking down a street in Georgetown on the island of Penang, I saw plate numbers for sale on a sign outside a store:

License plate numbers for sale

In the US (and some other places like Hong Kong), a vehicle owner can pay extra or apply to have vanity plates with letters and numbers of their choice, provided they have not been chosen previously by someone else. But in Malaysia, vehicle owners seem to have the option to choose their plate number from a list of available options either in person or in online markets. Besides superstitious numbers, I’d love to know how different letter-number combinations are valued differently…any ideas?

An aside: This is similar to how cell phone services work in many parts of Asia: after filling out basic information for a new cell phone contract, the vendor or cell phone provider offers a list of available phone numbers with no price difference between them. The customer must make a selection from the list before the service can be turned on; if a person tell the vendor they have no preference, then the vendor still makes a selection from the list (a randomly-issued number is not an option). Then, perhaps as a marketing tactic, cell phone service vendors will post available numbers on their storefront presumably to attract the business of someone who was waiting for their lucky number to be available.

After a plate number is purchased or registered, because only color and number are regulated, vehicle owners can have plates custom-made to fit their car’s license plate space so that the shape complements the design of the vehicle:

A car in Malaysia with custom plates

A second car in Malaysia with custom plates

Notice the custom shape and hole cut for the trunk’s lock.

Yes, maybe this is an insignificant detail to compare, but the comparison raises a question useful for the design of other systems: what’s essential in the function that this system provides, and what could be made more flexible? And if the selection of license plate numbers is a popular activity in Malaysia, it raises another question of the significance of the numbers that I’ll have to ask about next time I’m in Malaysia: is plate number selection related to an enthusiasm of car ownership, related to social status, or simply something to do with superstition?