Social media has been abuzz in recent months with worries of Malaysia’s duty-free islands – Langkawi, Labuan, and Tioman – putting an end to the days of inexpensive alcohol and cigarettes.
The government made some changes to procedures affecting these sales, along with some tightening of measures for imported vehicles, too, and absent any clear, official statement, the rumour mill cheerfully took over. The original change, which was implemented with effect from November 1 forward, was meant to limit monthly duty-free sales to five liters of wine/liquor, three cases of beer, and three cartons of cigarettes. (Some reports said “or” instead of “and” here, adding to the confusion.) Customers need to produce a passport or MyKad for any purchase of these items. Moreover, only 18 stores in Langkawi were approved for duty-free sales, and these stores were to be connected via computer systems to record and track purchases.
Needless to say, this was met with rancorous opposition from business leaders and locals on the islands, particularly Langkawi and Labuan, who insisted such tightening would hurt business and negatively impact tourist visits. Nevertheless, the measure went forward, and shopkeepers dutifully recorded the name, identification number, and details of purchase.
However, following some additional tweaks to the new system and notification of the likelihood of additional restructuring, following a government cabinet meeting on November 25, it appears the entire thing was thrown out, with everything returning to business as usual. According to Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong, the decision was made to abandon the new measures, saying that sundry and retail shops, coffee shops, and restaurants would no longer be required to record their sales for duty-free items. So, to summarize, the grand new tightening measures lasted barely three weeks.
Lauding the Ministry of Finance for listening to and heeding the grievances voiced in various quarters over the original ruling, Dr Wee explained, “We understand that the rule was initially introduced to curb the smuggling of such products, but it would have caused a gloomy outlook on the islands’ economy.” So for now, it appears you can buy your booze and ciggies in duty-free island shops just as before, but given the snail’s pace of information dissemination, it might be wise to have your ID on hand when you shop for a while… just in case.
EDITOR’S ADDENDUM (15 January 2017): Another trip to Langkawi has revealed that not only has the requirement of a passport or I/C to buy alcoholic beverages not been canceled, as per Datuk Seri Dr Wee Ka Siong’s declaration in late November, it’s actually been enhanced. Now every shop selling bottles of liquor/wine has its very own Royal Malaysian Customs officer. They have set up a little table in each individual shop, where officers sit mostly idle all day, and record the relevant information from customers who purchase alcohol, in what is simply a stunning waste of human resources. (Consider this is consuming a minimum of 180 man-hours per day to staff all the approved shops in Langkawi, based on each shop being open for 10 hours per day – some are open longer.)
When asked why they’re still doing this when it was very clearly announced in November the practice was being abandoned, the Customs officers told us they, too, were receiving conflicting information, and were unsure of what the official policy was. While we had no problems buying bottles of alcohol, it remains unclear whether or not the five-litre limit is still in effect. We assume, therefore, that it is.
This uncertainty and absence of any direction from the government is causing quite a bit of hardship and frustration to island importers, distributors, and shopkeepers as they struggle to comply with a policy no one can seem to identify with any clarity. We spoke with various owners at import warehouses, duty-free shops, and other sundry shops selling alcohol and tobacco and got the very clear impression there was growing irritation with the government’s seemingly aimless wandering on this issue. It seems, despite what we were told in November, that the issue has still not quite been resolved to anyone’s satisfaction. For now, you may freely buy booze (though perhaps only as much as five litres) at duty-free prices in Langkawi, but you will need to show your identification. We will update this story as new developments arise.