Expat Banking Woes: How Hong Leong Ruined My Week

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Most banking rules are in place for a good reason, but as many expats have learned, Malaysian banks sometimes take things to a ridiculously inflexible extreme.

If you’re a long-term expat in Malaysia, someone whose time here predates the ubiquitous use of electronic banking and e-wallets, you’ll know how absolutely precise a cheque must be. If you are the payee and the cheque has only your first and last name, but no middle name as bank records show, sorry, the cheque will not be accepted. Date wrong? Short form of your name (“Mike” instead of “Michael,” for example). Some ‘t’ not crossed or ‘i’ not dotted? You’ll be told to get your cheque in order and come back another time. And how many expats have shown up at their local bank branch to do the tiniest bit of business, only to be told that without having your original passport in hand, nothing can be done? (For most expats, that only happens once. After that, you’ll never visit the bank without a passport again.)

Adapting and adjusting to banking rules and processes in any foreign country can be a trying experience, but sometimes, it gets taken to an entirely new level.

I have had an incredibly frustrating week with my local bank, Hong Leong. In a matter regarding a remittance of my pension payment, I think they are being very unreasonable, but they insist they are acting properly.

As an aside here, of course, I grew up in a time when banks cared about their customers and a quiet word with your local branch manager would normally sort out problems, particularly if you were a long-time customer. Nowadays, banks seem to spend a lot of their time panicking that they will contravene some international banking regulatory minutiae. Of course, the fines can be substantial when they run afoul of the law, but surely there has to be some latitude for common sense.

Here’s the story, so you can be the judge.

My trouble began when my former company, American Express, who pays my pension, advised they would be changing the paying company – they outsource payment of pensions for what is surely a large number of former employees. This month, for reasons which still confuse me (and clearly Hong Leong, as well), my pension was apparently remitted by an intermediary company called Valmet, Inc. This company has never been involved before, so the bank said they wanted to see documentation supporting the payments. In fact, Bank Negara wants banks to get supporting documents for all cross-border transactions over RM10,000. Frankly, I never bother about the payment advice that’s sent, being understandably more concerned about the credit to my bank account than the paperwork, so they mail me the advice each month.

Of course, I realise that in this age of international terrorism involving frequent transfers of illicit funds, the banking system needed to tighten some regulations, not to mention understanding their bid to thwart the efforts of various other criminal elements.

I don’t feel that my case really fit or even came close to those types of transactions, but clearly Hong Leong management disagreed. Compounding my frustration, it seems – at least based on media reports – that it is not at all hard for banks to make these rules ‘flexible’ for senior members of the government, but a less influential loyal customer of the bank doesn’t stand a chance.

The change in the remittance company handling my pension payment clearly threw Hong Leong into panic mode. Since I did not have the advice for the February payment, I contacted American Express to assist in getting this supporting paperwork to me.

I also asked them to check why the payment came from Valmet, Inc., which had never been mentioned before. They duly arranged to send me the payment advice for my pension, but could not immediately explain why the remittance company was now under a different name. (In a global corporation as large as American Express, with so many different departments and regional offices, this is not unusual.)


No doubt they also wondered why I cared who they used to make payment as long as I received the money, but that was precisely the problem. The young lady at Hong Leong Bank said they had no idea by whom or why the money was sent.

I tried (in vain, clearly) to remind her of some salient facts which might make the source and nature of the funds abundantly clear, namely:

I had previously provided documents showing my monthly pension which is a fixed amount and is paid to my account at Hong Leong Bank every month.

  • The US$ amount received in February was the same as had been received every other month, right down to the exact US cents (86 of them).
  • I only receive one payment each month from the States, which is my pension, so it’s not like there are multiple transactions which might cause confusion.
  • I showed her emails from American Express confirming the payment came from them and making clear they had no idea why a different company’s name was shown in the bank records.
  • I gave her the payment advice from the paying agent confirming the payment of my February pension, which strangely agreed (again, down to the precise 86 cents) with the amount they had received. If the other payment was not my pension, then did Hong Leong lose that money?
  • I suggested that possibly their records were incorrect as far as the sender’s name was concerned. She responded that was not a possibility.

Unfortunately, none of the above points swayed the young lady or inspired her to allow me to claim my funds, and she refused to concede that the money the bank received was without doubt my pension – a degree of open distrust I had rarely witnessed before. I pointed out that I had been banking with their branch for 25 years, so could she check with their senior management before sending my pension back to the States. She said she did that, and they were unmoved, saying the money must be returned.

Continuing the theme of the branch’s apparent lack of commitment to customer service, none of the senior staff bothered to talk to me personally – they simply let the young girl on the frontlines face their customer’s ire. Maybe American Express could give them some lessons in customer service – not that Amex don’t make mistakes, but from my own experience, they certainly try harder to fix them when they do.

To my mind, I could not see anything vaguely suspicious about this transaction, but none of this had any impact on the young lady. She did apologise multiple times, but steadfastly refused to agree that the amount paid was obviously my pension.

She said that Hong Leong would return the money to the remitter in the States, leaving me without a month’s income – and with little idea of when or if it will be properly rerouted back to me following its world tour.

Guess which is currently my least favourite bank in Malaysia?

How about you, readers? Have you had any similar (or worse) experiences with banking in Malaysia? Or, conversely, any particularly good ones? If so, we’d love to hear from you. Please feel free to drop a line with your story to [email protected]. Rest assured that any specific or identifying information will be kept confidential.

NOTE: Several days after this incident, Hong Leong management reached out to resolve the problem and apologise for their error. Read the follow-up article HERE.


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