22 January 2019
In the face of demands from the state of Sarawak for more autonomy, scandal-ridden Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak might eventually make concessions to win the state's support. Photo: Reuters
In the face of demands from the state of Sarawak for more autonomy, scandal-ridden Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak might eventually make concessions to win the state's support. Photo: Reuters

‘One country, two systems’ in Malaysia

“One country, two systems” is an epoch-making innovation unique to China and Hong Kong — Beijing has repeated that a thousand times over the years, but it is a myth.

As a matter of fact, “one country, two systems” has been practiced for decades in some other countries, among them Malaysia.

Malaysia, a federation founded in 1963, is made up of Peninsular Malaysia, often known as West Malaysia, and East Malaysia, which consists of the states of Sabah and Sarawak located on the northern part of the island of Borneo.

West and East Malaysia are separated by part of the South China Sea.

Sabah and Sarawak had gained a substantial degree of autonomy from the British colonial government before they joined the Federation of Malaysia, and they managed to retain much of their autonomy afterward.

Ironically, although the two states are part of the Malaysian federation, they share more of a cultural and ethnic identity with the neighboring kingdom of Brunei than with West Malaysia.

In fact, many Malaysians regard East and West Malaysia as technically two different states, as they are not only separated by the sea but are also governed by two different sets of laws.

For example, West Malaysians can only enjoy a three-month visa-free stay when they travel to East Malaysia, and they need to apply for a work permit if they want to stay and work there.

Also, Islam is designated the national religion only in the West but not the East, and while West Malaysia has adopted Malay as its official language, East Malaysia still uses English as its main language.

Since the sparsely populated East Malaysia accounts for 60 percent of the country’s total land area and is rich in natural resources, there is concern among East Malaysians that the central government in Kuala Lumpur is exploiting the natural resources in the East at the expense of their interests.

Their concern is not totally unfounded, since, for example, even though more than half of Malaysia’s liquefied natural gas exports and one-fifth of its oil exports come from Sarawak, the state enjoys only 5 percent of the profit.

Many in Sarawak feel they are being short-changed by Kuala Lumpur.

Besides, the ruling United Malays National Organization and other Islamic parties have been getting more aggressive in recent years in imposing Islamic values on non-Islamic populations across the country, including those in East Malaysia, increasingly alienating the ethnic minorities there and raising grave concern among the local population about the possible “Islamization” of the East.

To safeguard its interests, the state of Sarawak has become more proactive in demanding more autonomy from Kuala Lumpur in recent years, covering policy areas such as education, oil drilling, management of marine resources and even constitutional reforms.

There are even calls for the independence of Sarawak, but the idea has yet to gain substantial popularity.

It is likely that the people of Sarawak will eventually get the autonomy they want, as the scandal-ridden prime minister, Najib Razak, is desperate to save his job by gaining the support of the various states, and he may in the end agree to grant more autonomy to Sarawak.

After all, he is well aware that Sarawakdoesn’t have much bargaining power when it comes to seeking full independence, as it still relies very much on Kuala Lumpur to attract foreign capital and explore new export markets, at least at this stage.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb. 23.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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