Virginia, US
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| Govind Ayyappan

The Four ‘Countries’ of Malaysia

Malaysia, similar to many other countries in the world, is made up of several states and federal territories. The majority of these are located in Peninsular Malaysia, also commonly referred to as 'West Malaysia'. Also part of Malaysia is Malaysian Borneo, or 'East Malaysia'​ as it’s more commonly known, which comprises the states of Sarawak and Sabah, as well as the Federal Territory of Labuan. The states in 'East Malaysia' joined the Federation of Malaysia in 1963 but retained autonomy with regards to the administration of their own immigration matters.

Essentially, what this means in simple terms is that there are four different jurisdictions that adjudicate immigration matters in Malaysia, depending on the intended work location: the immigration departments in West Malaysia, the Federal Territory of Labuan, Sabah and Sarawak. 

Distinct Immigration Processes in East and West

The immigration processes for West Malaysia, Sabah, Sarawak and the Federal Territory of Labuan are all separate and distinct from one another, each with its own specific requirements and processing times. While most West Malaysian immigration applications are submitted electronically, immigration applications in East Malaysia are still submitted manually.

In addition, Malaysian citizens who are not native born in an East Malaysian state must present their Malaysian passport or national identity card at passport control upon arrival at the port of entry in the said East Malaysian state. Further, Malaysian citizens born in West Malaysia are required to obtain work authorization from Sabah or Sarawak should they wish to work there. West Malaysians are, however, able to work freely without the need for any work authorization in the Federal Territory of Labuan.

On the other hand, Sarawakians and Sabahans are able to work freely in any West Malaysian state and also the Federal Territory of Labuan without the need for work authorization, while the Labuanese can work in all West Malaysian states and also in Sabah, without the need for work authorization. In order to work in Sarawak, Sabahans would require an Employment Pass issued by the Sarawak authorities, and similarly, Sarawakians who wish to work in Sabah would need a Work Pass issued by the Sabah authorities.

Navigating the Immigration Complexities

From what I have seen, the varied immigration processes and requirements in each of these four jurisdictions can sometimes be difficult to navigate, particularly for individuals who require work authorization in more than one jurisdiction. To further add to the complexity, there are also rules that dictate the order in which applications are submitted when work authorization is required for multiple jurisdictions.

Navigating through all these nuances requires strategy and thorough planning. For example, when considering any move to Malaysia, I would recommend starting first with ascertaining whether the move is to West Malaysia, East Malaysia, or perhaps to all 'four countries'. This foresight will help set a path for determining which work authorizations are needed and when. When in doubt, discuss your plans with your immigration consultant.

For more information about this topic, please contact our office in Malaysia.