The Malaysian state of Sarawak, on the island of Borneo, is not only difficult to travel around but can also be hard to get into. When Sarawak agreed to join Malaysia in 1963, it retained the responsibility of controlling its own immigration. That extended even to would-be visitors from other parts of Malaysia, effectively curtailing the right to free movement within a country, a right recognized in article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
There is only one exception to Sarawak’s blanket immigration authority: visitors from peninsular Malaysia coming to campaign during election time must be permitted to enter. Sarawak authorities even refuse to honor that provision on occasion.
But since there is no election at the moment, the Sarawak government’s chief minister, Adenan Satems, may instruct the immigration department to refuse entry to anyone he chooses. What is most disturbing is how he uses this power to abuse rights. Prominent members of political parties supporting Malaysia’s ruling coalition are allowed entry. Prominent supporters of the political opposition are not.
The latest victim of this discriminatory exclusion policy is Rafizi Ramli, strategy director for the opposition People’s Justice Party, or PKR, whose entry to the state was blocked by Adenan on Monday. Adenan claims that he only blocks entry to people he deems pose a threat to peace, or oppose ethnic cooperation in Sarawak. But in fact it seems Adenan will let in anyone, including known religious extremists, so long as they support the national government.
If Malaysia is going to maintain its pretensions as a moderate, democratic, rights-respecting country, it will have to do better than that. A democratic political process means that everyone should have an equal opportunity to be part of the process, to be heard if they wish to speak out, to listen to opposing views if they so desire, and to travel throughout the country and see for oneself what is happening on the ground.
So long as the Malaysian government allows Sarawak officials to impose politically motivated travel restrictions, they are depriving the people of Sarawak of their right to learn and interact with others, highlighting Malaysia’s democratic shortcomings. It’s time that Sarawak ended its privileged denial of entry to some, and allow all Malaysians to visit freely.