Can West Malaysian spouses work in Sarawak, and how?
Updated: Oct 13
Many West Malaysians married to Sarawakians move to Sarawak, knowing very little about the nuanced immigration situation that will soon dictate many aspects of their lives in Sarawak. Sabahans and foreigners face the same issues too. Very little information can be found online. And when you visit the immigration department, only pieces of information are shared, making it difficult for those affected by this to plan their next steps.
A little history...
Sarawak, Sabah and Singapore joined Malaya to form Malaysia in 1963. The coming together of the Federation of Malaysia involves a very important document, also known as the Malaysia Agreement, that sets out many important powers that Sarawak, Sabah and Singapore will retain as "partners" in the Federation. Some of those powers involve autonomy over immigration and employment matters. Singapore exited Malaysia in 1965, while Sabah and Sarawak remained in the Federation to this date.
"Why do I need a permit in Sarawak? I'm Malaysian too!"
Many new marriages between Sarawakians and non-Sarawakians occur with couples having little knowledge of the impact that this history will have on their settlement in Sarawak. All West Malaysians need a permit to live and/or work in Sarawak. The process of applying for permits can also be incredibly stressful due to the technical timelines, tedious documentation and frequent visits to the immigration department.
And the speculations are true. Non-Sarawakian wives do have it easier.
According to Section 66 (2) of the Immigration Act 1959/63,
"Where a citizen is entitled to enter the East Malaysian State under subsection (1), the citizen’s children under the age of eighteen years and (if he is a man) his wife, if entering the East Malaysian State with, or to be with, the citizen, shall not be required by subsection (1) to obtain a Permit or Pass in that behalf."
West Malaysian wives who move to Sarawak with their Sarawakian spouses are immediately entitled to apply for the Section 66(2) exemption upon arrival to stay in Sarawak without the need to apply for any further "Permit or Pass". However, they are not allowed to work until they apply for their Certificate of Status and gain Sarawakian status. This can only happen after 2 years of receiving the Section 66(2) exemption on their passports. This means, West Malaysian wives who wish to get Sarawakian status, must willingly choose not to work for at least their first three years after relocating to Sarawak.
Foreign wives are not eligible to apply for the Section 66(2) exemption which is reserved for Malaysians only. It is unknown whether foreign wives are still eligible for the Certificate of Status, although this was allowed in the past.
What about non-Sarawakian husbands?
Non-Sarawakian men married to Sarawakians are required to apply for the long term social visit pass if they choose to live in Sarawak. Since 2020, Sarawak does not offer work endorsements on the long term social visit pass to spouses. For husbands who plan to work, they must apply for a work permit, also known as the Spouse Programme (Employment Pass). However, the requirements are narrow. The applicant MUST work for a Sarawakian based Sdn Bhd with at least RM250,000 paid up capital. Secondly, the applicant must demonstrate special skills that are important to the State Government of Sarawak. Lastly, the applicant must be hired in a position that pays them at least RM3,000 monthly. On top of this, there are restricted sectors, which are not made known to the applicants when they apply. These can be hard requirements to meet. With few expat jobs available in Sarawak, many non-Sarawakian husbands continue to work in the dark or refrain from working to avoid breaking any immigration rules.
How about Permanent Residency?
An important point to note is that permanent residency for foreigners in Sarawak cannot be granted by the Sarawak government alone. The Sarawak government may endorse applicants for the permanent residency application, but the ultimate decision maker is still the Federal government. For West Malaysian men who wish to apply for Certificate of Status in Sarawak ("Sarawakian Status"), the process is relatively unknown. It is also unclear whether they are legally eligible for it based on the wording of Section 66(2).
One thing is clear. The lack of integration of non-Sarawakian spouses in Sarawak makes the settlement of Sarawakians in such marriages much more difficult. On the current policies, non-Sarawakian spouses are forced to choose between prioritising work or a permanent status in Sarawak. Due to this reality, many have migrated to West Malaysia, or overseas to avoid the tedious immigration processes, which can cause significant strain on marriages.
To find out more about your options as a non-Sarawakian wife or husband, whether Malaysian or non-Malaysian, kindly refer to this article. The contents of this article are published based on current policies at the date of publication, however, policies do change. Always check with the Immigration Department directly about your particular immigration situation.
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