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February 14, 2014

Can Japan Still be a Role Model?
–Chief Representative Kunihiko Sato, JICA Malaysia Office–

PhotoKunihiko Sato, chief representative of the JICA Malaysia Office

By Kunihiko Sato
Chief Representative, JICA Malaysia Office

The Relationship between Malaysia and Japan

Malaysia might appear rather inconspicuous to most Japanese compared with its neighbors, i.e., Thailand to the north, and Indonesia and Singapore to the west and south. Over the seven decades since the end of World War II, however, Malaysia and Japan have fostered a special relationship different from any other.

After the occupation by Japan during the Second World War, Malaysia was recolonized by Britain. After a subsequent period of disorder, Malaysia finally achieved independence in 1957. In the subsequent economic development of Malaysia, Japan has been involved proactively from the early stages. In 1960, the Agreement on Commerce between Japan and the Federation of Malaya was signed, ushering in an era of commercial expansion of Japanese industry in Malaysia.

PhotoA sewage treatment plant in Kuala Lumpur constructed with a Japanese ODA loan

In 1965, the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers (JOCV) program was launched by the Japanese government. Volunteers were dispatched to Malaysia since the early years of the program and the accumulated number to date exceeds 1,500. This figure is the second largest in Asia next to the Philippines, greatly exceeding Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand and many other countries. Since the 1970s, JICA has supported infrastructure development through Japanese ODA loans, including roads and power plants throughout the country. Sea ports such as Johor and Bintulu as well as Kuala Lumpur International Airport constructed with Japanese ODA have become the driving forces behind the rapid economic development of Malaysia.

Up to this point, the relations between Malaysia and Japan are essentially the same as with any other country in Southeast Asia. So what has made the relationship between Malaysia and Japan special?

Look East Policy as a Key Determinant

The Look East policy has played a critical role in deepening the relationship between Malaysia and Japan. It is well known that the Look East policy was announced by the then Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad soon after taking office in 1981. In fact he dedicated himself to the policy for 22 years until 2003.

On his thoughts at the time, he recalls, "Malaysians, including civil servants, suggested that it was ridiculous to model ourselves after Japan. They believed it made more sense to look at Europe…. But what they forgot was that Europe had over 200 years of slow development…. Looking East did not mean simply looking at Japan and South Korea's capacity for manufacturing, but rather what lay beneath their success. What were the social and cultural foundations of their newfound strength and competitiveness? One factor, clearly, was their work ethic... I was also struck by Japan's approach to technological acquisition: first copying, then modifying and improving technology to meet new needs as they went along, and eventually developing original technologies and products of their own."[1]

Since 1982, some 14,000 students and participants have been dispatched by the Government of Malaysia to universities, companies and other institutions in Japan with this concept in mind.

JICA has actively supported the Look East policy since it was established. In addition to establishing a number of training programs in Japan, JICA has dispatched JOCVs to teach Japanese language and culture at residential high schools throughout Malaysia. In 1998, the Government of Malaysia and JICA founded the Japan-Malaysia Technical Institute in Penang for diploma-level education. For university-level education, JICA started the Higher Education Loan Program (HELP) in the 1980s to support Malaysian students in the study of science and engineering in Japan. Under HELP, a consortium of Japanese universities has played a key role in initiating a unique "twining program" in which Malaysian students spend the first half of their college life in Malaysia and then go to Japan for their junior and senior years and obtain a bachelor's degree from a Japanese university. All the classes and lectures in Malaysia and Japan are conducted in Japanese.

In 2011, another milestone for the Look East policy was reached when the Malaysia-Japan International Institute of Technology (MJIIT) opened its doors. MJIIT aims to provide a Japanese-style engineering education at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels here in Malaysia.

PhotoSource: Statistics Indonesia (Badan Pusat Statistik)

Moving Forward with Look East and Japan's Cooperation

Malaysia has been enjoying steady economic growth. The Government of Malaysia announced its "Vision 2020," the ultimate objective of which is "a Malaysia that is a fully developed country by the year 2020."

At the Japan-Malaysia Summit Meeting held during the Japan-ASEAN Commemorative Summit held last December, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his counterpart Prime Minister Dato Sri Najib Tun Razak endorsed the idea of revitalizing bilateral cooperation based on the "Second Wave" of the Look East" policy that Malaysia is working toward. Even 10 years after Mahathir left office, his philosophy appears to continue to play an important role in formulating the policy of the Government of Malaysia, including having an important influence on this "Second Wave" announced by Najib who took office in 2009 (it may be noted that "Vision 2020" is a policy Mahathir announced in 1991).

Building on the outcomes of our bilateral cooperation thus far based on the conventional Look East policy, JICA now needs to employ various types of assistance to meet the changing needs of the renewed Look East policy. If Malaysia is to continue working for economic development through the Look East policy, we must be ready to share our experience in overcoming the various issues Japan has confronted in the process of economic growth. Possible areas of cooperation include, for instance, pollution control and environmental conservation, welfare for the disabled and the issues that come with an aging society. Another possible area is developing fundamental infrastructure for private investment so Malaysia can reach the status of an advanced nation.

During this transition from the era of Mahathir to a new generation, it is important that we consider how the relationship between our two countries should shift and how we should respond to meet the expectations of Malaysia if we are to remain a role model for Malaysia.

About the Author

Kunihiko Sato

Heading the JICA Malaysia Office since March 2012, his previous positions include Special Assistant for Corporate Strategy and Public Relations at Office of the President, JICA; Director of the Public Relations Office, Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC); Director for Indonesia and Malaysia, Development Assistance Department I, JBIC; and Representative in Bangkok for the Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund of Japan. He is from Tokyo.


  • [1] Mahathir bin Mohamad (2011) "A Doctor in the House: The Memoirs of Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad," MPH Group Publishing, pp. 369, 374


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