Reforming land registration in the Malaysian state of Sarawak

Princeton University This analysis is based in part on research conducted by Deepa Iyer and first published in September 2011 by Innovations for Successful Societies. The scoring assigned and the text below represents the Centre’s own work, however, and do not reflect the views of the case study authors, Innovations for Successful Societies, or Princeton University. Quotes included in the text come from interviews carried out in Malaysia in September 2011.

Registering land title in Sarawak was, in 2006, a frustrating process, often involving applicants in long queues and repeat visits. When Sudarsono Osman became director of the Land and Survey Department in Sarawak, he made reforms to the procedures a priority, and tested them at the Land Registry in Kuching, the state capital. He empowered the land registrars to take the initiative and before long a process that had formerly taken months was done in a single day.

The challenge

Sarawak is a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo; the city of Kuching is its capital. In June 2006, Sudarsono Osman was appointed as the director of Land and Survey Department in Sarawak. One of his priorities was to streamline the land registration process, which was extremely complicated, and “citizens waited anywhere from a day to a year to obtain registration titles”. [1]

He focused his attention initially on the land registry in Kuching, which was the busiest in Sarawak and “challenged the registrars ... to develop and implement improvements that would become templates for the rest of the department”. This would become the test-bed for reforms to the system throughout the state.

The initiative

Osman took the view that, by empowering land registry staff, they would be able to make the process more efficient. The overarching objective was to achieve a single-day registration of legal title.

The reform that he initiated towards that end consisted of a number of process modifications:

  • Making initial fixes, which cleared the backlog of more than 1,700 cases within 30 days.
  • Revising and streamlining the application forms.
  • Creating a formal queuing system for customers.
  • Facilitating cross-checking of information, such as the legality of titles.
  • Simplifying complicated procedures.
  • Reorganising the workplace.
  • Monitoring employees’ performance using the Land and Survey Information System (LASIS).

This programme of reform required a close study of the Sarawak Land Code, which was the authoritative reference point for the relevant property law.

The public impact

There were a number of important milestones in the Sarawak land registry’s progress:

  • “By June 2007, the Kuching registry was registering nearly all of its applications within 39 days.” [2]
  • “By early 2009, the Kuching registry had eliminated its backlog of 1,736 titles and achieved 100 percent single-day registration, facilitated cross-checking of information, simplified complicated procedures, reorganised the workplace and stringently monitored employees.” [3]
  • “By December 2009, the other 10 divisional registries had incorporated the Kuching changes and were registering 98%-100% of titles in one day.” [4]

These achievements led to a wider recognition:

  • “The Kuching registrars, with authorisation from Osman and Kuching superintendent Julaihi, submitted their improved processes and results as a project to the regional Quality Control Circles, where they won first place among 28 private and public sector groups. [5]
  • “At the national level, they won a silver medal, along with a Department of Public Service award. These ‘were the first public recognitions our department had ever received,’ Osman said. ‘The internal and external recognition was invigorating and kept us all motivated.’
  • “In the 2010 Innovative and Creative Circle competition run by the Malaysia Productivity Corporation, the Kuching registrars won a gold medal.”

The land registration process can now be done online through the official portal of the Land and Survey Department, Sarawak. [6]

What did and didn't work

All cases in our Public Impact Observatory have been evaluated for performance against the elements of our Public Impact Fundamentals.


Public Confidence Weak

Public confidence in the Sarawak Land and Survey Department was very low, as the time taken to complete the land registration process was considered to be excessive.

Citizens had to call several times to ask for the status of their applications, and make visits to submit any missing documents. “Abdul Julani, a local clerk who frequented the registry office and had become accustomed to waiting patiently in line over the years, said, ‘The open counter was so troublesome.  We worried that our documents would be misplaced or taken by other citizens.  The returning and waiting for days ... there was no other choice’ ...  Staff received hundreds of complaints from citizens, reflecting the public ire with department operations … Because the registry had no system for communicating with applicants, citizens sometimes had to return several times to check whether their titles were ready." [8]

Stakeholder Engagement Strong

The institutional stakeholders in the reforms were the Malaysian government, the state of Sarawak and its Land Registry.

The main individual stakeholders were Osman and the registrars in the division that served Kuching, as well as the citizens who used the Land Registry’s services. The team of registrars met several times with citizens to discuss the process. The reform of the process would in due course be extended, and benefit, the registrars and customers of the other land registries of Sarawak.

Political Commitment Good

It was an initiative of Sudarsono Osman, the director of the Land and Survey Department in Malaysia's Sarawak state.  “Before Osman’s tenure, registration processes were complex, and citizens waited anywhere from a day to a year to obtain registered titles.  Osman challenged the registrars at the Kuching land registry, Sarawak’s busiest, to develop and implement improvements that would become templates for the rest of the department.” [7]


Clear Objectives Good

The objective of the initiative was clear and consistent however it was not measurable. The objective was to increase the efficiency of the land registration processes, with the specific goal of single-day registration. The means Osman chose to achieve the objective was to empower the operational staff of registrars to modify the procedures themselves.

Evidence Fair

The overall reform of the Sarawak land registration system used the Kuching registry reform as a pilot to test the effectiveness of the methods. There was clear evidence that these changes were effective. “Setting an example for others, they cleared a backlog of 1,736 titles, restructured application forms, streamlined counter processes, reordered archives, and strengthened supervision. Osman expanded these pilot changes to all of Sarawak’s 11 divisions in 2009. By expanding the Kuching registry’s pilot project to all of Sarawak’s divisions, Osman made it clear that his department respected and valued employees’ ideas.” [9]

Feasibility Good

In terms of human resources, the policy was feasible. The initiative was being led by Sudarsono Osman, who had previously increased the efficiency of registering transactions from a year down to three months while a superintendent. “Osman had encountered a similar situation during his earlier days at the department. In 1992, he had served as superintendent of the Kuching division, where he remembered witnessing ‘piles and piles of titles just sitting and waiting for someone to touch them.’ … As director, Osman now had the capacity to change this mentality by enacting systematic changes that influenced the entire department.” [10]


Management Strong

There were skilled managers involved. Osman was a department veteran with 33 years’ experience and the registrars of the department who were knowledgeable and experienced. “Both the registrars and Osman felt that success hinged on ideas for change coming from the registrars themselves, who had the most expertise on processes and the laws underlying the registry’s business.” [11] Moreover, the registration system was simplified and a tested methodology (‘5S’) was used to reorganise processes.

To tackle the problem of inefficiency, the entire life-cycle was broken down and resolution was provided at every step. Employee monitoring was also put in place and targets were given. The registrars were also responsible to monitor each employee's output using the LASIS system. “They set a goal for employees to register 50 instruments (any type of land transaction application) and 20 titles daily.  Employees were expected to assess their own progress in terms of this performance benchmark.” [12]

Measurement Good

The most significant indicator was the proportion of single-day registrations. Registration of titles was constantly measured, initially in Kuching and later across all Sarawak land registries. By December 2009, the other 10 divisional registries were registering 98%-100% of titles in one day (see also Public impact).

Another important metric was the number of titles closed by each employee, which was monitored by the LASIS system overseen by the registrars. “Using the LASIS system, the registrars initially monitored each employee’s output on a daily basis.  However, they soon shifted to hourly monitoring after they discovered that productivity accelerated towards the end of each day as employees hurried to meet their quotas.” [13]

At the outset, the registration backlog was measured in order to assess the scale of the problem.

Alignment Strong

All the individual actors involved were aligned with the initiative: Osman and his team of registrars, as well as junior employees in the registry, customers, and the Kuching property lawyers who used the service.

Importantly, Osman was highly motivated in making the change happen. "Osman sent a circular to all department  staff making it clear that he intended to focus on improving service delivery in three ways: by concentrating on process improvements and innovations, by reviewing the legal issues surrounding processes, and by developing staff knowledge and expertise. ‘I had to communicate that it would not be business as usual under my tenure,’ he said.” [14]

The registrars responding by cooperating with the initiative for change. “Identifying the backlog as an initial target, the team worked on weekends, after hours and during downtimes. Within 30 days, the registry staff had cleared the backlog of 1,736 titles. ‘We were very motivated to perform well and prove ourselves.’" [15]

Also, the registrars talked to other actors, such as citizens and junior employees to collect their ideas and opinions about problems and the potential solutions. "The team started by sifting through complaints and talking with citizens, employees and the local legal association, whose members often dealt with the registry, to collect opinions and ideas ...To help counter staff better understand their duties and responsibilities, the registrars created printed checklists.” [16]