In multi-ethnic, multi-faith, multilingual Malaysia, the new national ID card is a tie that binds. While Britain's politicians wrangle over the issue, many Malaysians see their "multi-application smart card" as a unifying sign of national progress. It is also a tool in a high-tech fight for economic survival in a globalized world of encircling superpowers.
As well carrying a photograph and personal biometric data, the card serves as a passport, driving license and direct debit or credit card. It provides an instant "gateway" to the bearer's health records in case of accident and can be customized, for example, as a workplace security pass. In all, it has 60 possible uses.
Nicholas Shariff Collins, head of marketing at the government-licensed Multimedia Development Corporation in Cyberjaya, Malaysia's "silicon valley," said the smart card cost each individual about US$6. Britain's project could cost up to US$900 per card to make, a substantial part of which would be passed on to the individual.
Firewalls had been built in to prevent misuse of personal data, he said.
Shariff Collins said the card technology was being adopted by neighboring countries in South-east Asia and beyond to facilitate business, trade, security and travel. And that, he said, was part of a bigger struggle.
"Malaysia has 23 million people. It simply cannot compete with China, India and Indonesia in low-tech, labour intensive industries," he said. "We have to invest in people, improve education, build up human capital and compete more effectively through niche industries. The smart card is a way of helping do that."
The looming challenge -- or threat -- posed by China and other developing Asian powers, much discussed in the West, is far from an academic question here. It is already happening on Malaysia's doorstep; the effects are tangible.
"China's phenomenal industrial growth ... poses an immediate threat to our manufacturing-based, export-driven economy," said Manraaj Singh in a study by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur.
After years of impressive growth in high-tech sectors, Malaysia lags far behind China in attracting foreign direct investment. State-backed, flagship businesses such as the car maker, Proton, are struggling while traditional tin and rubber exports have declined.
But one possibly beneficial side-effect was rising Sino-Japanese tensions, the study said, noting Tokyo's recent decision to favour south-east Asian countries over Beijing as long-term investment destinations.
China's rise is changing political calculations, too. Malaysia's foreign minister, Syed Hamid Albar, stressed the two countries' historical links. "China has never dominated us, never colonized us ... A strong China is very important in a unipolar world," he said. "China's growth will contribute to our wellbeing as we develop niche business areas."
He also praised Beijing for not aggressively pursuing disputes in the South China Sea, although he agreed that such problems -- and the Taiwan standoff -- were a potential source of regional friction or worse.
"Our policy cannot be dictated by worries about what China may do to us," Albar said. He noted that Malaysia, although officially non-aligned, was not without friends.
"The US presence in the region is necessary and legitimate. It provides a certain comfort level," he added.