Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Malaysia is Not a Federation

Written by johnleemk on 11:24:19 am Mar 18, 2007.
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For some odd reason, the Malaysian government enjoys harping on our status as a federation. Whenever we talk about the Malaysian Constitution, it's never just the "Malaysian Constitution". Oh, no, it has to be the "Malaysian Federal Constitution".

But why all this hubbub about our ostensible federal nature of government? It's all a farcical sham anyway. We're not a federation at all. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself.

Let's go back to why we have a federation in the first place. The British instituted the Federated Malay States to standardise the systems of government and administration in several of their Malayan colonies. (Recall, our country was never signed over to the British as a whole, unless you count the brief period of the Malayan Union. Rather, it was given away in bits and pieces by individual rulers.)

After World War II, the British came back and decided to institute a unitary state under the Malayan Union. The Malays rose up furiously and fought for a new polity. They got it, in the form of the Federation of Malaya.

Sometimes in the midst of the huge debate about the government's pro-Malay policies today, it's easy to forget that there were other reasons for opposing the Malayan Union besides its guarantee of political equality. One such reason was its unitary nature.

Because the Union was a unitary state, it made no provision for individual states. And no individual states meant that the rulers were no longer just de facto meaningless symbols. Now, they were de jure figureheads, and this made the Malays mad.

This is the reason why when we became independent, our country's name was not just "Malaya". Oh, no. It was the "Federation of Malaya". Why were and are we a federation? Is it because we want to give more power to the people, as a real federal entity would promise?

Ironically, the answer is no. The real reason we are a federation is because we want to give more power to the Sultans, rather than getting rid of them. The middle course of constitutional monarchy is conveniently put aside in favour of a more feudalist mentality, as evinced by the insane craze people have for noble titles such as "Datuk" these days.

For this reason, it's easy to see that if not for the Sultans, we probably wouldn't be a federation today. We'd be a unitary state. After all, being a unitary state makes it much easier for the central authorities to exploit their people and resources, and abuse their fellow men. (That's why the British wanted a unitary state, remember?)

Indeed, we are a unitary state, at least de facto. We may have the trappings of a federation, but in reality, the individual state governments and local authorities have almost no discretion whatsoever. The Constitution promises only a pittance of powers for state governments, and even then, these powers are normally only used to further an agenda set by the central government.

The ruling Barisan Nasional regime of course has a vested interest in centralising power. It may be more inefficient, it may engender more corruption, it may make more waste, it may deny people the chance to govern themselves, but who cares? Centralisation makes plundering and pillaging all the easier for the central government, without state governments to get in the way.

Local governments already are rendered subordinate to the state government, with almost no autonomy whatsoever. They are not elected by the people, but are state appointees. It's not surprising, then, that more efforts go towards kissing the Chief Minister's ass than actually serving the electorate.

The state governments are in a similarly dire state. They have no discretion whatsoever in setting domestic policy, despite the clear benefits of a more heterogenous and plural approach to governance. There is no room for being different in Malaysia. Whether you are from Perak, Kelantan or Johor, you are governed in almost exactly the same way.

State governments merely carry out the edicts of the federal government. That is exactly the role they would play in a unitary state, where they cannot draft real laws, and are no more than federal lackeys.

The only state governments with even a scrap of real autonomy are those in East Malaysia. They were fortunate in getting a better deal since they had leverage when joining the "federation", as opposed to the West Malaysian states which had to take it or leave it.

Even then, the deal these states struck is a bit odd. The autonomy they get isn't really the kind they would get in a true federation, since their wings are still clipped quite a bit, and yet they have control over immigration policy there. (Believe it or not, they have even banned certain West Malaysians — mainly opposition politicians — from entering East Malaysia.)

It's quite clear that Malaysia is far from a true federation. The only reason we have a federation in the first place is so we can claim our place in some book of records for having the most monarchies in the world.

I am a strong supporter of a real federation for Malaysia. But this real federation should be a federation for the right reasons — greater democracy and power to the people. Not for preserving a ruling class of Sultans.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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