Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

An Ode to Malaysian Federalism

Written by johnleemk on 1:05:56 pm Jun 19, 2008.
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The SAPP decision to support a vote of no confidence against the Prime Minister has confirmed what we all should have known already: the East Malaysians hold the future of this country in their hands. But rather than speculate on the immediate consequences of this power shift in Malaysian politics, I would prefer to talk about an important undercurrent here: the importance of federalism.

In theory, it's always been obvious that East Malaysia holds a disproportionate influence on federal politics. The delineation of Parliamentary constituencies has always favoured them, ever since Sabah and Sarawak joined the federation. In theory, Sabah and Sarawak Parliamentarians should be among the most powerful in the country, considering their numbers.

In practice, the politicians of Sabah and Sarawak have always had to play second fiddle to those from the Peninsula. The Barisan Nasional administration almost literally treats the East Malaysians states as personal fiefdoms or colonies of the central government. We pump oil out of their territories, take the profits, and distribute them as goodies to the population of Peninsular Malaysia. East Malaysian politicians, overwhelmingly part of the BN coalition, have sat down and watched as the federal government spent its profits from East Malaysian property on its own petty, and overwhelmingly parochial Peninsular interests.

It's not hard to see why East Malaysians are increasingly angry about how the government runs things; talk of a looser federation, or even secession, has always been part and parcel of political gossip. Some East Malaysian politicians have insisted that the oil profits be split three-ways, one share going to the Peninsula, one to Sabah, and one to Sarawak. Some have gone further and insinuated that any disbursement of revenue to the states should follow this formula. This is unfortunately foolish.

The most glaring problem with this line of thought is that the federation does not have three components; we have 13 states. It is exceedingly unjust to the rest of the nation to treat 11 of those states as equal to one. This is as parochial and unfair as those 11 states treating the other 2 like colonial property. I don't pretend to have an equitable plan for distributing federal revenues to the states, but I don't think discrimination against any territory can be part of such a plan.

The deeper import of this thinking is that it reveals a discomforting political paradigm when it comes to the federation: only East Malaysia has any real autonomy. The Peninsula is assumed to be under the purview of the federal government in Kuala Lumpur or Putrajaya alone, while Sabah and Sarawak each have their own state governments. This thinking has of course arisen because of how BN dominated both the federal and Peninsular state governments for the past 50 years — but it cannot persist.

The East Malaysian states have always had considerable autonomy. Even till today, they, at least in theory, control their own immigration policies and have some degree of flexibility in other areas. This is of course directly because of how they joined the federation, and because of geographical and cultural separation from the Peninsula. But I see no reason not to extend this same autonomy to the 11 states of the Peninsula.

The fact that we are a federation, not a unitary state, of course was driven home by the last general election when five states elected Pakatan Rakyat governments. Now state governments supposedly have the power to differ from the federal government in policymaking, and pursue alternative paths. In reality, the federal government has never really devolved significant policymaking power to the states.

A loose federation is naturally fraught with weaknesses. But I am not proposing a loose federation, where states can go as far as implementing separate criminal laws and overrule federal laws. All I am asking for is a federal government that will let state governments pursue their own economic and administrative policies. I want a federation where state leaders can make decisions that pertain to their respective states, rather than wait for orders from the federal capital; that is all.

The beauty of a federation is that it responds to the needs of its citizens in different states. Rather than a one-size-fits-all policy which has no regard for the gulf between rural and urban areas, diverse and homogeneous territories, we could be pursuing policies tailored to the needs of individual states. The concerns of a citizen of Selangor are practically as different from one in Perlis as they are from one in Sabah; there is no reason that one state government should be free to enact policies tailored to its people's needs, while the other remains shackled by the demands of the federal government.

We do not need a federal government that respects the needs of the East Malaysian people. We need a federal government that respects the needs of the Malaysian people. All states must have greater autonomy, greater freedom to do what's best for the unique needs of their people. Be it in educational or development policy, the federal government must take a step back and stop micromanaging policies which by right should be set at the state level. There is no use pretending that the same curriculum, with minor adjustments, works equally well in a Perakian and a Sarawakian school; that the same system of delineating municipalities is equally effective in Selangor as it is in Penang. The federal government should look out for the interests of the nation as a whole; the rest should be left to the state and local governments.


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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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