Thursday, September 15, 2011

Federalism in Malaysia

Tomorrow, we celebrate the 47th Anniversary of the formation of Malaysia. All Malaysians know that Malaysia is a federation of 13 states and the Federal territories. But, what is a "federation"? What does it mean?

Daniel Elazar has described it as follows-

“The contractual sharing of public responsibilities by all governments in the system appears to be a central characteristic of federalism. Sharing, broadly conceived, includes common involvement in policymaking, financing, and administration of government activities. 

In contemporary federal systems, it is characterized by extensive intergovernmental collaboration. Sharing can be based on highly formal arrangements or informal agreements. 

In federal systems, it is usually contractual in nature. The contract – politically a limited expression of the compact principle – is used in formal arrangements as a legal device to enable governments responsible to separate polities to engage in joint action while remaining independent entities. 

Even where government agencies cooperate without formally contracting to do so, the spirit of federalism that pervades an ongoing federal system tends to infuse the participating parties with a sense of contractual obligation."

This view permeates the Cobbold Report (1962) and the Inter-Governmental Committee Report (1962) which formed the basis for the formalisation of the Federation of Malaysia in the Malaysia Agreement 1963, the Malaysia Act 1963 and the 1963 amendments to our Federal Constitution.

Going back to Elazar's description, we are reminded, from time to time, by various communities and groups in both Sarawak and Sabah that the central government has short-delivered its end of the contractual bargain.

Is this sentiment a fair appraisal of the federal experience of Sarawak and Sabah?

This question is a most difficult one.

In the past decades, there has been substantial vocalisation on federalism by the likes of the late Datuk Amar James Wong of Sarawak (one of the founders of the now defunct Sarawak National Party or SNAP) and  Datuk Jeffrey Kitingan of Sabah.

Fairness in allocation of economic resources

Many of my Sarawak and Sabah friends privately express cynicism about the fairness in allocation of economic resources by the central government to their states.

This sentiment is precisely the matter that dogs the federal centre. This sentiment is also a source of frustration for the federal centre.

There is a perception, rightly or wrongly, on the part of many Sarawakians and Sabahans that their state governments have been under, what Gordon P. Means called, "federal tutelage" from the inception of Malaysia.

Is this a true and fair view? The jury is still out.

What cannot be denied is that such a perception colours the sentiment of Sarawakians and Sabahans.

This is especially true when the topic of petroleum resources comes about.

The perception is that the petroleum largesse is transferred to the federal centre and trickles back to the states of Sarawak and Sabah in the form of capitation grants and road grants.

Is this a true and fair view? The jury is still out. But, the perception is strong.

Race and community relations

All my Sarawakian and Sabahan friends are aghast at how separate the communities are in Peninsular Malaysia. They are fearful that such a way of life will infect the happy inter-ethnic and inter-communal ambience that still exists in Sarawak and Sabah (though signs of invisible walls being built are growing).

This is not the federal influence they want.

The challenge for the federal centre

Apart from the acculturation issue (which all Sarawakians and Sabahans should rightly reject), the core issue must surely be whether Sarawak and Sabah can lay claim to a fair share of the economic resources generated from within their states.

I recall being told by a Sabahan friend some time ago that when they watch the tv and see the images of sparkling skyscrapers of glass and steel and well-lit multi-tiered highways in KL, they cannot feel any sense of excitement or share the pride that such images were intended to inspire. Such images actually engender an opposite emotion.

So, beyond the temporal politics of today, the federal centre must renew and redouble its efforts to win the hearts and minds of the people of Sarawak and Sabah that their forebears did the right thing when they signed on to the Malaysian adventure; not a nightmare.

The importance of consultation

I have written extensively (in an academic context) about the importance of consultation as a feature of federalism. Consultation is, in fact, the MAIN feature of federalism.

Our Federal Constitution has many references to the need for consultation. Some of it are formal on issues such as-
  • Appointment of judges
  • Land
  • Local Government

Others are informal but, still, constitutionally necessary. These include the issue of natural resources such as water and minerals.

The importance of federalism for Malaysia's democracy

Malaysians have a narrow view of the democratic process as something that we eat kuaci and sip teh tarik over when any political elections loom.

We also should be aware and be constantly reminded that each of the thirteen states, particularly the states of Sarawak and Sabah, are sovereign in their own right and, they chose to form the Federation of Malaysia. In any way that we may wish to look at it, the undeniable fact is that we have a set of contractual relationships between the federal centre and its 13 partners.

This is as it should be.

For the states of Sarawak and Sabah, they signed onto the federation with stronger conditions than the other 11 states. It gives Sarawak and Sabah greater say over many aspects of the affairs of their states.

But all 13 states have residual sovereign rights. These sovereign rights may be limited by the Federal Constitution; but they still exist.

This is what Malaysia is. 

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