My Say: Malaysia is a federation, so let’s act like one

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 26, 2022 - October 02, 2022.
My Say: Malaysia is a federation, so let’s act like one
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Some campaign issues for the next general election are already becoming clear. But much still depends on how the coalitional possibilities work out.

Should the Malay-based parties manage to come together for electoral expediency and set aside their distrust of each other for the sake of power, then the racialising politics that has divided the country over the last 50 years will continue to derail any dream of Malaysia becoming a united country, living up to its potential of becoming a successful and inspirational multicultural nation.

But should this not happen — and the likelihood of it happening is smaller than one might think — then this general election is going to be very interesting. While calls for various reforms to secure the freedom of the judiciary, the freedom of the press and economic recovery, among other things, will be hotly debated, it is issues related to Sabah and Sarawak — concerning their rights within the federation — that are crucial to the future of the country.

This is because it concerns the very nature of the Federation of Malaysia, and of federalism’s role in the development of the country.

Being constructed as a federation upon a federation (in 1957, then in 1963), and presently being at a crossroads where its nation-­building process post-2020 seems caught in a cul-de-sac, Malaysia can no longer ignore the fact that its federal nature has been ignored for too long. More than that, it has to recognise the fact that its nation-building since the 1970s has been one long painful acceleration towards unitarian governance.

This has been painful because it goes against the very nature, not only of its federalist constitution, but of the diverse population which required federalism to be its political format in the first place.

Now, when much attention is drawn to Sabah and Sarawak and how these states feel colonised by the government based in the peninsula, the time is ripe to revisit the practice of federalism itself in the country as a whole.

Federation-building is the process that all parties now need to consider as they search for a new path that can promise a harmonious future for its people. One should rightly start by looking at how federalism has been undermined since the very beginning.

The forming of race-based parties, and their taking power from Day One, made the country’s various communities overly conscious of being challenged at the national level. This delocalised political interests tremendously.

The inter-ethnic balancing act behind the formation of Malaysia in 1963 is well known, where the addition of Chinese-majority Singapore was countered by indigenous peoples of Sabah and Sarawak. But after Singapore left in 1965, and after the racial riots that followed in the late 1960s, the new inter-ethnic balance saw the majority Malays pushing for a nation-building process — effectively a national identity building process — that was increasingly race-based. The Second Malaysia Plan opened the gates for policymaking to be strongly race-conscious and centralising.

In that light, the significance of the removal of local elections in 1965 (legislated by 1976) looms large. It should have become clear to the insightful observer by then that the real political struggle in the development of Malaysian governance was between local democracy and central control — in other words, between federalism and unitarianism. And in the Malaysian context, complete unitarianism is necessarily theocratic.

Looking back, it has been voters living in Kuala Lumpur who have suffered most dramatically in their loss of democratic rights. Having lost their right to vote in local elections in 1965, they went on to lose their right to vote at state level. Part of the reorganisation of Malaysian democracy after the 1969 riots involved the extreme gerrymandering of Kuala Lumpur into a federal territory in which its inhabitants only had voting rights for parliamentary seats.

The centralising of policymaking continued unhampered into the 1980s and throughout the (Tun Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad) era. Most notably, the formation of the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia (Jakim) as a central authority on Muslim matters was a direct challenge to the sultans; the constitution provides for them to play that role each in their own state.

The civil service structure was of course increasingly geared towards the central power, acting as an effective means of control for Putrajaya — over civil servants, over state policies and over the public’s consciousness of where the real power lies.

As long as the Barisan Nasional controlled — with few exceptions — the state governments and the central government at the time, the centralisation in Malaysian policymaking and budgetary decisions continued quite smoothly. It was only after the 2008 general election when major state governments fell to the opposition that it became publicly clear year by year how centralised, ineffective and untransparent policymaking in the country had become.

It is now being strongly felt, as the 15th general election draws near, even by factions in Umno and in Barisan Nasional members, that a new way of thinking is needed if Malaysia is to pull itself up by the collar. The global challenges are many, as are global opportunities.

To unleash the energy, innovativeness and goodwill of its own people, the leaders of the country, whoever these may be after the election, would do well to build on the mutual trust that — despite decades of divisive politics — still exists between the country’s various communities, and allow for the different parts constituting the Federation of Malaysia to grow from below.

Decentralising vital matters such as tax retention, the civil service and policymaking will go a long way towards releasing the creative energy that Malaysians possess, and that they have for so long been waiting to put to proper use.


Datuk Dr Ooi Kee Beng is the executive director of Penang Institute. His recent books include Catharsis: A Second Chance for Democracy in Malaysia (2018, Penang Institute, SIRD and ISEAS).                                                                               

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