Second Sphere: Making federalism work

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on September 12 - 18, 2016.


As we await the arrival of Malaysia Day on Sept 16, I am thinking aloud about the real (one) day that all Malaysians can celebrate together — a truly All Malaysians Day.

We all know that the Federation of Malaysia was formed on Sept 16, 1963. But by the look of it, the federal government, and some of us, seem to prioritise the anniversary celebration of Aug 31 — when independence was won by Peninsular Malaysia (formerly known as Malaya) in 1957 and by Sabah in 1963.

Sarawak’s independence date is July 22, 1963.

Malaysia is a federation of three independent entities — Malaya (including Singapore at the time), Sabah and Sarawak. So, the most important anniversary celebration that all Malaysians should relate to as equals is Sept 16. But it was not until 2003 that the federal government proclaimed Sept 16 as Malaysia Day.

The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Federation of Malaysia in 2013 was nothing compared with the glamour of the 50th anniversary celebration of independence in 2007. This gave the impression that the nation was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the formation of Malaysia when in actual fact it was the 50th anniversary of the independence of just Peninsular Malaysia.

Some of us think Sabah and Sarawak “joined” Malaysia and that they are like the other states in the peninsula. But the Sabahans and Sarawakians do not think they joined Malaysia but “formed” it. They do not think they are like the nine states in the peninsula. And they are right because the Malaysia Agreement 1963 and subsequent amendments to the Constitution of the Federation of Malaya 1957 — though not without its critics, for example, why a new constitution was not formulated for the newly formed country — gave Sabah and Sarawak more powers than the states in the peninsula. This is especially so on matters pertaining to immigration, native customary law and personal law, taxes and certain fiscal policies (which include special grants).

Until today, many in Barisan Nasional (BN), which governs the federal government, are still not used to having a few states governed by the opposition. According to academicians Andrew Harding and James Chin, federal-state relations are smooth as long as both the governments are ruled by BN.

But when the states are ruled by the opposition, the federal-state relationship often becomes strained. The federal government can make life difficult for the opposition states, especially using its fiscal control over development funds to weaken the opposition’s position. Given that most of the trade and investment regulations are under the purview of the federal government, and, administratively, the system is highly centralised, these states have constant political battles with the centre.

Umno, the dominant component party of BN, entered Sabah in 1990 but as a peninsula-based political party, it is not welcome to set up base in Sarawak.

As chief secretary of the newly formed Pakatan Harapan (comprising Keadilan, DAP and Amanah), I have a gallery view of dealing with the politics of federalism. Even though PH is almost a year old now, a formal committee has yet to be launched at state level. In fact, in Selangor, the Keadilan-led state government includes Pas, which is not a member of PH.

In the context of Sabah and Sarawak, the PH agreement (of Jan 9, 2016) recognises the true position of the two entities as enshrined in the Federal Constitution and in line with the provisions and the spirit of the Malaysia Agreement 1963. Besides that, in the drafting of the PH Common Policies Framework (to be announced on our first anniversary this Sept 22), due and just emphasis will be given to Sabah and Sarawak.

In the recent Sarawak election, the question of its autonomy, which is one of the topics under the Malaysia Agreement 1963 discourse, was raised by our local leaders during the campaign. In Sabah, in facing the 14th general election, we are enhancing our understanding, for example, of the “Sabah for Sabahan” slogan and listening more to our local leaders.

In order to realise real political and institutional reform — including better practice of federalism — that will pave the way for all Malaysians to build a better tomorrow, the opposition needs to win the next general election. In this context, PH is committed to form a larger coalition of opposition parties so that we can contest BN one on one in GE14.

We are open to various forms of coalition or cooperation among opposition parties. We may have one type of grand coalition at the federal level but at the same time empower our local leaders to form various types of cooperation at the state level.

But in the meantime, let’s celebrate this year’s Malaysia Day with a renewed commitment to making our federalism work.

Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah is chief secretary of Pakatan Harapan and former deputy minister of higher education. He is active on twitter: @saifuddinabd.