Search This Blog

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Tipping Points

'Tipping Points', a compilation of essays "on the reasons for and impact of the March 8 election earthquake" edited by Oon Yeoh and published by The Edge is out in bookstores. It features essays on the subject by a range of public intellectuals and opinion leaders including Hishamuddin Rais, Azly Rahman, Farish Noor, Ooi Kooi Beng, Wong Chin Huat and Tricia Yeoh.

I was privileged enough to have been asked to contribute an essay. It is reproduced below.


In Search Of Democracy: The Rebirth Of Federalism

Political homogeneity over a long period of time and an aggressive central government that had curbed the freedom and individuality of state governments, much as it had suppressed the ability of Malaysians to think and act independently, had resulted in the general belief that this nation was a federation in name only. For many, we were one nation with one government. Through willful neglect by the mainstream media, Kelantan stood largely forgotten.

In this setting, it is unsurprising that federalism had been relegated to the realm of abstract theory of little practical value. For some, federalism had additionally become associated with events that put an edge to the notion. The tensions in Sabah and Sarawak following the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965, and the race riots of 1969, having arisen in part due to imbalances that were permitted by the federal-state divide, stood as painful reminders of the potential destructiveness of a federal system.

The results of the 2008 general elections however compel a reassessment. Those results, viewed in their context, and their effects - notably the establishment of non-Barisan Nasional governments in five states, a seemingly more discerning wielding of discretion by the monarchs in Perlis and Trengganu, and the forging of the Pakatan Rakyat - offer a valuable opportunity to not only recast positively our view of federalism but also to harness it in nation building efforts.

A consideration of the subject must necessarily start with a reminder. Prior to the proclamation of independence in 1957, even with the British having annexed the territories of Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak, there were separate nation states. Though it may be argued that Penang, Malacca, Sabah and Sarawak stand on a different footing from the other states, this does not undermine the proposition. There were different nation states, each of these states having their own constitutional arrangement, more usually governed by a Ruler. Merdeka brought these states into a compact, sealed by the Federal Constitution, the Rulers of these states agreeing that these states would be collectively administered by a Westminster style government at the federal level complimented by Westminster style governments at the state level to which they would cede authority.

The individual states did not cease to exist. They continued to function as such, though under the aegis of a central government at the federal level. There was as such never any legal barrier to the states being governed in a manner suited to the unique needs of the states and their residents. Though federal controls over certain aspects of governance – policing, the administration of justice, immigration, to name a few – could be said to have allowed for encroachment into the sovereign areas of the states, this in itself did not allow for an undermining of the virtual autonomy of the states on matters directly affecting the interests of the states. This was a vital feature of the Malaysian constitutional arrangement, one that was always intended to be a bulwark against totalitarian control.

The politicization of governance however undermined this crucial aspect of Malaysian democracy. The consistent, near absolute control of all the states by the Barisan had allowed for the colonization of states by the federal government and, through it, the Barisan. With it came a dismantling of essential barricades that allowed for the states to be yoked for the needs of an increasingly elitist, self-interested leadership at the federal and state levels. Sabah and Sarawak exemplify this sad state of affairs.

The taking of five states by the Pakatan Rakyat however now offers a landscape vastly different from that prior to the General Elections. Kelantan is no longer a minority of one. The distinct shift in voter trends, its underlying causes and the dawning realization of the need to resonate with the rakyat have to be reckoned with if the Barisan is to remain relevant. Additionally, the importance of Penang, Perak and Selangor will necessarily force the Barisan to reject the policy of marginalization it employed against Kelantan. Such a policy would not only reinforce support for the Pakatan Rakyat but may also affect vested Barisan interests in these states. The Barisan federal government will eventually have to deal with the governments of these states as independent governments, a competitive state of affairs that can only be in the interests of the nation.

This is a process that may be further fueled by a more independent and discerning articulation of royal discretion. The stand-offs in Perlis and Trengganu are suggestive of ‘makkal sakti’ having left an impression on the monarchs of these states. Despite clear pressure, the state constitutions were correctly applied and decisions made to reject deficient political appointments. This cannot be reasonably characterized as having been wrongly interventionist. Conversely, the positions taken indicate a growing awareness of the full extent to which the autonomy of the state can and should be invoked in aid of democratic process.

In some ways, the mould has been broken. Race riots did not erupt as the Barisan governments of the Pakatan states fell. The ghost of May 13th , and one of the bigger concerns about increased autonomy, may have been put to rest. It is now up to us to shape the democracy that is best suited for us.


Starmandala said...

Neat summary of the post-GE12 situation, kudos!

Malik Imtiaz Sarwar said...

Cheers, Antares

Anonymous said...

Can you clarify the point about sovereignty - was any amount sovereignty moved from the Rulers to the YDPA in 1957? Can the Rulers take back authority that they "ceded"?

And what are the legal options if a state desired independence? Would a unilateral declaration suffice? Or would federal mechanics still apply - either a decision by the Conference of Rulers or an Act of Parliament as with Singapore? Florida is forbidden to leave the USA, but the UK can leave the EU (supposedly).

And do you share an eminent professor's view that 31 August 1957 should not really be seen as "independence" since all but Penang and Malacca were technically sovereign nations in treaty with the British (where again, authority was "ceded")?

Malik Imtiaz Sarwar said...


good questions. Give me a bit of time to think about it.

Donplaypuks® said...

Kissinger once posed a dinner-table question to Deng Xiaoping i.e. 'What do you think of the French Revolution?'

Deng's reply was classic. 'It's too early to tell' he whispered inscrutably!

I think we are still groping for the answers to the GE 2008 debacle.The dust has still not settled down for us to take an intelligent stab at the whys & wherefores.

Was it Anwar? the bloggers? Hindraf? Zakaria Matderos? Toyo? Sleeping on the job? 4th Floor? Nazri? Limgamgate RCI? UMNO arrogance? Kerismudin? Pandemic corruption and cronyism? Raja Petra? Rising inflation and widening of the gap between haves and have nots?

But rarely do peaceful revolutions just happen; certainly not those with a Tsunami-like impact. We could go on and on, but my ten cents worth?

It's too early to tell!

Anonymous said...

In Search of What and How can this country be Changed?
GE11 got ABBW because he promised a "Big" change with efficient Government, Anti-corruption....!

GE12 got PR because more People (but not all) know ABBW and UNMO had dragged the necessary Change or even worsen the situation! And, PR had proposed some Changes!

But PR hidden the fact that without half the Parliament Seats or even 2/3, changes are very very difficult!
PR thought frogging could give an outlet!
But is frogging because of wanting to head for the Good of all?
Or more for personal benefits?

Even with People Declaration, but without a clear understanding of How to be achieved, the risk of deviation or dividing will still be there.

If Malik can speak more on Constitution Reform including Parliament Reform, I believe this will help much more, including the procedures and conditions required.