Making federalism REAL


Malaysia is not just an expanded Malaya. It is a merger of three entities – Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak. These three ought to make for a great mix, but half a century down the road, we are still stuck in ethnic-religious quandaries. Common sense tells us we should revisit the basics of our federalism and look for new paths of development.

Malaysia Day celebrations.

Many West Malaysians will find it mind-boggling for Malaysians one day to celebrate three national days: August 31 as Merdeka Day for Malaya (1957) and Sabah (1963), July 22 as Merdeka Day for Sarawak (1963) and September 16 as Malaysia Day (1963).

This was part of the seven-point proposal made by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in his capacity as Parliamentary Opposition Leader during the celebration of the 51st anniversary of Sarawak on July 22 this year in Kuching.

“What 51st anniversary?” one may ask. Isn’t Malaysia 57 years old?

Few West Malaysians are aware that Malaysia is not simply an expanded Malaya, and it is not true that Sabah and Sarawak joined Malaya to form Malaysia. Even fewer West Malaysians are aware that Sarawak declared its independence on July 22, 1963 while Sabah and Singapore declared theirs on August 31 that same year.

Sarawak's first Chief Minister, Tan Sri Datuk Amar Stephen Kalong Ningkan, declaring the joining of Sarawak to the Federation of Malaysia on September 16, 1963.

The merging of these parts to form the Federation of Malaysia was originally scheduled for August 31 that year but was delayed to enable the UN to complete the referendum in Sabah and Sarawak to ascertain the level of popular support for the new federalism1.

While some may argue that the British did not officially relinquish power over the three colonies before September 16, the truth is that they did not protest either when Sarawak, Sabah and Singapore each declared independence at earlier dates.

Malaysia was clearly a merger of four new nations, not an expansion of the Federation of Malaya. There was no such thing as Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joining Malaysia simply because there was no Malaysia before September 16, 1963.

However, this fact came to be erased even from the Federal Constitution. On September 16, 1963, Article 1(2) of the Federal Constitution originally stated that: “the states of the Federation shall be (a) the states of Malaya, namely Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Penang, Perak, Perlis, Selangor and Terengganu; (b) the Borneo States, namely Sabah and Sarawak; and (c) the State of Singapore.

Tun Fuad Stephens declaring the joining of Sabah to the Federation of Malaysia at Padang Merdeka on September 16, 1963.

In 1976, this was saliently and significantly amended to become simply “the States of the Federation shall be Johore, Kedah, Kelantan, Malacca, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Penang, Perak, Perlis, Sabah, Sarawak, Selangor and Terengganu”. The implication is clear and significant: Sabah and Sarawak are no longer two of three (after Singapore’s expulsion), but only two of 13. They are to be equal to each of the 11 Malayan states.

Anwar has also promised to restore the original expression in the Constitution – minus the mention of Singapore – and to recognise in textbooks and official discourses that Malaysia is a federation consisting of three equal partners – Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak.

Little noticed on this side of the South China Sea, Anwar’s extensive promises cover six other points, which are: linguistic freedom, a TV channel for Borneo, fairer sharing of petroleum revenue, citizenship and border control, native land rights and Borneonisation of the public service, and a Royal Commission to revisit federalism.

For many West Malaysians, Anwar was simply being populist in order to fish votes in Sabah and Sarawak. After all, in the words of Sabah’s BN leader, these are the “fixed deposit” states for the ruling BN coalition. Some on the peninsula may even call him a sell-out for being so generous to the Borneans just to gain short-term political mileage.

Whatever one thinks of Anwar’s political acumen and opportunism, the fact remains that he has boldly dished out a new and promising deal for how Malaysia should be organised. He is arguably the first top-echelon Malaysian leader who is trying to transcend being a Malayan at heart. This is historically groundbreaking.

Instead of propping up some vague slogan like Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak’s “1Malaysia”, which is construed in West Malaysia as a unity of the Federation of Malaya’s three ethnic groups – the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians, Anwar has invited us to recognise and embrace an ignored reality: Malaysia is a 3-in-1 nation – Malaya+Sabah+Sarawak.

The 1946 question: can we be equal but different?

East Malaysians are often frustrated and pained by West Malaysian chauvinism, and see it to be fuelled by arrogance, ignorance and even self-righteousness.

East Malaysians are often frustrated and pained by West Malaysian chauvinism, and see it to be fuelled by arrogance, ignorance and even self-righteousness.

Part of it is the standard conceit the self-appointed centre has for the periphery. This phenomenon is found in practically any country in the world – inhabitants in or around the national capital tend to consider all others as “parochial” and “backward”. This is worsened by the usual economic affluence that the former tends to enjoy. Condescendence and contempt become what the others have to suffer.

Malaysia’s problem is somewhat more complicated and is rooted in the contestation over post-colonial nation-building. Sabah and Sarawak were actually brought in to resolve an unanswered question in Malaya.

When the British returned to South- East Asia after World War II, they were fully conscious that they would soon need to prepare for their departure. In fact, the process started almost immediately, in 1946, for both Borneo and Malaya.

In British Borneo, the British government acquired the Kingdom of Sarawak and North Borneo from the Brooke family and the North Borneo Charted Company, respectively, just after the Second World War, and transformed these two protectorates into crown colonies. The idea was to prepare for further consolidation of these two entities with another British protectorate, the Sultanate of Brunei, situated between the two.

The cession of Sarawak to Britain was violently resisted by the Malays and Ibans who wanted to restore the independence of their country and the reign of the White Rajah. In December 1949, British Governor Duncan Stewart was assassinated in Sibu by Rosli Dobi and his comrade Moshidi bin Sedek, from the anti-cession movement2.

The reorganisation of British colonial possessions was much more challenging in Malaya, where the call for independence had already been made by different groups. The difficult question to answer there was, “Can people be equal but different in a single sovereign country?” Put bluntly, could the non-Malays who made up half of Malaya’s population be made citizens when they were linguistically and religiously distinct from the other half, the Malays?

The standard answer based on the notion of nation-states would be “No” – a nation must be homogenous enough to hold itself together, hence a high degree of homogeneity in language, religion or other group attributes is a prerequisite.

Based on the historical convention in Nusantara, the answer would be a “No” as well. For centuries, the Malay Peninsula had been receiving immigrants from Sumatra, Sulawesi and Java. Some waged war against the locals. Some just came as economic migrants. Over time, they were all assimilated as Malays for two reasons: first, they all spoke Malay, which had been the lingua franca in the region for centuries; second, by the 17th century, Islam had spread widely to a large part of Nusantara and those immigrants who came tended to be Muslims.

Based on the historical convention in Nusantara, the answer would be a “No” as well. For centuries, the Malay Peninsula had been receiving immigrants from Sumatra, Sulawesi and Java. Some waged war against the locals. Some just came as economic migrants. Over time, they were all assimilated as Malays for two reasons: First, they all spoke Malay, which had been the lingua franca in the region for centuries; second, by the 17th century, Islam had spread widely to a large part of Nusantara and those immigrants who came tended to be Muslims.

To Our Glorious Dead. Malaysia's National Monument commemorating fallen warriors in its struggle for freedom, including the Malayan Emergency.

Unlike in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) where Malays were a minority group, the Malay Peninsula functioned more like a melting pot. Even Arab and Indian-Muslims were eventually absorbed as Malays. In that sense, the large number of Chinese and Indian immigrants who did not habitually speak Malay and did not profess Islam became an anomaly, which encouraged a sense of insecurity among the Malays.

However, the first solution the returning British came up with after the War – the Malayan Union – replied a resounding and optimistic – some would say naïve – “Yes” to the 1946 question. The British were aware of the normative and strategic needs for an inclusive country. Prescribing a unitary state, the Malayan Union met with strong opposition from the Malays for it did not only turn Malaya’s nine Malay protectorates into colonies (together with the two additional states of Penang and Malacca resulting from the nullification of the Straits Settlements), but more fundamentally, it also offered equal citizenship to most non-Malays by virtue of their having been born in Malaya.

Even the exclusion of Chinese-dominated Singapore from the Malayan Union by the British who wished to retain it as a crown colony, did not diminish the fear of Chinese domination among Malay leaders.

Malay resentment of the Malayan Union led to the formation of Umno. This party’s influence and power were confirmed in 1948 when the British backed down and the Malayan Union was transformed into the Federation of Malaya. The new entity, especially when read in its Malay name, Persekutuan Tanah Malaya, signalled that this was the homeland of the Malays, rather than of all Malayans.

If you will, the Federation of Malaya was a collection of Malay ethnocracies – all of which, excepting Penang, required Menteri Besars to be Malay-Muslims – while the Malayan Union was a multi-ethnic unitary state. This development reverses the common logic behind these systems: federations are meant to accommodate and facilitate differences, while unitary states are inclined towards centralisation and homogenisation. Not in the case of the Federation of Malaya.

A Malay nation-state or a Malaysian nation-state?

The first Durbar (Conference of Rulers) in 1897. Its purpose was to "bring home to the Malays, in the most striking manner possible, the reality of federation"3.

But Umno’s ethnocratic aspiration was soon to be diluted. Even as Umno was being formed, the communist insurgency broke out. The communists – while multi-ethnic – were dominated by the Chinese, and the British soon feared that the exclusion of ethnic Chinese from the new federal system would push the Chinese population into the hands of the insurgents.

Umno’s founding president, Datuk Onn Jaafar, realised the predicament. The Malays had succeeded too well. Under advice from the British, he pushed for his party to be opened up to non-Malays as well. This was too much for the Malay community, which only recently had had their fear of Chinese domination evoked, and Onn resigned in anger.

In what was perhaps a chance marriage between the Malayan Chinese Association – founded to draw Chinese support away from the communists – and Umno, the Alliance coalition came into being, overwhelming Onn's new alternatives.

Kota Kinabalu City Mosque, with the steeple of a church in the foreground. Sarawakians and Sabahans, who are more at ease with diversity, should turn the table around to “Borneonise” the nation to make Malaysia work for federalism and federalism work for Malaysia.

An inclusive but unequal regime came into being. Through Malaya’s independence, most non-Malays were enfranchised while the Malays were compensated with preferential treatment in various areas, such as the awarding of scholarships, public service employments and the receiving of business permits. The Merdeka Compromises also contained two other deals which may be seen as either concessions to the minorities or arrangements to facilitate their gradual absorption by the majority. First, religious freedom is qualified such that proselytisation may only take place in one direction, namely that of Islam to non-Muslims. Non-Muslims may become Muslims, but never vice versa. Secondly, while Chinese and Tamil-medium schools are allowed, they are to be phased out through administrative disregard and budgetary deprivation. Considering that Malays are constitutionally defined through religion, language and custom, preferential treatment for them may then serve as an inducement for assimilation.

In other words, the Merdeka Compromises were a “brilliant” scheme to resolve the question of nation-building over time. However, as all stakeholders were aware of their gains and losses and were passionately fighting over rights and privileges, the debate never died down on whether the country should be a Malay (ethnic) nation-state or a Malayan (multi-ethnic) nation-state.

Datuk Onn Jaafar, founding president of Umno.

From that perspective, Project Malaysia, in the eyes of Peninsular Malaysians and their leaders, is nothing more than an expansion of the Malayan solution, profoundly affecting Malaysia’s nation-building, engulfing temporarily the Singaporeans and, until today, the Borneans.

The slogan “Malaysian Malaysia” mooted by Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) and inherited by Malaysia’s DAP after 1965 is basically a loud “Yes” to the 1946 question: we can (and must) be equal albeit different. This perhaps explains why the innocent-sounding “Malaysian Malaysia” irritated the old Malayan leadership under Tunku Abdul Rahman; it offered a sharp contrast to what Umno had always preferred but had not wanted to say outright – a Malay nation-state.

The “No” position eventually found a powerful expression in 1986 – “Ketuanan Melayu” coined by the Umno parliamentarian, Abdullah Ahmad. The word “Ketuanan” is commonly translated as “supremacy” or “dominance” but may be better understood in a “host-guest” context..

The Malayanisation of borneo

To put it bluntly, Project Malaysia was the reorganisation of post-colonial British South-East Asia (excluding Burma, which was part of British India) during the Cold War, in terms of territory, ethnic mix and ideological alignment.

The British had first managed to secure a relatively stable and pro-West Malaya under the Tunku. Singapore, which was separated from Malaya in 1946, had to be absorbed after the 1959 self-rule election accelerated the momentum towards independence, and in a way that would keep leftist elements out of government. Since Singaporean sympathy seemed uncomfortably left-leaning, independence would most probably result in a red island republic, a Cuba-US situation on a peninsula that was already fighting a communist insurgency.

While Singapore’s reunification with Malaya was necessary for the government of Malaya, Singapore and Britain, the demographic dilemma still had to be handled. One obvious answer was the three states in British Borneo. As early as 1956, Tunku had been contemplating “a Greater Federation of Malaya with Brunei, Borneo and Sarawak”. He viewed the indigenous people of the Borneo territories as “almost Malays”

The Tunku wished to include Sabah and Sarawak in the larger federation to counteract Singapore’s Chinese dominance, which was largely why the Bornean states were given a heavy overrepresentation in the Federal Parliament (25% of the seats for a mere 12% of the population) and Singapore was underrepresented (nine per cent of the seats despite near 17% of the population). One may argue that the idea of Sabah and Sarawak being “fixed deposit” states as long as the country’s electoral results were race-based was conceived from the very beginning.

The Tunku was soon unpleasantly surprised by the assertiveness of the early Bornean leaders on state rights and their sympathetic attitude to Singapore during the first two years of Malaysia. This eventually led to the federally orchestrated removal of Sabah’s first Chief Minister, Donald Stephens, in 1965 and that of his Sarawak counterpart, Stephen Kalong Ningkan, in 1966. In the case of Ningkan, KL went as far as to proclaim Emergency Rule in Sarawak so that the Federal Parliament could amend the Sarawak State Constitution and clear the procedural obstacle to his sacking.

Young Murut warrior from the Murut tribe in Sabah. The Muruts practiced headhunting up till 1945, and today, most have converted to Christianity. Fifty-one years of Malaysia have seen the Malayanisation of Sabah, and to a lesser extent, Sarawak. Dozens of ethnic groups are now reduced to three groups: Muslim Bumiputeras, non-Muslim Bumiputeras and Chinese.

To solidly control Sabah and Sarawak, KL realised that Borneans needed to be transformed socio-culturally, psychologically and politically to think like Malayans and see things through an ethno-religious lens. To begin with, Sabah and Sarawak never had the 1946 question. People could simply be different and equal. Ethnic and religious identities were not highly politicised, which explains why there were many inter-marriages and multi-faith families. Sociologically, Sabah and Sarawak were truly multi-polar societies.

The low salience of identity politics is perhaps best illustrated by the assassination of Duncan Stewart by Rosli Dobi and Moshidi Sedek. These two Malay youths sacrificed their lives hoping to install Crown Prince Anthony Brooke as their king for a free Sarawak. Rosli, Moshidi and Brooke were all Sarawakians first and foremost, despite their ethnic and religious differences.

In contrast, plagued by the 1946 question, Malaya – especially in the West Coast where Malays and non-Malays were almost comparable in size – was very much a bipolar society. Like any society with such a divisive pattern, Malayans had naturally been very uptight about their ethnic-religious identity and jealously guarded their interests. They had been extremely wary of making concessions, worried that any concession to the other party would open the floodgates for more concessions. This explains why even the word “Allah” has in most recent times raised questions of ownership.

Unfortunately, 51 years of Malaysia has seen the Malayanisation of Sabah, and to a lesser extent, Sarawak. Dozens of ethnic groups are now reduced to three groups: Muslim Bumiputeras, non- Muslim Bumiputeras and Chinese. As predominant as the Chinese are among the non-Muslims, there can eventually be a simple Muslim/non-Muslim divide in Sabah as in Malaya. From the creation of instant Malaysians out of Muslim foreigners under Project M, to induced conversion of Christian Bumiputeras to Islam, to the Sabah Mufti’s call for Muslim Bumiputeras to be categorised as Malays, one can see that all these are but part of the Malayanisation process taking place in East Malaysia.

Malaysia, not Malaya

It’s high time we move beyond the Federation of Malaya, an entity that was phased out on September 16, 1963 together with the crown colonies of Sabah and Sarawak. If there had ever been any merit to the debate about whether Malaya was meant to be a Malay nation-state or a Malayan nation-state, that debate is now over by default.

Why is that so? The answer is quite simple – because Sabah and Sarawak did not sign up to be part of a Malay nation-state. They would have declined the invitation for merger had Malayanisation been the plan. This is how we should look at current ethno-religious debates on hudud and the “Allah” ban.

Those who claim that Bahasa Melayu should be made Muslim-exclusive when it comes to matters of religion or that non-Muslims cannot object to the implementation of hudud law because the Malay territories were all under Islamic jurisdiction before the arrival of the British must remember that this does not apply at all to the case of Malaysia.

In Sabah and Sarawak, the Malay language is a multi-faith language, which is why bibles are printed in Malay. Similarly, the sultanates of Brunei and Sulu merely had nominal claims and not actual administrative structures on most parts of Sabah and Sarawak: Sabah and Sarawak were simply not Malay countries in precolonial times.

Opposing Malayanisation as the basis for national integration for the Federation of Malaysia should not be seen as a stance that is secessionist or anti-federal. On the contrary, those who insist on culturally colonising Sabah and Sarawak with Malayan ways should be seen as Malayan separatists, for their colonialist mentality will only undermine the real basis for the creation of Malaysia. They are the real “anti-federal” elements.

Sabahans and Sarawakians who are frustrated by Malayan chauvinism should not resign themselves to either the fantasy of independence or the fantasy of isolation. The former is simply impossible, given political realities, while the latter, the “leave Sabah and Sarawak alone – we don’t care what do you in Malaya” mentality is simply self-deceiving. Firstly, many Sabahans and Sarawakians are working, studying and living in West Malaysia. The half-baked solution to the “Allah” ban that “Malay language bibles are allowed in Sabah and Sarawak but not in the peninsula” is a case in point of such a fallacy, when nearly all Malay language bibles are used only by Sabahans and Sarawakians. Secondly, Sabah and Sarawak can now effectively resist further Malayanisation. The two states have after all become the king-makers in national elections.

The only way out is to go back to the basics of Malaysia’s federalism and look for reasonable solutions through the lenses of institutional design rather than through jealously calculating and guarding ethnic-religious interests. Borneans should make themselves the loudest champions of federalism. They who are more at ease with diversity should turn the table around to “Borneonise” the nation to make Malaysia work for federalism and federalism work for Malaysia.

What is federalism? What should be debated?

Federalism means having a meaningful arrangement of “shared-rule” in the hands of the national government and “self-rule” in the hands of sub-national governments. This is to ensure national unity and regional diversity, so that distinct identities and group interests may be accommodated, preserved and promoted within a larger political union.

One may also argue that federalism implies a multi-party democracy. After all, if there are free and fair elections, isn’t it likely that the national electorate on the one hand, and the electorate of a particular state on the other, would vote for totally different parties or a different collection of parties?

Inter-governmental conflicts fuelled by inter-party competition between Federal and State ruling parties must therefore be allowed. Otherwise, federalism would be non-existent. Respecting inter-party competition eliminates the need and legitimacy for separatism.

More importantly, allowing power to be dispersed means that our political system would not suffer as much as it has done from a winner-takes-all mentality, and no group or community should be overly worried of their political standing should the national government change hands. If important decisions are reserved for the state or even division (for Sabah and Sarawak) levels, then we have a greater luxury of picking and mixing parties to run the country.

Deepening federalism can therefore strengthen Malaysia, if the right balance can be struck between national integration and diversity; or inter-state competition and equity, such that we can meaningfully sustain multi-tiered governments. But that is exactly where debates need to start: how much power should be given exclusively to the federal government and how much to the states, and how much to be shared? Maximum decentralisation may not be a good thing. For example, it would simply be chaotic if defence and diplomacy were decentralised to the state governments.

Young Rungus girl. The Rungus reside primarily in northern Sabah, in the area surrounding Kudat. Traditionally animist, with female shamans, most Rungus are now Christian. In Sabah and Sarawak, the Malay language is a multi-faith language, which is why bibles are printed in Malay

So, what domains can we decentralise and what can we not? What may need to be centralised instead? We may need to look at three criteria:

(i) Efficiency – which level of government regulating and/or providing for a domain will optimise the time, cost and quality of services?

(ii) Equity – which level of government will maximise the accessibility and inclusion of citizens in such services?

(iii) Representation – how important are public participation and local responsiveness of authorities in the regulation and/or provision of services in this domain?

We then need to ask how we can facilitate democratic and productive relations between the federal government and the states. How do we promote rule-based conducts that uphold transparency, predictability and administrative neutrality? What conflict resolution mechanisms do we need to put in place?

There are no simple answers to all these questions. We may agree on the direction of federalism after half a century of suffocating centralisation, but we need to start the debate on the specificities of our federalism.

That is why Penang Institute is organising a two-day conference about “Federalism in Malaysia: Design and Practice” on September 15-16, in conjunction with the country’s 51st national celebration. We have been a federation in name for half a century. Now let’s make it a reality.

To register for the “Federalism in Malaysia: Design and Practice” conference on September 15-16, go to les/1.3-Federalism-in-Malaysia- pamphlet-write-up-ver11-20140611.pdf

1 from_the_start.html
3 Wu, Min Aun & Hickling, R. H. (2003), Hickling's Malaysian Public Law, p. 71, Petaling Jaya: Pearson Malaysia.

A political scientist by training, Dr Wong Chin Huat and his colleagues at Penang Institute try to answer the 1946 question of nation-building and multiculturalism: "can we be different yet equal?" Federalism is one of their fields of investigation.

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