Time for a second federation in Malaysia?


Malaysia has been blind to the adaptability of its sidelined federal heritage, and to how federalism can turbo-charge the country’s development.

Syngman Rhee at a welcoming ceremony in Seoul, Korea, October 1945.

Queen Elizabeth II.

Malaysians tend to have a very rigid notion of nationhood. Many of us like to think that there was, there is and there shall always be only one country called Malaysia, structured the way it was from the beginning. Many of us fear changes to the structure of government and the country itself, seeing changes as failures in some deep sense, and even as disloyalty to our ancestors.

In contrast, many other countries have in the course of their history taken a more nuanced understanding of themselves, and have been much the better for it.

Recognising its historical and geographical diversity, the UK sees itself as four countries: England (a kingdom), Scotland (a kingdom), Wales (a principality) and Northern Ireland (a remnant of a former kingdom), not just in football clubs, but also in official political discourses.

Not that long ago, the Irish Republican Army was still fighting a terrorist warfare to force into being an Ireland that united Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland; and Scotland is preparing for a referendum of independence next year. Neither has led any politician within the UK to talk about strengthening the position of England, protecting the ethnic Anglo-Saxons, the Anglican Church or the House of Windsor, or guarding the territorial integrity of the UK.

Another example is France. Today’s France is the Fifth Republic, which began in 1958 when President De Gaulle successfully founded a semi-presidential system via referendum to end the weak parliamentary government of the Fourth Republic that was established only 12 years earlier, in 1946 – just after the Second World War.

The latter’s predecessor, the Third Republic, thus lasted 70 years, having been formed in 1870 on the ruins of Napoleon III’s Second French Empire and lasting until the Germans invaded in 1940. The short-lived Second Republic (1848-1852) was sandwiched between Napoleon I’s First French Empire and its successive monarchies, and Napoleon III’s Second French Empire.

A painting by François Bouchot depicting Napoleon Bonaparte in the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire in Saint-Cloud.

The First Republic of France (1792-1804) was, of course, born out of the fires of the French Revolution and ended with the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Unlike in France, republicanism in South Korea was truncated, not with the restoration of monarchies or through foreign invasion, but by military juntas. The First Republic was a presidentialism under the strongman rule of Syngman Rhee, which began when the American occupation ended in 1948, and which fell under the weight of pro-democracy protests. Lasting eight months, the parliamentary government in the succeeding Second Republic was toppled by a military coup led by Park Chung Hee in 1961. The subsequent Third Republic enjoyed 12 years of civilian rule under President Park Chung Hee who later retired from the military. 1972 to 1981 were the years of the Fourth Republic, most of which was Park’s dictatorship. Its final years featured Park’s assassination in 1979 and the bloody crackdown of the Gwangju Democratic Uprising in 1980. The Fifth Republic (1981-1987) was marked by the strongman rule of General Chun Doo-Hwan who ruled as president. The South Korea we know today is the Sixth Republic which embarked on democratisation under civilian rule in 1987.

Park Chun Hee (second from the left) at the 1966 Manila Conference of Seato nations on the Vietnam War.

Republic of Korea President Chun Doo Hwan (centre) on a tour of military equipment in 1983.

The Mangwol-dong cemetery in Gwangju, where victims of the Gwangju massacre are buried.

KL city.

Numbering the different stages of a polity helps citizens recognise changes over time: changes in governmental form or basis in the case of South Korea, and changes in both governmental form/basis and international boundary in the case of France.

This is now the 50th year of the Federation of Malaysia. How should we number the polity which has had KL as its capital since 1946?

We have had two boundary changes – first in 1963, when Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak became Malaysia, then again two years later when Singapore left Malaysia.

For all the 50 years since 1963, we were and still are the First Federation, a federation that actually has its basic structure from 1948. The thought games we should cogently play are to ask: In what ways did and does the Malayan model of 1948 fit the Malaysia that appeared in 1963, and in what ways did and does it not? Should we stay with this First Federation for another 50 years, or should we chart a Second Federation?

The answers to such questions can inspire us to find new solutions to many of our national dilemmas, and make us economically more effective and politically more comfortable.

The twins of 1948: Unmo’s hegemony and federalism

While its seed can be traced to the Federated Malay States (1895-1946) which was united through the British administration of the four mineral-rich states of Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang, the Federation of Malaya was really born out of the stillbirth of the Malayan Union (1946-1948).

The Malayan Union, which substituted the post-war British Military Administration, was fiercely opposed by a large portion of the Malay community. This was for two reasons. First, it theoretically turned the nine Malay states from two loose groups of protectorates advised by British Residents into a unitary colony under a British Governor-General. Secondly, the Malayan Union adopted a liberal immigration policy that would allow most non-Malays to be enfranchised. Through that process, it was feared that they would outnumber the Malays in the near future. Procedure-wise, the Malays were also unhappy that the British forced their sultans to accept the new polity under threat of dethronement for collaborating with the Japanese in World War II.

The replacement of the Malayan Union marks two significant developments: the establishment of Umno as the defining force in national politics and federalism as the way different levels of governments are organised.

The fierce opposition to the Malayan Union brought Malay groups from north to south together and gave birth to Umno under the leadership of Datuk Onn Jaafar of Johor.

The replacement of the Malayan Union by the Federation of Malaya in 1948 marks two significant developments: the firm establishment of Umno as the defining force in national politics and federalism as the way different levels of governments are organised.

Umno’s prescribed role for itself became dominant – that the country was a nation-state defined by the Malays of which the party was the representative. The bigger picture was that Malaya /Malaysia is the successor of the Malacca Sultanate that fell to the Portuguese way back in 1511.

Two events then forced Umno to dilute its ethno-nationalism right after its success in 1948: the traumatic communist insurgency and the traumatic exit of Onn Jaafar in 1951. Led disproportionately by ethnic Chinese, the communist insurgency, which would officially end only 41 years later, forced the British to demand inter-communal cooperation amongst the elites of the different communities. It also resulted in the birth and growth of MCA, initially a welfare association set up to help the Chinese resettle in new villages that were created to prevent communist infiltration. Against that background, Onn, as party president, called for Umno to open its membership to non-Malays in 1950. After other Umno leaders rejected his call twice, he left the party to form what he thought would be the multi-ethnic party he had wanted Umno to become. The competition between Umno and this new party – the Independence of Malaya Party – forced into being the apparently accidental Umno-MCA pact that was formed to contest in the 1952 KL municipal election. The success of this coalition encouraged the foundation of the tripartite Alliance with MIC, which within two decades expanded to become BN, and which has 13 component parties today.

The outcome of these early events is what may be called “inclusive ethnocracy”. While ethnic minorities are accepted into the nation-building process, the ethnic Malays become more than first-amongst-equals. They are to be accepted as the host (tuan) who kindly extend their hospitality to others, although the unhappy term “Ketuanan Melayu” (commonly translated as Malay Supremacy) now used to express this attitude, was coined as late as in 1986.

New York.

The logic of federalism

The second development is of course the establishment of a federation, instead of a unitary state. In principle, the function of federalism is for the accommodation of differences and diversity. For Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart, for example, democracy can take two major forms: majoritarian and consensus. The former is normally found in homogeneous countries where social divisions do not run deep, and society can afford to have very vigorous partisan politics and winner-takes-all outcomes. In contrast, in countries with deep cleavages, power-sharing and compromises are necessary to hold the country together. The common characteristics of consensus democracy hence may include federalism, a proportional representation electoral system, multi-partisanship and a coalition government.

A good example of federalism as a means to manage diversity would be India, the world’s largest democracy. India is secular despite having a Hindu-majority population. Although 74% of Indians speak Hindi or a related language in the Indo-Aryan family, India has 21 other official languages at the state level besides Hindi and English as the first and second official languages nationwide. Incidentally, the number of Indian states and territories has exploded from 20 in 1960 to 35 today – with the last three created in 2000 – mainly to overcome ethno-regional conflicts.

By breaking larger states into smaller ones, different ethnic groups get to rule themselves separately, often getting rewarded with greater socioeconomic upward mobility if their mother tongue becomes the official language at the state level. While outsiders may think this messy, India has successfully converted the site of secessionist pressures – with the exception of Kashmiris, Sikhs and North-Easterners – from international borders into inter-state borders.

Even relatively homogeneous countries can benefit from decentralisation. In the US, for example, if you want minimum taxation and regulation, you should consider moving to North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, New Hampshire or Oklahoma even if they might be geographically out of your way. On the other hand, if you believe in greater government intervention in the economy, your best choices could be Rhode Island, Hawaii, New Jersey, California or New York. In Australia, the states control many domains including health and education, and share power with the Commonwealth (the federal government) on matters such as policing.

Federalism – or more accurately, decentralisation – both manages diversity and facilitates competition. So why can’t Malaysia – a federation since birth – reap the inherent benefits of federalism? This is not just because our states are not organised along real fault lines or cannot be, as in India, reorganised to be so. Competition can come into being even between culturally homogeneous states, such as in the cases of Kelantan and Terengganu, if state governments have more access to funds to run their own matters.

Malaysian states unfortunately have real power only in three substantial matters: land, local government and Islam. Worse still, 94% of the public revenue is collected and used by the federal government while the 13 states share the remaining six per cent among themselves.

Why can’t Malaysia – a federation since birth – reap the inherent benefits of federalism?

What’s wrong with our First Federation?

The idealism in federalism lies in the realisation that one size cannot fit all, while the notion that drives ethno-nationalism is uniformity. In their full form, federalism and ethno-nationalism are incompatible and cannot but clash.

In Malaysia, while power is heavily concentrated, the power-sharing function of federalism to accommodate demands of different groups is taken over by the intra-coalition mechanism of BN. After all, the rule of the game is that while ethnic tensions do not go out of fashion in Malaysia, neither do they go out of control. Ethnic minorities may feel marginalised but they are not actually suppressed. This largely lessens the demand for true decentralisation.

But what is more interesting is that the federal model arguably helps preserve the ethnocratic model Umno introduced in 1946-1948. The Federation of Malaya/Malaysia is, at least in theory, a liberal democracy. In contrast, the Malay states are ethnocracies, at least in a legal sense, and the chief executive of the states has to be ethnic Malay. Recent calls for preserving the federal premiership for ethnic Malays are in that sense only expanding state-level ethnocratic sentiments to the national level.

Above and beyond the ethnic criterion of governorship, the greatest significance of the “Malay ethnocracy” discourse is in Islamisation. Many Islamists would argue that the establishment of an Islamic state would be but a restoration of the pre-colonial order, conveniently ignoring that Malaysia is not Malaya.

Christ Church in Malacca.

Successor of British Nusantara, not Malacca Sultanate

To appreciate correctly the complexity that is Malaysia, there is a need to discard the Malaya-centric – more precisely Malacca-Straits-centric – view of history. The standpoint of the Malayan West Coast must be seen to be erroneous or at least incomplete and misguided.

Malaysia is not the successor of the Malacca Sultanate or of its successor, the Johor-Riau Sultanate. While Malacca was unquestionably the largest Malay kingdom after Srivijaya to dominate the Malay Peninsula, Malaysia enveloped an area whose history covers much more than just Malacca. Kedah, for example, is much older than Malacca. Even in the history of Islamisation, Terengganu came before Malacca. And Kelantan was beyond the reach of Malacca’s sultans. Rigorously preserving their cultural identity under the suzerainty of Siam, the northern Malay states – which once included Pattani and Satun – were remarkably different from their brethren in the south and in Sumatra.

Kundasang, Sabah.

Across the South China Sea, Sabah and Sarawak were never protectorates or colonies of the Malaccans. Their overlords – and that term has to be used in a very loose sense – were Brunei and Sulu. The three regions that form Malaysia today – the historically diverse Malaya plus Sabah and Sarawak – have very different pre-colonial histories.

In all correctness, therefore, one should duly recognise Malaysia as the successor state of “British Nusantara”. Granted, the British did not use the word Nusantara, but when World War II ended, the British had six territories in South-East Asia. Other than Burma, the other five – Malaya, Singapore, Brunei, Sarawak and North Borneo – were adjunct territories with many commonalities.

While we need not agree with the accusation of Neo-Colonialism used by Indonesia’s founding president Soekarno and others at the creation of Malaysia, the country was really meant to be a federation of former British colonies in the Nusantara. Along the way, Brunei turned down the idea, preferring to stay as a British protectorate until 1984. Singapore and Malaysia of course parted in 1965, leaving only three member regions in Malaysia.

Tin mining in Batu Gajah, Perak.

We cannot tell our national history fairly and correctly unless we talk about how the ancient kingdoms and minor states in the area evolved through the pre-colonial to the colonial age into the three regions, how there was a struggle for decolonisation and, finally, how the country’s destiny was charted after 1963.

Sociologically, a Malaya-centric historical view and self-image poses a further problem – the reproduction of communal politics. Accustomed to the cordial but distant ethnic relations in the Malayan west coast states, which are bipolar societies with two main blocs jealously guarding their own interests, inhabitants on the peninsula – when visiting East Malaysia – are often pleasantly surprised by how different ethnic groups there dine together and mingle harmoniously. And one needs only to remember that Malay-language bibles are never a problem in Borneo where they are widely used.

That’s the beauty of a multi-polar society. Imagine what a transformation Sarawak and Sabah could have offered Malaysia in 1963. But instead of humbly learning from the East Malaysian states, Peninsular Malaysians could not wait to impose their own will and their own limited understanding of statehood on Borneo. Even more sadly, over time, we have seen how Sabah politics has slowly moved towards the peninsular bipolar race-based model. To gain the upper hand in the ethnic number game, there is much evidence showing that even foreigners are enfranchised purely on the religious criterion.

It is time for all Malaysians to seriously and boldly rethink our federalism, and take full advantage of a model that carries great potential for economic growth.

A business of all Malaysians, not just an agenda of Borneo

It is therefore time for all Malaysians to seriously and boldly rethink our federalism, and take full advantage of a model that carries great potential for economic growth. The Federal Constitution of Malaysia of 1963 was unfortunately just a revision of the Federal Constitution of Malaya of 1957 with appendix provisions for the states of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak. That’s why it comes out short on many aspects. After all, the two most important safeguards to protect the autonomy and interests of the Borneo states have both failed their tasks. The power of immigration control allows Taib Mahmud and Musa Aman –the rulers of Sarawak and Sabah respectively – to deport peninsular activists, but fails completely to turn away illegal Filipino and Indonesian immigrants. Meanwhile, the over-representation of East Malaysians in the federal parliament has allowed East Malaysian leaders within the ruling coalition to demand more power and perks after 2008, without thought for any trickledown effect that can benefit their constituents in the inland areas.

Kuching, Sarawak.

In this sense, going back to Sabah’s 20 points and Sarawak’s 18 points by some East Malaysian politicians and activists is reactive rather than proactive, unimaginative rather than visionary.

It is time to phase out the First Federation that has been in place since 1948, and chart a Second Federation that truly embraces the spirit of federalism and that offers optimal and commensurate decentralisation for all states. For the regions of Sabah and Sarawak, one can even consider a lower-level federal structure within them with autonomous units for the weaker indigenous groups, such as an Orang Ulu Autonomous Division or an Illanun Autonomous District – to stop the looting, plundering and marginalisation of these regions by elites in Kuching and Kota Kinabalu.

At 50, it is time for Malaysia to come of age and leave its childhood behind.

A political scientist by training, Wong Chin Huat is a fellow at the Penang Institute and a Bersih 2.0 steering committee member. One of his recent hobbies is walking on the streets without notifying the police.

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