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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Secession not the solution to ‘Malaysia’s problem’ – Arnold Puyok



After 51 years since the formation of Malaysia, the issue of secession has come to haunt the country once again.
While the calls for secession by some quarters in Sabah and Sarawak are not as serious as it looks in the social media, anti-federal feelings are real and growing.
It is not too late to “save” Malaysia. The federal structure was designed in such a way to preserve the uniqueness of each state in the federation.
Now, the Federation of Malaysia is said to be on the brink of collapse. The federal-state conflict in Malaysia is caused by an “ideological clash” between federal and state leaders, imbalance in centre-periphery relations, and lack of meaningful engagement between federal and state administrative officers.
Ideological clash
The ideological approach in federalism discusses the “ideological and philosophical foundation of federalism”.
Ideologies clash because of differences in language, culture and religion. Malaysia’s federal foundation is essentially driven by Malay-Muslim ideology – a “copycat” of the previous federal structure under the Federation of Malaya – even though the later federal structure (the Federation of Malaysia) was significantly altered to accommodate non-Islamic and non-Malay territories of Sabah and Sarawak.
From 1957 to 1963, efforts to “build” the country through language and education were done with a strong Malay-Muslim flavour.
With a strong federal support, Sabah’s  third chief minister Tun Mustapha Harun promoted a policy of “one language (Malay), one religion (Islam) and one culture (Malay)” as a basis for creating national solidarity in Sabah. This was opposed by many non-Muslim Sabahans.
Imbalance in centre-periphery relations
This imbalance is marked by centralisation of power by the federal government.
Under Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, for instance, the federal government would use its constitutional and political power to force the state to prioritise federal than state needs.
The federal government would “punish” stubborn state leaders who refuse to subscribe to its agenda by declaring them “persona non grata” in the country’s decision-making process and also by reducing the compulsory federal allocation to the state.
In education, school syllabi do not reflect Malaysia’s multicultural outlook. Sabah’s and Sarawak’s unique historical and cultural background were not given due consideration. On the economic front, the government’s revenue and total expenditure were dominated by the federal – 96% and 80% respectively in 1990.
Lack of engagement
Owning a satellite dish by private individuals in Sabah is one of the many thorny issues in federal-state relations.
The federal government disallowed the use of a private satellite dish without licence. Sabah counter-argued saying that the federal government was protecting Astro and was victimising Sabahans, especially those in the rural areas who did not have the means to access to information.
Licensing requirements caused unhappiness and led to perception of federal officers’ lack of sensitivity to local needs.
There is also this issue of Sabah wanting to proclaim its natural sites as World Heritage Site. But the federal government refused to support the initiative unless those sites are federalised.
Another “hot-button” issue is the state’s lack of autonomy in educational affairs.
The state has charged that it cannot manage school projects below RM500,000. Many schools, especially in rural areas, are in dire need of repairs and maintenance.
However, these are slow as state officers need to wait for approval from their federal counterparts. Work progress is also affected by delay in payment to local contractors by Putrajaya.
Clear vision of national unity and integration
The first point of the Vision 2020 is “to establish a united Malaysian nation with a sense of common and shared destiny – a nation at peace with itself, territorially and ethnically integrated, living in harmony and full and fair partnership, made up of one Bangsa Malaysia with political loyalty and dedication to the nation”.
But the questions are: how are we going to become a united Malaysian nation if we are still arguing over the year of our country’s founding? How are we to achieve the Bangsa Malaysia race if we continue to exclusively defend our rights – race, religious, and regional?
Our leaders must be extremely clear about where they want to bring Malaysia to. The concept of 1Malaysia looks ideal on paper but it has to be made workable in practice: is it a concept for the purpose of nation-building? Is it a concept for rebranding of government commercial products? Is it a concept to promote the country’s tourism industry?
Equilibrium in centre-periphery relations
It is time the federal government decentralised power as a way to lessen its dominance and to allow the state to develop independently according to its needs.
Apart from checking and balancing the power of the federal government, decentralisation, if applied effectively and judiciously, can also ensure effectiveness in public-delivery system.
Crucially, the state should be allowed to deal independently with its socio-cultural policy. Sabah and Sarawak should determine how they wish to preserve their people’s diverse culture, just like India’s “territorial linguism" and Ethiopia’s “cultural and linguistic autonomy”.
Our leaders could also enact a Territorial Integration Act to renew the commitment of federal and state leaders to abide by the Federal Constitution.
It is a kind of “oath fellowship” that can be found in Switzerland to conserve differences and diversity.
The government should also establish a constitutional court to arbiter conflict between the federal and state governments – i.e. a special court in Germany – the Federal Constitutional Court — to check against the centralising tendency of the federal government.
Before decentralisation of power can be fully implemented, a National Council of Decentralisation or National Decentralisation Commission should be established to review aspects that are over-centralised and need to be decentralised, areas that are under-centralised and need to be centralised, and to review the concept of power sharing between the federal and state governments in light of Malaysia’s multicultural make-up.
Constructive engagement
The role of the State Federal Office needs to be strengthened so that federal priorities do not clash with that of a state’s.
The government can also organise a yearly conference between federal and state administrative officers to discuss issues in implementation of federal and state programmes.
Secession threats are culminated in dissatisfactions of some sections of society. People who promote secession should be engaged in a civil and rational manner.
The government must double the efforts to increase the sense of belonging of people from various races and religions.
Malaysia is worth preserving but it also needs changing.
* Dr Arnold Puyok is a lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. TMI

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