By Liew Chin Tong
The proposal by Federal Territories Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor to federalise Penang, Selangor, Kedah’s Langkawi Island, Pahang’s Tioman Island, and parts of Malacca goes against the spirit of federalism as enshrined in the constitution. It also goes against the historical trend of decentralisation and democratisation in the region.
Scholar Francis Hutchinson notes that the Malaysian system was “(d)esigned as a federal system, it has a collection of state governments with elected leaders. However, rather than rescaling power to a lower level, it has proceeded to relocate power upwards, from the state to the national level.”
We need to reverse these trends to empower state governments with more resources to provide for ordinary citizens.
We need to revisit some of the institutional arrangements and practices that go against the spirit of the constitution. We must make immediate corrections to create a set of institutions that reflect the aspirations of the people of Sabah, Sarawak, Penang, Johor, Kelantan and other states to have more autonomy at the state level.
These are my proposals:
1. Abolish the Federal Territories Ministry, and instead form a ‘state government’ for Kuala Lumpur
In 2017, the Federal Territories Ministry was allocated a RM1.16 billion budget. What does the ministry do? It merely duplicates and meddles in the work of Kuala Lumpur City Hall (DBKL). The Labuan Corporation and Putrajaya Corporation are also under the ministry’s watch. DBKL’s budget for 2017 is RM2.87 billion, which is the highest among the sub-national governments in the Peninsula, with the exception of Selangor (RM3.5 billion).
Like all other states in Malaysia, citizens who are also ratepayers in Kuala Lumpur deserve to have a second vote for their state government beyond voting for Members of Parliament.
In Australia and India, whose constitutions and federal systems Malaysia emulated and adopted, there are elected governments and chief ministers in Canberra (Australian Capital Territory) and Delhi (the Government of National Capital Territory). In fact, with less than 400,000 residents, Canberra has a very small population compared to Kuala Lumpur.
Lest we forget, Kuala Lumpur was carved out from Selangor as a Federal Territory in 1974 for Barisan Nasional’s political objective of disenfranchising the voters who were seen as inclined towards the opposition.
It is time to revisit that historical mistake. A state government with forty state seats can be a starting point for redesigning of our institutions.
2. Abolish Federal Action Councils in Penang, Selangor and Kelantan
After the fall of Kelantan to PAS and Semangat 46 in 1990, and the victory of Pakatan Rakyat in Penang and Selangor in 2008, the Barisan Nasional government formed Federal Action Councils to channel money and construction projects through BN politicians, and to compete with elected state governments.
At present, Penang Umno state chairman Zainal Abidin Osman, Selangor Umno state chairman Noh Omar and Kelantan state chairman Mustapa Mohamad are leaders of their respective state’s Federal Action Councils, bodies financed by taxpayers.
Clearly, such bodies are backdoor political vehicles for Umno, thinly disguised as a government structure. It is in contempt of voters’ choice in these states during the election. They should be abolished.
3. Abolish federal secretaries for Sabah and Sarawak
With rising demands for autonomy in Sabah and Sarawak, it is high time the federal government recognises that Sabah and Sarawak do not need federal secretaries watching over them, just as British residents and advisers did during colonial times.
The Office of Federal Secretary for Sabah was allocated a budget of RM4.5 million in 2017 while for Sarawak the office costs RM5.8 million. There is clearly no need for a British resident-like position for Sabah and Sarawak.
4. Return Labuan to Sabah
The annexation of Labuan from Sabah in 1984 which partly contributed to the fall of the Berjaya state government by Harris Salleh in the 1985 state election is yet another historical mistake that must be corrected. Harris has since expressed his regret over the annexation of Labuan.
I believe these four suggestions can counter Tengku Adnan’s proposal which is not only archaic but also dangerous in the long term. In Malaysia’s “federal territory”, everything is run by the Umno-BN government, without any voice from the people, whether the voters or the Opposition. For example, the mayor or datuk bandar of DBKL is not elected, and therefore not answerable to the people, as he or she is appointed by the federal government.
Tengku Adnan’s idea of annexing Penang and turning it into a federal territory deserves to be condemned. It is a form of “power grabbing”. To fight against his ill-intentioned attempt, we must realise that devolution of powers work best in a genuine democracy. This will restore a democracy where we put people first, not a kleptocratic or authoritarian regime.
Liew Chin Tong is DAP National Political Education Director and MP for Kluang.-FMT