Reconceptualising federalism

By Azly Rahman

“… Democratic and aristocratic states are not in their own nature free. Political liberty is to be found only in moderate governments; and even in these it is not always found. It is there only when there is no abuse of power. But constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go. Is it not strange, though true, to say that virtue itself has need of limits? …

“To prevent this abuse, it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power. A government may be so constituted, as no man shall be compelled to do things to which the law does not oblige him, nor forced to abstain from things which the law permits … .” – Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, Book XI

Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories – Thomas Jefferson, philosopher, statesman, third American president

The current war over the contentious slogan of 1Malaysia, the semiotic battle for the heart and mind of Malaysians over that propagandic tool called 1Malaysia is beginning to rage as yet another development of a general election 13 style of campaigning.

The “Yellow States of Pakatan Rakyat” as I called it, as opposed to “Blue States of Barisan Nasional” (following its association with something called ‘blue ocean strategy’) interests me. At issue, especially circa Perak constitutional crisis and Kelantan oil-royalty claim is the question of the powers of federalism.

How much can Putrajaya subdue these states at the time when the leaders of the Yellow states are seeing the history of the abuse of power of the federal government when it comes to control, domination, divide, and conquer?

The issue of federalism has been around since the early formations of the modern republic. The problem of separation and consolidation of powers have been discussed as early as the writings of Montesquie (see The Spirit of Laws) and early Enlightenment thinkers.

America experimented on it quite well with the philosophy of the formation of the republic, the debate over Bill of Rights, and the writing of The Federalist Papers, Albany Plan, New Jersey Plan, and a relatively stable and reasonable number of amendments to the Constitution particularly the Ninth Amendment, in regard to the issue of centralisation and decentralisation, etc.

Tension of federalism

George Lucas’ Star Wars movie is about this tension of federalism, a very “American sci-fi movie rooted in Americanism”.

Thomas Jefferson did a fine job conceptualising America as a society that is rooted in individualism yet based in prioritising the needs of society – he in fact envisioned a “pastoral, romantic, agricultural America” and not Benjamin Franklin’s “big business, big banks, entrepreneurial America”.

In Malaysia, as long as the current political paradigm prevails, the issue of centralisation and decentralisation will prevail – as long as it is not a republic of virtue, ethics, and progress conceived as how America was.

This might be the single most relevant political-philosophical reality Malaysia is confronted with. America was a colony; it deposed King George and declared itself independent with social contract written well thought of.

As long as the current Malaysian ruling regime do not make a conscious effort to make radical amendments to the question of equality and equal opportunity with regard to the rights of all the races – rights to get access to economic and social services, quality education and advancement via scholarships, etc. – Malaysia will still be grappling with issues rooted in race, ethnicity, and even religion.

Come general election 13 and the possibility of a denying of a two-thirds majority of the current regime, the issue of concentration of power will see some light of resolution. Maybe a stalemate and a period of chaos reigning for some time will be naturally and historically necessary for any nation to “start from Year Zero”. After all, the march of history cannot be stopped when an idea has come to fruition and the system renews itself.

Maybe the emergence of a Thomas Jefferson in Malaysia with the idea of “all Malaysians are created equal endowed by their creator the inalienable rights …” will wake Malaysians up to rise against the current regime to be dismantled and a better system of execution of laws to be done – so that the central is not dictatorial based on the fascist concept of ketuanan Melayu (ultra-Malayness idiotic pride) rooted in some mythical neo-feudalistic construct only a despotic regime is clinging on to.

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Tuesday, 28 December 2010 - 1:28 pm

    Its not as simple debate as it seem. The cry against centralization of power in Federal hand is based on the fact that the Federal Govt has been abused to dangerous level and trying to change things from the ground up seems insurmountable because of the centralization of power.

    If you examine it more closely, the state powers have been abused even more and more widely given its limited resource. Look at Terengganu and how its oil money have been so heavily abused for decades. Sarawak and its resources and Sabah too. ALL of them have budget deficit despite their rich resources and federal help.

    And its not just Malaysia – look at all models of Federalism and you will see that local authorities abuse their power actually even more because they play the same political game that national politicians does but they lack the resources and hence more desperate if they are abusers.

    If we are to devolve federal power, it must come with strong checks and balance, independent bodies of audits that are not under state powers – states need to be subject to even higher accountability.

    That is why what has been done by Khalid Ibrahim and LGE is not to be sneeze at. Their personal accountability cannot be matched by national level politicians because national level politicians can get away with more. People really should learn to respect these people who do things right at the state level as they are harder to do and they do it purely because of personal accountability

  2. #2 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 28 December 2010 - 3:50 pm

    Yes, our system of federalism, esp in case of a second layer of 4 state governments of “yellow states” controlled by Opposition is a kind of check and balance as against powers of BN’s federal/national government ala Montesquieu’s principle of separation of powers.

    However our concern is that whilst maintaining this “separation of powers” via Federalism, the states controlled by Opposition may, in leveraging powers vis-à-vis the Central govt be used to facilitate Islamisation agenda of the kind advocated by PAS.

    In late December 2008, after then Pas vice-president Datuk Husam Musa said the party had never forgotten its struggle to bring about an Islamic administration in the country, including implementing hudud if the opposition alliance came to power.

    More recently, the debate was renewed by a call from Pas spiritual leader Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat to implement hudud laws to rein in cases of baby dumping and other social problems. The concern here is that whilst 2 other Pakatan Rakyat’s partners (PKR & DAP) do not seem to mind, as long as Pas does not propound such theocratic ideals on the PR coalition’s platform – ie Common Policy Framework (CPF) – PAS may seek to implement the syariah criminal laws (hudud and qisas) in (say) Kelantan under the pretext of Federalism of checking the powers of the Central Govt. It will be recalled Hadi tried it before in Terengganu (whilst its under PAS with Federal refusing to enforce those laws).

    Now in a bid to check Federal Govt’s powers or abuse of powers in not providing sufficient financial allocations to PR controlled states, Selangor MB Khalid Ibrahim expresses the idea of implementing a zakat system in Selangor in consultation with religious scholars. “The state and federal government have agreed that the zakat payment can be considered as income tax payment so when they pay RM2,000 to the fund, then they can deduct the same amount from their income tax and the zakat will stay in the state,” he said. [Zakat is a religious tax for charity which is obligatory for Muslims].
    Khalid is considering a system where income tax would be deducted straight from the salary and channelled into a trustee fund or “a Baitulmal” which will be solely used for state development. He said that those who contribute to the fund will be exempted from paying income tax to the federal government. Khalid also plans to also introduce this scheme to non-Muslims. “During the glorious age of Islam, non-Muslims during that period could also pay zakat to the baitulmal. The zakat will be collected into one fund and the fund will be used for development,” he added. (reference -The Malaysian Insider
    By Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani July 13 2009)

    The question here is should we be concerned that under Federalism of opposition states supposedly checking Federal govt, States themselves controlled by PR enter into such institutional arrangements of religious connotations like a “a Baitulmal” to which Non muslims will contribute in lieu of taxes to Federal govt, and whether this is part of the creeping Islamisation process that PR controlled states also partake notwithstanding their “New politics” supposedly not bias in favour of race and religion.

  3. #3 by Jeffrey on Tuesday, 28 December 2010 - 3:52 pm

    It is also little comfort and a measure of concern that in another tussle with Central Govt over Kampung Bharu – where Central wants to pass the Kampung Baru Development Corporation Bill 2010 and replace the Malay Agricultural Settlement Administration Board (“MAS”) by some corporation (GLC) run by 15 member advisory board to administer Kampung Baru – PAS Titiwangsa MP Dr Lo’ Lo’ Ghazali has come out to object and to warn “that the non-Malays would take over ownership of the Kampung Baru Malay enclave here once MAS is dissolved next year.

    She accused Umno and Barisan Nasional of attempting to erode Malay land ownership rights in Kampung Baru by destroying century-old laws that were enacted during the British colonial rule.

    “Their calls for Malay Supremacy are merely rhetorics and only protect the rights of those in Umno. We want ‘ketuanan rakyat’ (people supremacy) which is based on Islamic values,” she said. (Reference – The MalaysianInsider report by Syed Mu’az Syed Putra December 28, 2010)

    What say you DAP that ketuanan rakyat’ (people supremacy) is per Dr Lo’ Lo’ Ghazali based on “ Islamic values”?

    Are we substituting racial values of BN’s Ketuanan Melayu for Islamic values of PR’s ketuanan rakyat, to be progressively implemented in stages in PR controlled yellow states under so called principles of reconceptualising Federalism (separation of powers) with a peep into things to come if PR controls central govt ???

  4. #4 by limkamput on Tuesday, 28 December 2010 - 4:30 pm

    It is not just federalism or decentralisation; it is not just racial inequality; it is not just Islam or secularism. It is whether or not we are a democracy in spirit and in substance. No drafter of laws or framers of constitutions can foresee everything or can anticipate if some parties have decided to play “dirty” by adhering to the words but not the essence or the substance of the constitution. We said the federal government is racist but do we have the reason why it is so? Is it for the economic enhancement of certain community, or is it for the ruling elites to gain and sustain power under this pretext? I think you know the answer better. On the contrary, I think I can understand MP Dr. Lo Lo. It is Islamic values for the interests of the people, not the ruling elites. So to that extend, I am willing to go along.

  5. #5 by Loh on Tuesday, 28 December 2010 - 4:30 pm

    ///It is also little comfort and a measure of concern that in another tussle with Central Govt over Kampung Bharu – where Central wants to pass the Kampung Baru Development Corporation Bill 2010 and replace the Malay Agricultural Settlement Administration Board (“MAS”) by some corporation (GLC) run by 15 member advisory board to administer Kampung Baru – PAS Titiwangsa MP Dr Lo’ Lo’ Ghazali has come out to object and to warn “that the non-Malays would take over ownership of the Kampung Baru Malay enclave here once MAS is dissolved next year.///

    Yes, the Malay reserve land should remain that. If they want to respect the old law enacted by the British, then respect it in full. The British chose the land to be Malay reserve. So if Malays cannot develop it, they should make it forest reserve, and let it stay as it is. There is no shortage of land, in the jungle. It is better to develop new land without the problems of not having paid full respect to British. Yet they complain that the British ill treated them and for that they extracted pounds of flesh from others through NEP.

  6. #6 by Loh on Tuesday, 28 December 2010 - 4:38 pm

    The Chief secretary is a government servant and not an elected official. He may have the authority to assign his officers to any federal department, when there is no objection from the Prime Minister. Similarly, he can assign officers to serve in the state. The elected representatives headed by the Chief Minister have the right to reject the appointment.

    It appears that the chief secretary of the government is himself not clear that civil servants are neutral to political parties when he appointed a religious department official to serve as the state secretary of Selangor. There certainly are other better candidates with relevant experience for that job.

  7. #7 by cemerlang on Tuesday, 28 December 2010 - 4:50 pm

    But constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go.

    Agreed. God is you. Satan is also you.

  8. #8 by sotong on Tuesday, 28 December 2010 - 6:18 pm

    We do not have capable and good leaders for decades….unless there is a huge crisis facing the country, nothing significant is going to change.

    Everyone is for himself/herself.

  9. #9 by monsterball on Tuesday, 28 December 2010 - 6:20 pm

    hhhhhhhmmmm UMNO B started with…”Efficient..Clean and Trustworthy”
    Now is “1 Malaysia” ‘People Now. Performance First”
    Both PMs..first class liars ..
    You want to talk about our Govt?
    Waste of time.

  10. #10 by dagen on Wednesday, 29 December 2010 - 9:25 am

    Federalism is all about government and how the component parts of the federal body co-exist and share ruling powers. It has little to do with the people, strictly, unlike say democracy (something which we all want to see in malaysia).

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