A German lesson for Malaysia

by Zairil Khir Johari
Jun 27, 2014

Zairil Khir Johari draws similarities between Germany and Malaysia but finds how Germany’s system of federalism is efficiently decentralised and embedded with check-and-balance mechanisms at every level.

I WAS in Berlin when I came across Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield. And no, it wasn’t because of his creative space recording of David Bowie’s 1969 hit single, Space Oddity, which generated more than 22 million YouTube views before it was removed recently following the expiry of its copyright term.

Instead, Hadfield, who is also well known for having a keen photographic eye, happened to be in the headlines for a particularly poignant photograph he had taken of Berlin from space.

The now famous shot, taken at night from the International Space Station, illustrates a cobweb of lights with a bright white core radiating from the heart of the city where the government quarter lies.

Sprouting out from that core, the picture takes an interesting twist. The entire western half of the web is peppered with bright white lights, while the eastern half emanates softer, yellow glows. Two contrasting halves: one white and bright, one yellow and dim.

Although 24 years has passed since the reunification of Germany in 1990, the legacy of one of Europe’s greatest divisions could not have been clearer than in that photograph.

The separation of colours as seen from space is not simply the result of two different town-planning approaches, but rather the remains of what was a horrific war and decades of bitter separation.

This historical experience was evident throughout my many interactions during my week-long working visit to Germany. In almost every briefing and discussion with officials and legislators, whether at the state (Landtag) or federal (Bundestag and Bundesrat) level, there was always a sense of a large chip weighing down their shoulders. This was especially true of older Germans.

One of the key aims of my visit was to learn about the German political and legislative systems, as well as the division of powers between the different branches and tiers of government. In these areas, I found that Malaysia and Germany have many things in common. Yet, at the same time, we are also quite dissimilar in the very same areas that we share commonalities.

Take, for example, the structural makeup of our two countries. Malaysia and Germany are both federations made up of constituent federal states. In Malaysia, we have 13 states and three federal territories (Kuala Lumpur, Labuan and Putrajaya).

Germany also has 13 states and three city-states (Bremen, Hamburg and Berlin). Both countries practise a three-tier government system — federal, state and municipal.

Also, contrary to one’s instinctive opinion, Germany is also a relatively young democracy, sharing with Malaysia a post-war foundation that forms the basis for the modern polities that exist in both countries today.

Non-negotiable separation of powers

However, the structural similarities between our two countries are just that — merely similarities in structure. Germany’s system of federalism, unlike our grossly over-centralised aberration, is efficiently decentralised and embedded with check-and-balance mechanisms at every level.

Underlying the German Republic is a written constitution known as the Basic Law (Grundgesetz) of Germany. Instituted after the war in 1949, the Basic Law was crafted with the clear intention of ensuring that a potential dictator could never again monopolise power.

As such, the values of human rights and human dignity, as well as the principles of democracy, republicanism, social responsibility and federalism, were fused together as immutable elements of the Basic Law. These key components are entrenched in what is known as the “Eternity Clause” of Article 79(3) of the Basic Law and cannot be removed, repealed or amended by normal legislative process.

There is no doubt that this clear and non-negotiable separation of powers is shaped by the historical experience of Germany. Following two devastating wars, systematic genocide and the (very legitimate) rise to power of arguably the most notorious dictator of all time, there was a dire need to ensure that history never repeated itself.

The thinking behind this was carefully explained to us by the president of the Berlin state parliament during our visit to his august house: “During the time of the National Socialists [the Nazi Party], the executive dominated everything. Every other branch of government, including the legislative body, was sidelined. Hence, a clear and irreversible pact that made clear the division of powers had to be made.”

Besides the permanent guarantees enshrined in the Basic Law, the legislative branch was also created in such a way as to ensure a fair degree of checks and balances. Therefore, the German Parliament is composed of two bodies — the Bundestag, whose membership is elected directly, and the Bundesrat, which is composed of delegates from each state government.

As a result, the law-making process in Germany has to follow a strict procedure of obtaining approval from both the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, with the latter holding powerful veto rights over legislation.

In Malaysia, the Dewan Negara or Senate was originally meant to play a similar role in representing the interests of the various states against the Dewan Rakyat. However, its membership has since been diluted to the point that state-elected senators are now outnumbered almost two to one by federally appointed senators.

At the same time, the Senate holds no effective veto power, as a rejection only means a delay of one year before it is sent to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong for royal assent (where there is also no room for veto).

The same check-and-balance mechanism holds true for other areas in Germany as well. In a discussion with a cross-partisan group of legislators from the Brandenburg state parliament, it was explained to us that power in areas such as education, media and law enforcement is decentralised to the states so that “there would never again be a central government that is able to wield total control over the mental development of young Germans, disseminate their propaganda at will, or use the police to terrorise the people”.

Another area that I found quite interesting was the German model of fiscal distribution. Unlike in Malaysia where the cumulative total of all state budgets make up about 6% of the federal budget, there is a clear revenue-sharing formula in Germany that ensures equitable growth among the states. In addition, there is even a financial equalisation scheme that effectively makes richer, more developed states contribute to the development of poorer, less-developed regions.

Of course, no system is without its flaws. Debates abound about whether there is too much decentralisation in certain areas. For example, the highly decentralised nature of education has resulted in states having vastly different standards in schools. At the same time, richer states are also beginning to question the need to continue subsidising poorer ones, while the Bundestag-Bundesrat dynamic also occasionally results in legislative stalemates.

Consensus-driven politics

Another interesting aspect of the Germany polity that I came across is encapsulated in the phrase “consensus-driven politics”, in which political decision-making is predicated upon the consensual agreement of all parties concerned.

The personification of this feature is the third-term Chancellor herself, Angela Merkel, who is today the leader of a robust government referred to as the Grand Coalition, an alliance of two parties that are not only the two largest, but also the two with the most opposing ideologies. Combined, the Grand Coalition of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats command 504 out of 631 seats in the Bundestag.

Even more interesting is the process of creating the Grand Coalition, which took two to three months to materialise following last year’s general election. Before either side could shake hands, an internal process of consensus building had to be conducted, in which both parties ratified a 185-page coalition agreement through internal party referendums.

At a more micro level, my discussions with a senior government official revealed that even Cabinet meetings and parliamentary agendas are usually agreed to in advance. Nothing appears on the Cabinet agenda, said the official who occasionally sits in on such meetings, unless a decision has already been agreed upon beforehand.

This penchant for consensus building, I was told, stems from the Germans’ dislike for open political discord. Instead, they prefer their politicians to settle matters behind closed doors before presenting their views to the public. While some may put it down to political culture, I see it as another direct corollary of Germany’s traumatic war experience and subsequent separation. As a result, negotiation is infinitely preferred over conflict.

It does not matter who is in power

Today, no one can deny that Germany has become Europe’s economic powerhouse, characterised by trend-bucking growth figures, healthy employment and income levels, as well as a social system that more than adequately caters for its citizens’ welfare.

Yet, at the same time, it can be argued that most of Germany’s current success would not have been possible were it not for a system that provides for political stability and bureaucratic efficiency.

Somehow, it all ties back to Germany’s historical experience. As heavy as the chip on the shoulder is, the fact is that it has somehow forced German society to agree upon a socio-political compact that, at least on paper, ensures dignity for its citizens, accountability in governance, and enough safeguards to guarantee the immutability of its key principles.

As one senior German academic said to me during a discussion: “The system in Germany is constructed such that no matter what happens or who is in power, it matters not to the German people. This is because everyone has to play by the same rules. And these rules are non-negotiable.”

Zairil Khir Johari is executive director of the Penang Institute and MP for Bukit Bendera

  1. #1 by boh-liao on Friday, 27 June 2014 - 5:35 pm

    “Both countries practise a three-tier government system — federal, state and municipal.” – This is where d similarities (superficial) end.
    Don’t forget, we have royalties, ultra-racist groups, race n religion, NEP, divide n rule practices, etc
    No German lesson will ever work in M’sia cos we r fundamentally very different

  2. #2 by Noble House on Saturday, 28 June 2014 - 4:15 am

    Democracy is a type of government characterized by a “rule of the people.” In most democracies, citizens are equal and have the ability to vote for their political leaders.

    Well. you may be right, if you think you live in a democracy. But it’s not quite the democracy you probably think when it comes to Malaysia. What we have is a sham democracy where might is right and absolute power rules absolutely!

    Malaysia is a plutocracy!

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