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Articles, History, Philosophy

Saving Federalism in Malaysia

By Ooi Kee Beng [This article is part of ANU’s New Mandala “Malaysia after regime change” article series, edited by Greg Lopez]

Malaysia had to begin life as a federation because, like all federations, its diversity of polity, culture, history, ethnicity and economy was simply too deep for a centrally controlled regime to be practicable.

That was why the Malayan Union of 1946, hopefully constructed by a colonial power recovering from a devastating world war and that badly needed to simplify its control apparatus, could never succeed. Indirect and de facto colonialism was acceptable, but centralised and direct colonialism was too much for the Malay community to accept.

And yet, as became clear in the aftermath of the 2008 general elections, the country nevertheless had in reality become centrally controlled by a coalition centred around UMNO (United Malays National Organisation), the party formed in 1946 by Onn Ja’afar to fight the Malayan Union.

The 2008 election results can thus be read as a strong negative reaction by the newly liberated electorate to this sustained political denial of the country’s historical diversity.

Centralism, as one can imagine, is anathema to a society that is so intrinsically diverse that the hybridism of its culture and history is what so many of its members are proud of. Malaysianness, to make any sense, is necessarily about cultural hybridism. Thus, Prime Minister Najib Razak’s slogan, One Malaysia, borders on being an oxymoron. Malaysia, by its very nature, is manifold in cultural character, and is all the better for it.

What is also becoming clear globally is that the federal format for organising a modern state is a healthy compromise for counterbalancing the excesses of the nation-state format.

For most societies, and certainly for those in culturally diverse regions like Southeast Asia, the nation-state uniform is too narrow and stiff to wear for too long. It is artificial in essential ways, and is constraining both inwardly and outwardly.

Adjustments to this uptight uniform simply had to be made sooner or later. The rise of regionalism in recent times – in Europe, in Southeast Asia, and elsewhere – is a tailor’s adjustment to a suit made too tight. What we see happening in Europe are the effects of a regional organisation losing its strength because it had begun moving towards forming a super state instead of just remaining a loose uniform for a multitude of national identities to feel comfortable in.

ASEAN does not run that risk because the region is obviously too diverse for anyone to seriously think of it in super-state terms. The organization was formed to lower barriers between newly- formed nation states because these barriers had immediately proved to have been built tpo high to be good for anyone.

For peaceful relations to develop between these new political entities, a process of friendly dialogue and of limited integration between different actors had to be initiated. This began in 1967, and ASEAN has in that sense had respectable success over the last 45 years.

Malaysia has also had respectable success over the last 55 years, but within it, the process of friendly dialogue and of limited integration between different actors has been a difficult one to sustain.

On the one hand, the country was created in a federal format as a necessary expression of the political and ethnic diversity of its people. It would have been foolish to integrate the country too quickly, and certainly not in one fell swoop as the colonialists tried to do in 1946. On the other hand, a new country always risks disintegration if diversity is allowed to rule the day. And so, government by political coalitions became the new order. Onn Ja’afar’s attempt in 1951 to make UMNO represent all ethnicities failed for apparently going too far too fast. His willingness to compromise was seen by his followers as a sell-out.

And so, what we ended up with was the Alliance Model. This coalition of communal parties would maintain “the process of friendly dialogue and of limited integration between different actors” and allow centralisation to take place through consociationalism. This model – especially after becoming the Barisan Nasional (BN) in 1974 – certainly had respectable success. But its path was a difficult one. UMNO’s dominance in this model was a given thing acceptable to the supporters of its allies if it stayed moderate, and if it maintained the goal of creating Malaysianness, as opposed to defending and prioritising Malayness. This was key.

That was exactly why Mahathir Mohamed’s Vision 2020 and Bangsa Malaysia were highly successful slogans. In fact, they were coined exactly to conjure a future that was not ethnocentric and to project a culturally open Malaysia that was economically integrated with the region and the world.

Significantly, racial tensions dropped radically throughout the 1990s in Malaysia, as compared to the period before, and the period after. The Reformasi Movement that began in 1998, as many have noticed, did not turn racial in any essential manner.

It was as if Malaysia had turned a corner, and so we saw how Abdullah Badawi’s electoral triumph in 2004 was not based on ethnic issues, but on the promise of reform of governance. Things actually looked very good; and believe it or not, Barisan Nasional styled itself at that time as the champion of reform.

But soon after that, the lessons learned were quickly forgotten. The undermining of major institutions during the Mahathir period was not reversed, and worst of all, UMNO leaders acted with public impunity; Islamist bureaucrats became openly arrogant; governance deteriorated further; and UMNO’s allies lost their voice. The coalition existed only in name.

By this time, the federation also seemed to exist only in name, at least until the general elections of March 8, 2008 brought a new consciousness to Malaysia. The four years since the political equation changed so radically has seen a reawakening to Malaysia’s true nature.

It is a diverse place; that is why it is a special place; and that it is why it is – and always has been – a federation. The lesson to be retained is that diversity is not disunity. Instead, it is the denial of diversity that leads to disunity.

The appearance of Pakatan Rakyat (Pakatan) at this time is thus of historical significance. It was a thing that needed to be created once the limitations of the BN model over time had become clear to a new generation of Malaysians. Malaysian society’s search for an appropriate and dignified expression of itself has at this moment led it to consider Pakatan an option worth considering seriously.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


One thought on “Saving Federalism in Malaysia

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