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Articles, Commentaries, Penang Monthly [formerly Penang Economic Monthly]

Federalism is still the future



Editorial in Penang Monthly, May 2013

Let’s face it. Whatever the election results, certain things will not go away easily.

For one thing, Malaysia will be ruled by a coalition for a long time to come yet. That is a direct reflection of the impressive diversity of the country. Now that diversity is not a simple one that is about three major races on the peninsula and a lot of others in East Malaysia; nor is it a matter of a few religions represented by individuals with little faith in their fellow men, and little understanding of their religious teachings, for that matter.

The territories that make up Malaysia today do not together map an area that is a natural country. Aside from the diversity in culture and religion mentioned above, history and ideology play a major role as well.

There are good reasons why the country is a federation. But to be sure, a new nation as diverse as Malaysia required a steadily centralised government. This went in apparent contradiction to its federal nature. Our federal territories testify clearly to this tendency.

The political structure was worked out in the 10 years following the Second World War, under communist fire as it were; and pressurised by world-shaking events throughout the world.

Much of the local initiative came from Johor, the state where Umno came into being and where the MCA gained its strongest support. Johor was also overrepresented in the first Cabinet. This is significant. One could argue that the Alliance Model of inter-ethnic collaboration was something that suited Johor’s population rather well, modernised as it was through the use of Chinese migrants in the economic development of the state, under the complete control of a totally Malay civil service of a high standard.

In an important sense, therefore, what is happening in the 13th General Election is Malaysian politics going full circle after half a century to confront Johor and challenge its control and its conservatism.

The fact that the presidents of three major BN parties – MCA, Gerakan and SUPP – are staying out of the 13th General Election is telling indeed. The BN Model has reached an impasse, and what will take its place is hard to foresee. There is only so much the Prime Minister can do despite his resources; the concepts and the discourses have moved beyond the simple race-based understanding of Malaysian politics.

Looking on the bright side, Malaysia’s federal system actually holds great potential for the future. Together with the political pro-activeness of the country’s young people and their accelerating access to knowledge about the world and about the country and its past, old styles of leadership will simply not work.

One day soon, we will look back and laugh at how silly the politicking of the early 21st century has been. Be that as it may, future governments will still be coalitional ones; but they will no longer need to be as centralised a power as has so far been the case.


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.


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