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Political covenant

Millennium markers - Road to Independence

THURSDAY marks the 43rd anniversary of Independence for Peninsular Malaysia and the 37th anniversary of the establishment of the federation of Malaysia itself. The federation of Malaysia? We rarely refer to Malaysia as a ``federation'' although we always used the term in the context of the Federation of Malaya set up in 1948.

How many of us are aware that Malaysia is a federal state, or what is meant by the term ``federation''?

Most Sabahans and Sarawakians will know the answers, because they are very conscious of their own separate identities and backgrounds. But in the peninsula, apart perhaps from the Malay-dominated states of the north and Johor, most people probably do not think themselves state nationals; most think themselves Malaysians, pure and simple.

The federal concept: state and federal rights

The meaning and implications of federation is not quite as academic as it may sound. For Malaysia, as constituted in 1963, is a federation consisting of 13 sovereign states united by treaty the word ``federation'' is derived from a Latin word meaning ``covenant'' or ``treaty'' so as to form one nation under one central government. At the same time, however, each state of the federation retains its own sovereignty and control over certain matters.

In the case of the Malaysian federation, while subjects which affect the whole country such as citizenship, defence, foreign relations, health, education and the economy, etc, are the responsibility of the federal or central government, matters such as religion, local government, land and forest, and mineral and water resources (including off-shore rights) are the responsibility of state governments. Sabah and Sarawak enjoy certain additional rights of their own.

In terms of practical politics the importance of these state rights has been demonstrated on several occasions since Independence, including, for example, the recent issue of state rights over off-shore petroleum.

The history of the federal idea goes back a long way in Europe, to the days of the Roman Empire. It is also not a new idea in our part of the world. In the 18th century, for instance, the Minangkabau principalities of the Melaan hinterland established their confederation of Negri Sembilan as a counter to Bugis incursions.

However, the British took up the federal idea in a big way. They found it useful in bringing together widespread and disparate territories that had fallen under their control. Having successfully federated their colonies in Canada (1867) and Australia (1900), they tried out the same formula some 50 years later in the West Indies and Central Africa. However, that time the formula failed for conditions and circumstances were not suitable.

The British also tried out the federal formula here, with apparent success.

The Federated Malay States

The first step was the formation of the Federated Malay States (FMS) in 1895 consisting of Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Pahang.

Actually, in this instance, the British were not really interested in creating a genuine federation at all. There main aim was to unite these four states for purposes of administrative convenience and economic development. However, they had to preserve the fiction of Malay sovereignty and needed the backing of the Malay Rulers. The rulers were persuaded that their influence would be increased if they were united and spoke with one voice. But the Treaty of Federation failed to define state and federal powers and, in practice, all real power ended up in the hands of the federal government dominated by British officials.

It did not take long for the Malay Rulers to realise that they had been short changed. Led by Perak's Sultan Idris I, they protested and agitated for restoration of their status.

The British response was to create a Federal Council in 1909 where before there had been no such body at the centre. The council was designed to achieve two conflicting aims: one, to appease the Malays by giving them a place on it; the other to provide representation of non-Malay communal and business interests (the latter mainly for the benefit of British tin and rubber concerns).

Needless to say, in practice the creation of the Federal Council did nothing to bring about a genuine federation, but merely accentuated control from the centre in the hands of British officials.


By the 1920s Malay dissatisfaction with their loss of influence was becoming widespread. This led the British to opt for a new ploy, which was to restore certain right to the states the policy of ``decentralisation''.

For, on the one hand, they could not afford to lose Malay support for their rule. On the other, they still pursued their aim of uniting the whole peninsula under one regime.

This meant persuading the Malay Rulers of the unfederated Malay states now under their control ie: Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu to join the FMS. Up to that point, none of these rulers had shown the slightest desire to join the FMS. By restoring the status of the FMS rulers, the British hoped to make federation more attractive to the other rulers.

The new policy was slowly introduced and implemented but in the process, it aroused a lot of controversy. Politically, it was welcomed by the Malays as moving towards protecting their rights and their future. But it was opposed by non-Malay (especially British) tin-mining, planting and business interests, as well as by professional administrators, who feared that more powerful state governments would interfere with their progress.

The first move came in 1927, when the Federal Council was recognised by removing the FMS rulers from the council and replacing them with state representatives. This, at least, got rid of a constitutional anomaly by restoring the rulers to a position above politics. The states were also given greater control over their own finances.

Finally, in 1933, the powers of the state governments were further increased by abolishing the post of the Chief Secretary as the most senior official in the FMS; he was replaced by a Federal Secretary who was junior to each of the four British Residents. At the same time certain departments were placed directly under the control of the state governments.

Other than that, though, decentralisation did not get any further. The rulers of the non-FMS remained as they were and made no move to join the FMS.

Malayan Union and the Federation of Malaya

Then came World War II and the Japanese Occupation of Malaya which changed everything. After experiencing the Japanese Occupation, the people of Malaya wanted to control their own affairs and were only willing to tolerate British rule as a transition to Independence.

On their return in 1945 the British on their part thought the moment ripe to get rid of the federal concept altogether and create a unitary state in its stead.

Malayan Union protest

But their Malayan Union scheme which converted Malaya into a Crown Colony and reduced the Malay Rulers to religious figureheads in their own states was totally unacceptable to the Malays for obvious reasons. It was also opposed vigorously by politically-minded non-Malays because it was not democratic enough. As we all know, as a result of this opposition, the Malayan Union was abandoned within one year of its inception and its place taken by the new Federation of Malaya.

The establishment of the Federation of Malaya in 1948 marked the reinstatement of the federal concept. It constituted a genuine federation in which federal and state rights were clearly delineated. This process was confirmed by the Reid Constitution which spelt out in precise detail the distribution of state and federal powers.

Merdeka and Malaysia

The Federation of Malaya survived. It was transformed into an independent state in 1957; six years later the federal concept was extended to embrace Sabah and Sarawak with the establishment of Malaysia.

Looking back on the evolution of federalism in the body politic of what is Malaysia, it can be seen as a device which has met two different but parallel needs:

Within Peninsular Malaysia the federal state has helped preserve the political position of the Malays and to provide a bulwark for Malay rights. This in turn has made it politically feasible for the Malays to concede citizenship rights to non-Malay inhabitants of the peninsula. On the other hand, given the comparatively small area of the peninsula and of the states into which it is divided and the economic and social integration which has taken place between them, the federal format seems increasingly irrelevant. The reality is that the peninsula, to all intents and purposes, forms a unit in which state boundaries count for little.

However, the federal format was the essential ingredient in bringing about the formation of Malaysia in 1963. For ethnic and geographical factors have made Sabah and Sarawak both very different from one another and also very different from the states of the peninsula. The only way in which these differences can be accommodated is by means of the federal state in which the component parts each preserve their own identities.

* Muzaffar Tate is a historian with several books on Malaysian history to his credit.

Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.

Notes: STF - MUZAFFAR TATE looks back at that Millennium Marker moment when the idea of true federation gathered disparate states into what would eventually become a proud nation called Malaysia.

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