Saving Federalism in Malaysia
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 that seems to be the default model of thought is subject to.
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. 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 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. It was formed to lower barriers between newly- formed nation states because these barriers had immediately proved to have been built higher than was 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 the organization 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.