Separation of powers

It should be noted at the outset that the Westminster system doesn’t separate powers as ostentatiously as the US or France systems do; the biggest difference being that Heads of Governments are also members of the legislature.

Tunku Abidin Muhriz, The Sun Daily

I OWE this column an article about Selangor. This newspaper is distributed mainly in the Klang Valley, after all, yet I always find some way to mention Negri Sembilan or Terengganu instead (there, that’s it for this piece). But the fact is that I was born Selangor, I lived in a brilliant Selangor postcode area for the first half of my life, and continue to drive all the way to Ampang for the delectable Ramly burger.

A lot has been happening in Selangor lately: events which present neat microcosms of Malaysian political life. First, there’s the kerfuffle over the open sale of beer, which strikes simultaneously at the issues of (a) authoritarianism justified on religious grounds, (b) the general contempt that many Malaysian politicians seem to have for their constituents’ sense of personal responsibility and (c) the conflict between the country’s foremost self-proclaimed Malay and Islamic parties.

The primary response of the Selangor mentri besar was to support self-regulation, which seems to have made the concoction of emotions less bubbly, but a secondary response was to pass the buck to the federal government. “If you want to ban open sale of alcohol”, he seemed to say rather gleefully, “then you have to legislate”. I’ve complained here before that actors at the state level have in the past abdicated their responsibilities to federal counterparts for the sake of personal gain or simply out of laziness or ignorance. This is therefore an intriguing retort by Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim, as the objective of admitting powerlessness was instead to taunt the federal government. As some in Barisan Nasional are using the issue to drive a wedge between the Pakatan Rakyat parties, so the mentri besar is driving a wedge between the state and federal components of Umno: what exciting times we live in!

At a conference last month I presented a paper considering the ways in which the arguments for greater federalism have made a comeback. In the same way that the Rulers of the Federated Malay States complained to the British of over-centralisation at the Durbar of 1903; in the same way that the disgraceful Malayan Union – established through deceit and coercion by a desperate post-War British government – was defeated by an alliance of Malayan federalists; there have been since March 8 rumblings in the direction of greater devolution of powers. This began with several Heads of State exercising unusual discretion over the appointments of their Heads of Governments, and continued with the development of several other issues.

There is, however, a particular feature of the “opposition governments” (an oxymoron referring to states where parties in opposition at the federal level are in government at the state level) which has strengthened federalism in a more subtle way. The reason for this is that each of the three component parties form the majority within the coalition in different states, which leads to significant policy differences between them. It is inevitable that come the next election, they will be judged on these policies, thus reinforcing (or weakening) policy changes in some states and not others. So, for example, in Penang we have DAP-led government championing local council elections, in Kedah we have the PAS-led government focusing on the issue of land titles, and in Selangor we now have the PKR-led government with its proposed Selangor Legislative Assembly Service Commission Enactment (Selesa). 

The latter’s objectives, ostensibly, are to strengthen the division of powers among the institutions of state, and endowing the legislature with much wider powers over its own internal administration and in the hiring of staff.  This is not alien to Malaysia, since we used to have a piece of federal legislation called the Parliamentary Services Act 1963 which similarly empowered Parliament.

Having met some of the people who have worked on and support this proposed law, I’m not surprised that this is what they plan to do, and if it receives popular support it may just find its way onto their, or maybe both, coalitions’ manifestoes.

It should be noted at the outset that the Westminster system doesn’t separate powers as ostentatiously as the US or France systems do; the biggest difference being that Heads of Governments are also members of the legislature. Thus, Gordon Brown and Datuk Seri Najib Razak are Members of Parliament in addition to their roles of prime minister. This arrangement exists in order to enable greater parliamentary accountability – Gordon Brown appears at Prime Minister’s Questions every week when Parliament is in session, whereas Barack Obama does not similarly present himself to Congress on a regular basis. Perhaps a weekly televised Mentri Besar’s Questions is something else the chaps in the MB’s office would like to propose?

Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is Founder President of the Malaysia Think Tank.