Will things fall apart in the Malaysian federation?


(Today Online) – Why has the issue of federalism suddenly emerged after half a century of relative calm? 

The Irish poet WB Yeats was not thinking about South-east Asia when he wrote “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”, but his words may accurately describe the situation in Malaysia. The monarchy governing the state of Johor is rattling the federation agreement and talking of secession. Sarawak wants significant devolution. And Sabah is gearing up for the same demand.

So is secession a real possibility? And why has the issue of federalism suddenly emerged after half a century of relative calm?

Secession is not realistic for Johor, or even for Sabah or Sarawak. Advocating secession constitutes the crime of sedition in Malaysia, making it difficult to create momentum behind a secession movement. The Johor princes have said that secession is possible and is a right of the Johor “nation”, only if the federal government does not honour the federation agreement.

That agreement involves guaranteeing Islam as the state religion, non-interference by the federation in the Johor Constitution and maintenance of the state’s armed forces. But all of these aspects of the agreement are being met. So by the princes’ own reckoning, there is no case for Johor’s secession.

The Federal Constitution does not provide for secession. But secession by agreement is possible, as happened when Singapore left the federation in 1965. Generally, in the absence of agreement, Johor would have to show that the state was folded into the federation without any real consent; convince the international community that there is a case for self-determination, based on ethnicity, culture, and history; or show that there is intolerable persecution.


In Sabah and Sarawak, some locals express their discontent in terms of demanding secession, but officials do not take this position. Given the economic weaknesses, in terms of dependency and underdevelopment, of the states that support devolution, it is unlikely that they could manage as independent entities.

They have oil and gas, but for how long? Could they do the same as Brunei after it became independent from the United Kingdom in 1984? Could they defend themselves? Even federal forces were not able to prevent incursions by Sulu militants into Lahad Datu, Sabah, in 2013.

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