FEDERALISM has featured in ongoing reforms such as the new Parliamentary Committee on Federal-State Relations and the promise to fulfil the Malaysia Agreement 1963. But more can be done, especially with the Dewan Negara, which was designed to protect states’ interests.
Indeed, the Federal Constitution envisages an increase in the number of senators representing states and giving them direct electoral legitimacy.
The Federation of Malaya and Malaysia came into existence because of agreements by pre-existing entities, yet the Federal Government often acts as if it is the emanator of all authority in the land.
Today, many people think of Sabah and Sarawak in the desire for greater autonomy. But former Sarawak attorney general Datuk JC Fong has written that federalism in Malaysia can be traced to Negri Sembilan.
To understand why, we must look to the Minangkabau kingdom of Pagaruyong. Its origin myth centres around a victorious water buffalo, wherein its unweaned calf defeated the Javanese bull because of its desire to find milk from its mother.
This yearning for a mother ostensibly inspired a matrilineal society, developing into a system of political, social and economic organisation known as Adat Perpatih.
A decentralised form of government lay at its core, with traditional sayings describing the election and powers of officeholders, from village heads to the monarch.
Justice was also decentralised, with adjudication granted to officeholders operating under the maxim of biar mati anak, jangan mati adat. This is often misrepresented as “let children die, and adat prevail”, but a truer translation of the context is “if your child has been punished according to the law, then the law must prevail”. It is an exhortation towards the rule of law.
Economically, trade was vital and the phenomenon of merantau emerged, where men sought experience and knowledge abroad before returning and contributing to his wife’s clan after marriage.
This inculcation of individual responsibility further lends itself to the idea of decentralised power.
Throughout, migration across the straits occurred. In the peninsula, settlers traded, intermarried and created new communities.
Until today, the suku created by these early interactions – the Biduanda – provide the Undangs, who themselves elect the Yang di-Pertuan Besar.
The first, Raja Melewar, was invited from Pagaruyong to stabilise an increasingly uncertain political situation in the peninsula in 1773.
However, when the third Ruler Yamtuan Lenggang passed away in 1824, the Padri War had killed much of the Pagaruyong royal family and the Anglo-Dutch Treaty severed the political link between Pagaruyong and Negri Sembilan. Thus, Yamtuan Raden, son of Yamtuan Lenggang, was eventually elected.
Further geopolitical disruption ensued, with the loss of Naning and other colonial territorial reorganisations that transformed the concept of sovereignty.
Daulat, with loyalty to a Raja at its core, was being replaced by Kedaulatan, in which geography determined the institutions that affected the Rakyat.
The biggest geopolitical event was the Bukit Putus War of 1875, motivated by a British desire to access tin mines and trade routes
to feed an expanding Victorian Empire. Despite his heroism, Yamtuan Antah’s forces were defeated and the resultant peace treaty downgraded his authority.
Relations improved with Yamtuan Antah’s son Tuanku Muhammad, who together with the Undangs, restored the federation. The adat was intact, with RJ Wilkinson praising Negri Sembilan’s constitutional government.
Within the ambit of the Federated Malay States, Tuanku Muhammad advocated new institutions such as the Malay College and Royal Malay Regiment while seeking fiscal decentralisation for state projects.
World War II interrupted this model of development. Official history claims that, following the Japanese surrender, the British-created Malayan Union was defeated because Umno galvanised the Malays to oppose an unfair constitution that eroded Malay rights.
But opposition was also on the basis of over-centralisation at the states’ expense: an argument that had nothing to do with race.
The Federation of Malaya Agreement 1957 brought about a new Federal Constitution which, with many amendments, continues to operate today.
The Ninth Schedule is often cited as defining federal-state powers, but there are many relevant parts, including Article 3(2) which confirms the Rulers as Heads of Islam in the states.
The State Constitution, in turn, refers to “Islam as heretofore professed and practised in the State”.
In recent decades, Malaysia has become increasingly centralised and authoritarian, with the Prime Minister becoming more powerful at the expense of check-and-balance institutions and states’ powers.
Thus, we have a golden opportunity to inject decentralisation into the pursuit of institutional reform. As Negri Sembilan shows, centuries-old traditions of federalism and rule of law can be restored even after periods of turbulence and erosion.
With local elections recently being approved in Kampung Baru Paroi, perhaps Negri Sembilan can once again lead the way.
Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas. These are excerpts from the writer’s speech at the Federalism in Malaysia Conference on July 1.