The statement by Tourism Minister Azalina Othman that her ministry is terminating its memorandum of understanding on tourism with opposition-led states is most unsettling.
This is one of many recent examples of the federal government administration being at apparent odds with individual states. Other examples include calls by the Penang Umno members to halt federal government mega-projects in the state, and protests from the federal government when the ruler of Terengganu appointed a Menteri Besar of its own choice.
Malaysia’s system of federal constitutional elective monarchy is unique in the region and many would argue that this unique system has contributed much to its success and stability. However, when Malaysia as a unified state emerged in 1963, many detractors predicted its early demise. On the one hand you had the Unfederated Malay States made up of the Northern and East coast states which had a long history of ties with India, Siam and Indochina together with the proud independent state of Johor which dates back to the Malaccan Sultanate days and which mounted a successful resistance (together with the Dutch) against Portugese rule in Malacca.
Then you had the Straits Settlements which consisted predominantly of Straits Chinese dating back to Parameswaran times when mass settlements from the imperial and merchant fleet of China occurred, and later migrations during the British Straits Settlement rule. Finally, with the inclusion of Sabah and Sarawak, you had the people of Borneo with strikingly different racial, cultural and historical ties from the rest of Peninsula Malaysia.
Indeed, Malaysia’s early years were marked by instability and turbulence, first with the Communist Emergency, then the expulsion of Singapore, Konfrontasi with Indonesia, and the racial riots of 1969. Due to the foresight and wisdom of its leaders and its unique federal system of government, Malaysia has since maintained a delicate ethno-political balance, with a system of government that has attempted to combine overall economic development with policies that promote equitable participation of all races and the interests of the different states.
Legislative power is divided between elected federal and state legislatures thus ensuring that the state is well represented in administrative and political matters, and power is not too centralised. State governments are led by the Menteri Besar in states with a Malay ruler and a chief minister in states without monarchy. They are state assembly members from the majority party in the Dewan Undangan Negeri.
As such recent instances by the federal government administration to ‘flex its muscles’ in an attempt to demonstrate its strength and rein in ‘recalcitrant’ states are most unsettling as it may lead to the disruption of this delicate power-sharing formula which has served the peoples’ interest well.
The federal government must demonstrate to the people in these respective states that it respects their choice and is now willing to cooperate with the peoples’ choice of state government for the betterment of the state.
By ‘punishing’ those states, it is sending the wrong message that the unique federal system of government is not being respected, and this may lead to unrest and instability.