KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 15 – Malaysia needs to do more to have a system of federalism which entails the division of power between the federal government and states instead of a unitary system where power is centralised, Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim said today. The opposition leader said there was a common misperception that the country could not afford real federalism or decentralisation due to its diversity which would cause it to fall apart. In fact, he said, federalism could propel the nation forward.
“Calls for decentralisation are therefore often dismissed as conspiracies to undermine the nation-state or worse still, viewed askance as campaigns for separation,” said the Permatang Pauh MP. “Nothing could be further from the truth. “True federalism ensures proportionate allocation of power so that all component states can work as separate units while the overall federal structure remains firm and intact.” This is essential to allow the federal government to move the nation forward as a sovereign state recognised in the international community, Anwar said. He said this in his keynote speech at the “Federalism in Malaysia: Design and Practice” conference organised by the Penang Institute in George Town.
Also present were Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng and Penang Institute executive director Zairil Khir Johari. According to the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, a unitary system is one where most or all of the governing power resides in a centralised government. Federalism, on the other hand, refers to a system of governance with a multi-tiered system where local and state governments exercise self-rule, or have shared powers with the federal government, in key areas. “Malaysia is in theory a federation of states buttressed by the Federal Constitution,” Anwar said. “However, when we go through the Federal List it would soon begin to dawn on us that we are more a unitary state.”
In his speech, Lim said in Malaysia, the power balance was orientated more towards the federal authority at the expense of the states. He said sectors which enjoyed state or municipal control in many other federations in the world, like transport, healthcare, education and policing, were all under the ambit of Putrajaya. He cited as examples the restrictions the Penang government had faced in matters like local bus operations, the expansion of the airport runway, local elections for its municipal councils and getting a share of revenue from taxation. “As a result, the state government is limited by what it can do for its citizens due to both constitutional and financial constraints,” he said.
He said in 2013, the combined budget of all 13 states in Malaysia was equivalent to only 6% of the federal budget. “In fact, the Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in Penang has a budget that is larger than the budget of the Penang state government,” he added. He said a World Bank report in 2012 had stated that greater local decision-making authority and greater accountability would lead to better learning outcomes. Lim said it was imperative to “recapture” the spirit of federalism, and restore the bilateral federal-state relationships in a functional way to heighten growth. “The covert and overt centralisation which includes appropriation of state powers and resources that had happened through the secondment of federal officers, establishment of federal oversight agencies and legislative control, must be checked and reversed,” he said.