IF there is one thing that Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak says which resonates almost across the board — likely even among his detractors — in Sarawak and Sabah, it is his taking to comparing himself to his predecessor bar one, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, on matters related to state rights under the Malaysia Agreement of 1963 (MA63).
Speaking before the triennial delegates’ conference of the Sarawak United Peoples’ Party (SUPP) in Kuching over the last weekend, Najib said that unlike the “93-year-old man”, he has not put anyone under the Internal Security Act (ISA) detention simply for raising the matter.
“(SUPP president) Datuk Dr Sim (Kui Hian) had raised MA63, but I did not put him in ISA. In fact, there is no ISA,” pointed out the prime minister.
The prime minister reiterated: “We are willing to return what are yours under MA63 because I believe that to be a stronger Malaysia, you must recognise the rights of the people in Sarawak.”
Such a stance is, of course, almost diametrically opposed to the centralising impulses of the administration under Dr Mahathir.
To be sure, whether Putrajaya has actually and consciously “taken away” any state rights over the years is itself a contentious assertion. Enough safeguards have been written into the MA63 and reflected in the Malaysian Constitution such that it would have been difficult, to near impossible, to remove those rights, certainly not without the expressed consent of either or both states through their elected representatives in Parliament and the respective state assemblies.
It is, however, certainly fair to suggest that the centralising impulses of the Federal Government before had resulted in the erosion of control in administrative matters over a host of issues from state to federal hands. The power of the federal purse was one particularly effective instrument, of course, to bring about state acquiescence, especially when the state concerned had not been judicious in the handling of revenues that went directly into state coffers from resources under exclusive state domain, such as land and forests.
Even on matters not directly related to state rights, Dr Mahathir had made clear of his derisive attitude when, on the matter of the rationalisation of commercial banks under his watch, for example, he dismissed the existence of some banks which carried either the names of states or were under state ownership as little more than expressions of parochial pride.
The cumulative result of all this must have contributed to the popular backlash now being experienced in Sarawak and Sabah over a widespread perception that state rights have been deliberately eroded by the Federal Government.
A federalised political set-up may not be the most efficient one ever devised, but we are a federation for some other, perhaps equally valid, reasons. Among others, a federation enables Sarawak and Sabah with their historical, cultural and even geographical identities distinct from the rest of the country to retain such separate identities while remaining part and parcel of a larger nation.
Dialogue as accepted by the Najib administration to discuss the whole matter is thus crucial so that grey areas, misunderstandings, any real erosion of state rights and perhaps even bad blood as a result of neglect or worse in the past may be thrashed out and hopefully resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned parties.
In fact, more than dialogue has already started, with a federal-state ministerial committee in place to work on the devolution of some administrative matters to the states. The process is continuing apace and must be allowed to proceed unhindered.
But, perhaps, the appetite at the state level has been quite naturally whetted by this ongoing process to move to a higher plane involving a greater sharing of public revenues. This will be a vastly more complex exercise and much goodwill must exist on all sides for this to bear fruit.
Much opposition noise on this subject matter is clearly unhelpful and even confusing. It is obviously aimed to score political points or the opposition might have long ago legally challenged some federal laws or constitutional points deemed by it to be in contravention of state rights.
The risks, of course, are that the opposition will succeed to whip up state sentiments and passions to such an extent that federal-state goodwill dissipates, to the detriment of all concerned.
Thus, while the open-ness promised by the prime minister on bringing up the matter for public discussion is welcome, the onus still rests on all to debate with truthfulness.
The writer views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak