ONE of the political certainties of our young nation has been its remarkably stable and functioning federal set-up since independent Malaya and then the expanded Malaysia was born. So much so that we tend to forget that federalism itself is a relatively new political innovation, perhaps most successfully popularised by the United States of America when it came into being in 1776.
Even such large nations of the British Commonwealth such as Australia, Canada and India have federal systems and, despite two failed attempts in recent decades by the province of Quebec to secede from Canada, may have much to thank federalism for keeping their respective nations whole.
Despite all this, the Malaysian federation remains an outlier in our own region as a model for how larger and equally diverse nations to perhaps better organise themselves politically.
Our three neighbours — Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand — all have separatist threats of varying intensity. Yet, a federal solution has not caught on with the popular imagination in these countries.
In Indonesia, the economic and political crisis that precipitated the downfall of president Suharto in the late 1990’s unleashed centrifugal pressures which led to real anxiety that the archipelago might break apart. Decentralisation became all the rage, but, instead of devolving political powers to the provinces, these powers landed on the lap of the country’s most basic political units — the regencies (more akin to districts in our case).
In the cases of the Philippines and Thailand, the more potent political threat was posed by Muslim separatists long alienated from the countries’ respective Roman Catholic and Buddhist majorities. Incidentally, Malaysia has ended up as the third-party interlocutor in the latest attempts to forge new political settlements in both the southern Philippines and southern Thailand. But, we should not delude ourselves into thinking that we were picked for such roles owing to the relative success of our federal model.
In the Philippines, attempts to graft a hybrid federal set-up in the form of a new Bangsamoro political dispensation onto its current unitary political set-up has suffered a long, tortuous journey spanning decades and may yet be stillborn. Thailand shows not even the slightest inclination to go down the federal route.
In all three countries, there are fears that opting for federalism is a recipe for eventual national break-up. Even an otherwise sober political scientist such as Alex Magno of the Philippines wrote thus last week: “Federalism kills the project of nationhood. We all basically secede from everybody else.”
They may all have a point, in the wake of Catalonia in Spain (although strictly speaking, not a federation) or even the demands given expression by Sabah and Sarawak for greater regional autonomy. But, an old unitary state such as Spain and a young federation such as ours struggle in common to forge a united nation. That struggle appears to be an unending one, everywhere.
What seems to be shifting though — and this becomes especially apparent in light of what is happening now in Catalonia — is international opinion, away from looking benignly as nations break up into smaller entities or attempt to do so. A lack of international recognition of new independent states can therefore act as a powerful deterrent against secessionist threats.
The argument that federalism leads eventually to secession is false at best and alarmist at worst. Such a line of thinking is probably the result of a lack of confidence in national capitals on the very basis for their national existence.
In the case of the Philippines which, of our three neighbours, has gone furthest in conceding (at least on paper if not yet in concrete reality) political autonomy to its Bangsamoro minority, President Rodrigo Duterte seems subtly intent on making Bangsamoro autonomy not a precursor for an eventual federalised Philippines, but contemporaneous with nationwide federalism.
This likely makes political sense in view of national antipathy towards anything even remotely resembling the creation of an exclusive Bangsamoro “sub-state” within a unitary Philippines. But, this also adds an entirely new level of uncertainty to the Bangsamoro project, provided Duterte can use political capital from a still commanding leadership position to expeditiously convert his country into a fully-federalised state.
We must wish Duterte well in his ambition for a federal Philippines and maybe do more ourselves to sell the idea of federalism. No political set-up is perfect, of course, but a federation is a close approximation that combines the economic scale of a larger nation with localised political aspirations.
John Teo views developments in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point in Kuching, Sarawak. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org