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Datuk Zainal Aznam Yusof is a member of the Economic Council and distinguished fellow of ISIS Malaysia. Brief biodata:

From 1990 – 1994, he was the Adviser of Economics at Bank Negara Malaysia. He

holds a BSc (Economics) from Queen’s University, Belfast, Northern Ireland, an M.A. (Development Economics) from the University of Leicester and a D.Phil. (Economics)

from the University of Oxford, United Kingdom.

He has written on the state of imbalance between federal and state governments existing to date despite efforts by the federal government to portray otherwise during every by-elections and general elections.

Opinion: Federal-state relations plagued by imbalances

New Straits Times
by Zainal Aznam Yusof

The alleged shakiness and loyalty of Sabah and Sarawak to the Barisan Nasional cause should be put in perspective. The actions of the two states can be the harbinger of what is in store for Malaysian politics, perceives ZAINAL AZNAM YUSOF

ONE of the post-March general election developments has been the extra attention given to Sabah and Sarawak. But this is not a new phenomenon as the two states had also garnered attention in the past.

For a start, the allocation of appointments and offices to the successful candidates had not been to the liking of the two states, more so for Sabah, as they felt they had been shortchanged compared to the number of seats they had won for Barisan Nasional. There was the initiative by the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) to move a vote of no confidence against the leadership of Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the BN in Parliament, and the party's threats to leave the coalition.

The most serious was the constant harping by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, head of the Pakatan Rakyat, that he expected to see representatives from Sabah and Sarawak cross over to the opposition by yesterday to enable him to be prime minister and head of a new government, attesting to the power of the two states to unseat the BN.

As this had highlighted the alleged shakiness and loyalty of the two states to the BN cause, there were urgings for a declaration of loyalty by the politicians in the two states.
These developments could be the harbinger of what is in store for Malaysian politics and that the two states could exert decisive swings in future power struggles on the political front.

The experiences with Sabah and Sarawak should be put in perspective. Federal-state relations are always plagued with troubles in a federal system of government and these can be worsened when the path towards the formation of a federation is not smooth.

Secessionist tendencies are the most extreme manifestation of a weak foundation for a federation, and these had existed in the past.

There were four attempts at secession between 1948 and 1957. Penang in 1948 was against the formation of a Federation of Malaya and mooted the idea of secession because the island argued that it was not consulted over the formation of the federation. Led by the Penang Chamber of Commerce and supported by the Straits or "Queen's" Chinese, a representation was made to London but the secretary of state rejected the petition for secession.

Penang also made another attempt at secession between 1953 and 1957 but it was disorganised and short-lived.

Johor was not very attracted to the idea of a federation but the ruler in the end signed the 1957 Federation of Malaya Agreement.

Kelantan was also against the Federation of Malaya initially as it was against the loss of Malay rights to the Chinese. On Sept 10, six days before Malaysia was to be declared, Kelantan initiated legal action against the federal government to declare the Malaysia Agreement and the Malaysia Act null and void and non-binding on the state.

The court ruled in favour of the federal government as its action had not violated the Constitution.

Following the expulsion of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965, Sabah and Sarawak were upset that they were not consulted and that the episode displayed the high-handedness of the federal government. Sarawak wanted a referendum to assess whether the people still wanted to remain with Malaysia.

In Sabah, UPKO (United Pasokmomogun Kadazandusun Murut Organisation) called for "a re-examination of arrangements made in respect of Sabah's entry into Malaysia". In 1975, Usno (United Sabah National Organisation) in Sabah, led by Tun Mustapha Harun, flirted with secession when federal-state relations deteriorated.

At an Usno meeting in April that year, Mustapha had explored the option of secession and that hastened his ousting and downfall.

After secessions, or threats of secession, a state of emergency would be the next disturbing outcome following a crisis. In Sarawak and Kelantan the proclamations of emergency were related to the refusal of the head of government to resign.

In 1966 a state of emergency was declared in Sarawak arising from the Kalong Ningkan case, in which the chief minister challenged the Proclamation of Emergency but was dismissed by the court.

In 1977, a state of emergency was also declared in Kelantan following the federal government's dispute with Pas over the refusal of the federal government-backed menteri besar to resign.

Economic imbalances between Sabah, Sarawak and peninsular Malaysia are still sizable and this sense of relative deprivation, neglect and dominance by peninsular Malaysia fuels political behaviour in east Malaysia.

Sabah seems to have lagged and worsened relatively after 34 years: in 1970 the ratio of its per capita GDP to the Malaysia average was 1.19, but this fell to 0.59 in 2004, while Sarawak held on to its pace of growth: the comparative statistics were 0.89 and 0.88.

The incidence of poverty in Sabah in 2004 was 23 per cent, which was more than four times the national figure (5.7 per cent) and the highest in Malaysia, compared with 7.5 per cent in Sarawak.

Poverty among the Orang Sungei, Rungus, Bisaya, and Suluk communities in Sabah and among the Bidayuh, Kenyah, Kayan, Kedayan, Penan and Lun Bawang in Sarawak were much higher. With such a high level of poverty, inequality in income for a state that is relatively rich in resources probably is much higher in Sabah.

For Sabah, the developmental slippage must be a cause for concern and a continuation along the same developmental path will surely fuel further discontent.

The state could become a hotspot for volatile politics and conflicts. The greater ethnic diversity, presence of large immigrant communities and physical isolation are combustible conditions and will call for greater resources, efforts and the right leadership.

Failures in these areas will lead to regression, rising insecurity and instability, which will then have wider repercussions.

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