The suggestion by a federal minister that Penang should become a federal territory is ludicrous…
or, as constitutional expert Gurdial Singh puts it, “preposterous” and “immature”:
“You cannot just take over a state. There is no provision for that,” the former Universiti Malaya law professor told FMT.
“The state and its institutional governance structure is prescribed by the constitution itself. You cannot change that. It’s the basic structure mandated by the constitution.
“There are also prescribed functions of state jurisdiction. The state has exclusive jurisdiction in matters like land tenure, which even the federal government cannot interfere. You can’t change anything on this exclusive list without state consent,” he said.
States have power over matters not listed in the Ninth Schedule of the Federal Constitution, which details the specific responsibilities of the federal and state governments. States can make their own laws on matters such as land tenure, Islam and local government.
“Also, the federal government cannot alter the state boundaries without the state legislature and the Conference of Rulers’ consent. The same applies if the federal government wants to carve out a territory within the state,” Gurdial said.
He said the constitution could not be amended to make Tengku Adnan’s idea possible because it ran counter to the fundamental structure of a federal-type constitution.
“Even if Barisan Nasional was able to win back Penang through the general election, it still would not be possible to cede the entire state to make it a federal territory.
“There are things even a ruling government cannot change.”
Gurdial said the idea of making Penang a federal territory and dismantling its entire structure was “so preposterous”, describing it as an “immature, not well-thought out comment”.
Attempting to make Penang a federal territory would be totally a step in the wrong direction. Malaysia is already an overly centralised federation, no doubt about it. Even local bus services like RapidPenang are controlled by Putrajaya.
Whereas in many parts of the world, especially in progressive federations, the trend is towards even greater decentralisation, here it would seem that the BN government in Putrajaya wants even more control over state matters. The proposal to take over Penang is so out of touch with the global trend in progressive democracies, it isn’t funny.
Look, I am no fan of the Penang government’s (over)development policies. There is plenty wrong with the kind of damaging development being carried out in Penang. Some of these policies have been terrible for sustainable development. Let’s not even talk here about the proposals for three large artificial islands to fund over-the-top transport infrastructure. For many people, housing – even so-called “affordable housing” – is increasingly unaffordable.
Yet, isn’t it true that some of the companies involved in these projects have federal interests or connections or shares held by federal GLCs or institutional investors or they might even receive federal funding (eg the redesign of the Penang Hill Railway)?
Moreover, such development policies invariably affect all ethnic groups, not just the Malays. This phenomenon of marginalisation or unaffordable housing is also happening in KL and Johor. How many young people entering the workforce can afford a home of their own? What more the unemployed.
Isn’t the concentration of wealth in fewer hands, along with the higher cost of living, the real reason for the marginalisation many are feeling? Isn’t this caused by the neoliberal economic model of development and the crony capitalism we have?
The solution is not less democracy and accountability by taking away state elections – for that is the implication of making Penang a federal territory. Then we would end up like the residents of KL who have no say in what Kuala Lumpur City Hall does or how it spends their money.
We wouldn’t want a group of out-of-touch bureaucrats in Putrajaya, far removed from the realities on the ground, making decisions that will affect us here in Penang. This would go against the principle of subsidiarity, which “in its most basic formulation, … holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level that is consistent with their resolution” (Wikipedia).
What we need is greater participatory local democracy, especially through the reintroduction of local council elections, which are now being blocked by federal laws. Reintroducing local council elections, suspended in 1965, would help to promote the interests of the people – and give them a voice.
At present, local councillors feel answerable mainly to their political bosses who appointed them. Conversely, most local residents don’t even know most of their local councillors.
If councillors are elected in council elections, even if their candicacy has to be first approved by their political bosses, they will know they have to face local residents in elections. This will make these councillors more responsive to the people rather than slavishly supporting the party line every time. They will know their jobs are on the line at the next polls if they don’t uphold the public interest.
Local council polls would also provide an avenue for local residents who might feel marginalised by the type of development in the state; they can then vote for alternative candidates in these polls.
So say NO to making Penang a federal territory, YES to greater decentralisation, and YES to bringing back local council elections in Penang, KL and elsewhere in Malaysia.