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Could the Federation of Malaysia really come apart?

Could the Federation of Malaysia really come apart?
Accoridng to the author, calls for states within Malaysia to secede, are uncalled for.
58 years of nationhood – Malaysia recently celebrated its national day as a proud, successful and progressive nation.

Unlike Hong Kong and Singapore that were British priceless ports in the East, the British did not invest much in both British Malaya and British Borneo for development of infrastructures.

The colonial administrators exploited our natural resources extensively but did not leave much for the benefit of the local population.

Upon independence, Malaysia transformed itself into becoming one of the largest trading countries in the world, developing rapidly like never before taking place during the time of colonisation.

Malaysia is now a leading developing nation.

Malaysia

The quality of life and the level of education of most Malaysians have improved significantly, particularly among the Bumiputras, with more and more of these once underprivileged group during British rule working as professionals.

Despite this, there have been irresponsible unwarranted calls mooting the idea of secession of States from the Malaysian Federation.

Is this possible under international law?

History

Malaysia has its origin from pre-colonial Malay sultanates.

The Malay Peninsula, or Malaya was once dominated by kingdoms of Johor, Negeri Sembilan, Kelantan, Pahang, Terengganu, Selangor, Perak, Kedah and Perlis.

The Johor Sultanate was the last to succumb to British intervention in 1914.

This sultanate has its origin from the Johor-Riau Empire having huge territories encompassing the present Malaysian state of Johor as well as the Riau and the Riau Island provinces in modern day Indonesia.

johor flag

Unfortunately, the Johor-Riau Sultanate was divided into two parts i.e. the modern Johor Sultanate and the Riau Sultanate in 1824 by the British and the Dutch who took advantage over the instable political scenario involving disputes to the throne.

Earlier in 1819, Johor lost its southernmost island when Singapore was leased in perpetuity to the British, a territory that remains a separate sovereign State until the present day.

On the other side of the South China Sea, the Malay Sultanate of Brunei dominated Sarawak before ceding it to James Brooke. Sarawak was then made private kingdom of the Brooke family until it was ceded to the British at the end of World War II.

Sabah was ruled by both Brunei and Sulu sultanates before the sovereignty over it was transferred to the British, administered by the British North Borneo Chartered Company.

Similar to Johor, the Sultanate of Brunei that used to control almost all parts of Borneo shrunk into its current size due to the inability of the local rulers to fend off foreign intervention.
After the end of World War II in 1945, the British floated the idea of the Malayan Union in 1946.

As the newly-formed Malayan Union may erode the political dominance and the rights of the Malays, this regime was strongly opposed and ultimately replaced by the Federation of Malaya in 1948.

Malaya gained independence in 1957 and became a sovereign country ahead of Singapore and British Borneo states.

The British allowed the attainment of self-government for Sabah and Sarawak in 1963, with the condition that these States merged with the sovereign State of Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia.

Although Malaysia was formed in 1963, the membership year for Malaysia as a State party to the United Nations remains in 1957, the year Malaya gained its independence.

tunku abdul rahman

Upon the formation of Malaysia, Tengku Abdul Rahman Putra Al Haj, the then Prime Minister of Malaya was restyled as the Prime Minister of Malaysia.

Malaya’s head of State (the Yang di-Pertuan Agong), the national anthem, the capital city and the Federal Constitution remained unchanged, though with modifications to suit the merger of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore into the Federation with Malaya as equal partners.

Due to unavoidable racial flare-ups, Singapore was expelled from the Federation by the Federal government of Malaysia in 1965.

Could the Federation Come Apart?

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Modern Malaysia is made up of 14 states, symbollised in the number of stripes on Jalur Gemilang.

Alternatively, Malaysia is also said to be of three components – Malaya, Sabah and Sarawak. However, the former is a better description as it fits the provision of Article 1(2) of the Federal Constitution.

The Federation of Malaysia unites all these states together since 1963.

However, quite recently, there have been controversial statements suggesting the idea of States of Malaysia having rights to secede from the Federation.

For instance, Perlis could secede if it wanted to, and the same would apply to Perak, Selangor, Johor, Sarawak or any other states of Malaysia. Is this possible?

Malaysia has been a sovereign State for half a century.

The international community through the concept of prescription has acknowledged that all state components of Malaysia as part of the Federation.

States within Malaysia could not easily choose to leave as this will ultimately violate Article 1(2) of the Federal Constitution.

There has been an incorrect perspective amongst Malaysians that if Singapore could become an independent country, this option would be made available to them too.

It is to be remembered that Singapore did not leave – Singapore was expelled from the Federation with the consent of the Federal government.

sg

Since 1965, Singapore is no longer one of the states within Malaysia as described in the Federal Constitution.

Calls for independence have been quite popular in Southeast Asia. The three southern-most provinces of Thailand namely, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat have been fighting for independence from Bangkok for a century.

The same trend is taking place in Indonesia at the moment with South Moluccas (Maluku Selatan) and Papua attempting to secede from the island republic.

The Free Papua Movement (OPM) is somewhat active in the interiors of the Indonesian province of Papua. The government of the unrecognised Republik Maluku Selatan is operating in exile.

Bangsamoro of the southern Philippines have also been quite active in separatist movements against Filipino central government in Manila until today.

Examples from all around the world display that independence could only be achieved if it receives consent from the central government of the ruling country.

East Timor, the then Indonesian province of Timor Timur was invaded and annexed by Indonesia against the will of the Timorese in 1975.

As a result, violence erupted in East Timor causing the deaths of thousands of Timorese.

With such stability, why should the Federation come apart?
Initially, Indonesia had no intention to grant independence to them and administered the province for 25 years.

However, due to international pressure arising from the escalating violence, an independence referendum was held in East Timor on 30 August 1999.

The origins of the referendum lay with the request made by the then President of Indonesia, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie, to the United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 27 January 1999, for the United Nations to hold a referendum, whereby the Indonesian province will be given choice of greater autonomy within Indonesia or independence.

More than 70% of Timorese chose to be independent and it became a sovereign nation under the name of Timor-Leste in 2002. 

Scotland is one of the states that formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK).

Scotland possesses its own Scottish pound as its national currency, its own national parliament, its own armed forces, enjoys a developed economy and home to a number of world-class universities. It has a high human development index.

Although Scotland is an economically developed state, it took them quite some time to consider whether or not to secede from the UK. The British central government in London agreed to hold the independence referendum on 18 September 2014 with many Scottish voted to remain with the UK.

Greenland is another good example on this subject. Also known by the Greenlandic name of Kalaallit Nunaat, Greenland has been a colony of Denmark since 1814. It became a county within Denmark in 1953.

Greenland gained self-rule in 2009, where it took control of handling law enforcement, the coast guard, and the legal system.

The official language of Greenland was transferred from Danish to Greenlandic. Denmark however, is still responsible in handling Greenland’s defense and foreign affairs.

Despite being under Danish realm for 200 years, Greenland is now preparing itself for full independence by 2021. As the mother country, Denmark is not opposing to the independence aspirations of the Greenlanders.

Moving from Europe to Africa, the independence of South Sudan in 2011 is a stark example that a province within a State could become independent if such a campaign is supported by the central government of the ruling country.

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir was reported to say that the southern region had a right to choose to secede and that the referendum was helpful because unity could not be forced by power. He also said he would respect the outcome of the vote and support the south.

Unlike Timor-Leste, Scotland, Greenland or South Sudan, there have never been any formal demands echoed by the people and/or government of any states within the Federation to secede from Malaysia.

In addition, there are no military conflicts or militant movements taking place in Malaysia like that of the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (PULO) in Thailand, the OPM in Indonesia and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines.

The Global Peace Index 2015 acknowledges that Malaysia has a high state of peace.

Malaysia is ranked at number 28 out of 162 countries in the world in terms of peace and stability outdoing the United Kingdom, France and Italy.

With such stability, why should the Federation come apart?

Indeed, Malaysians in general have no intention whatsoever to call for secession.

Conclusion

The calls for states within Malaysia to secede are uncalled for.

After 58 years of nationhood, it is now impossible for any Malaysian component states to leave the Federation as dictated under international law practices.

Malaysians should work together for the betterment of the nation.

To promote national unity, we should stop labeling ourselves as Bangsa Johor, Bangsa Perak, Bangsa Putrajaya or even Bangsa Kuala Lumpur.

This is immaterial as we are all Malaysians.

Let us stay united for Malaysia.

As long as Malaysians stand strong for the country, the Federation may never come apart.


* Mohd Hazmi Mohd Rusli (Ph. D) is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Syariah and Law, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia and a visiting professor at the School of Law, Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok, Russia.

** The views expressed here are strictly of the author's and doesn't necessarily reflect Astro AWANI's.