Autonomous imbalances

THE issue of secession is once again trending, triggered by what is happening in Catalonia: the north-eastern region of Spain that has long possessed its own language and culture, but has not been an independent sovereign country. While it is tempting to apply a set of uniform assumptions about the motivations and processes used by those who seek independence, it is important to appreciate the specifics of each particular case.

For example, a comparison with the 2014 Scottish independence referendum would be inaccurate because the histories and legal context are different. Scotland was definitely an independent sovereign kingdom once upon a time, and more pertinently, the Scottish referendum was agreed upon by the governments of both Scotland and the United Kingdom and considered valid by the judiciary. This is not true with the Catalonian referendum, which is regarded as unconstitutional by the Spanish government and Supreme Court. (Although the logical question then is whether a mutually-agreed referendum would ever be possible.)

Indeed, although both sides are claiming they are the ones adhering to democracy, the interpretations of the Spanish government – that of the supremacy of the constitution and rule of law – are prevailing in the European Union and international community, notwithstanding earlier scenes of alleged police brutality (themselves subject to scrutiny, with provocateurs and fake photographs being cited). The Spanish King (whose approval ratings far surpass that of the politicians) too has spoken in favour of the unity of Spain and illegality of the referendum, which is significant given that it was the monarchy that defended Spanish democracy after a coup attempt in 1981.

After much anticipation ahead of his first public speech after the vote, the Catalan President stopped short of declaring an independent state, saying, “I want to follow the people’s will for Catalonia to become an independent state” before then suspending the process and calling for dialogue. Although seen as an attempt to defuse the situation, it has also caused confusion, and as of the time I’m writing this, the Spanish Prime Minister has asked whether this is a declaration of independence or not! If so, the speculation is that a never-used article of the Spanish Constitution will be used to enable the Spanish government to “take the measures necessary in order to compel (the Autonomous Community) to meet (obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution)”.

So what are the lessons for Malaysia?

In terms of decentralisation, the most important thing is to realise that Catalonia (despite being in a technically unitary state) already has far more powers than Malaysian states do, possessing jurisdiction over education, health, transport, and even has its own police force. Yet, independence is still being sought: brought about by the power of a separate national identity catalysed by a perceived economic situation. As my colleague Tricia Yeoh of Ideas has pointed out, “a similar comparison of the economic contributions Catalonia makes to Spain would be Selangor’s contributions to Malaysia – an estimated 20 per cent of the country’s GDP”. In a time of economic difficulty, those who feel that their contributions are being inappropriately distributed might feel aggrieved by it.  These feelings – apart from the force of law – need to be given due consideration.

But perhaps a more overarching lesson is this: that with the various attempts to change the fundamental structure of our country today – especially through deliberate misinterpretations of the Constitution – it is vital that we work to create a shared understanding of our Federal Constitution. If we don’t, not only do we unravel the work of our founding fathers who worked to create our federation, but we also leave the country vulnerable to self-proclaimed champions who all think that only they are correct, everyone else is wrong, and they are willing to use violence to prove it.

We have already seen instances where people who completely oppose each other are both claiming to have the Federal Constitution on their side. It may be that in some cases the constitution really is deficient, but that is why we have a democratic process so that any disagreements or omissions can be addressed in a peaceful way.

The issue of autonomy and states’ powers in Malaysia might not seem to be such a potent issue at present, but with schisms occurring in our society in terms of the normative basis of laws or the rights of citizens based on their religious affiliation, we may find that our internal geographical borders may become borders for other beliefs, too.

That is why it is essential that all Malaysians understand what was agreed in 1963 at least, if not 1957 and 1948 in the Federation of Malaya, 1895 in the Federated Malay States and 1773 in Negeri Sembilan.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.

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