Decentralisation in Malaysia – Asking the difficult questions

By Steven Sim

*Penang Institute, together with IDEAS Malaysia and the Speaker of Penang State Legislative Assembly, organised a roundtable discussion on decentralisation in Malaysia. We had with us YAM Tunku Zain Al-'Abidin Tuanku Muhriz, Founding president of IDEAS, Prof Woo Wing Thye, incoming Executive Director of Penang Institute, and YB Liew Chin Tong, member of Parliament for Bukit Bendera as speakers, and Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, Founding Chief Executive of IDEAS as moderator of the roundtable. It has held in the conference room of Penang State Legislative Assembly.  


After the March 8 general election in Malaysia, the debate on decentralisation has gained momentum. For decades now, state and local governments have surrendered power to the federal government in Kuala Lumpur and then, to Putrajaya. For example, local services such as utilities -water, electricity – solid waste management are now under federal jurisdiction. Internal security is also under federal control. YB Liew Chin Tong pointed out that when the police force is put under a very strong federal government, then the concern of internal security shifted from crime-fighting to politics. The fire brigade service which used to be under the purview of the local government has been removed and placed under the federal government. In fact, as a last act of centralisation, local government election was abolished in the 1965, making city and municipal governance subservient to the state and ultimately national government.

Such arrangement however worked because the ruling party was the same at both the federal and state level. And within the ruling party, power was also centralised in the highest central leadership, represented by the President of UMNO who is the President of the ruling coalition who is traditionally the Prime Minister. However with the change in our political scene after March 8, where now some of the wealthiest state in Malaysia are being governed by federal opposition parties, the problems of centralisation emerged to the surface.

Examples around the world showed that decentralisation yields better result in governance than a centrally-powerful government, from Indonesia to Taiwan to South Korea and China or even to an extend, the USA. Professor Dato Woo Wing Thye, a senior fellow at Brookings Institute observed that it is a medicine for times of emergency where there is a need for a more efficient decision making, for example in UK during the Great War. Whether we agree or not with his view on the need for powerful top-down mechanism during emergencies, the key point is, centralisation of power is the exception, not the rule in a normal democracy.


The discussion of decentralisation must be more nuanced. While one must avoid the case where dictators at the federal level is ditched for dictators at the provincial or local level, decentralisation must not be an excuse for governments to say to the people, “you are on your own now”, leaving it to the market.

One may disagree, but risking oversimplification, centralisation and decentralisation is a matter of types of management; what is more vital is the question on democracy. How much power does the people have to decide on issues of governance? Empowering the people does not necessarily means merely empowering the individuals, but rather ensuring the vulnerable and weak are protected. This definitely requires ensuring some kind of across the board parity in critical areas such as healthcare and education. That means some degree of centralisation, and we can argue whether at the provincial or federal level. But that would also mean decentralisation, for example devolving the power of state in regards to information and press freedom to empower civil society to make more informed decisions.

Decentralisation is rooted not only inmodern-day political ideology, but also in the historical setup of Malaysia with independent sovereigns ruling the different states in pre-Merdeka Malaya. With the surrendering of local power to the UMNO-led federal government, making subnational strategy a centrally-planned one, and coupled with the widespread abuse of governmental power, decision at the federal level is a disjuncture from the reality at the local level. As such, devolving federal power is necessary, if only to rectify the big, heavy, inefficient and corrupted federal government. However asking the right and sometimes difficult questions is crucial to ensure decentralisation does not backfire with its own set of problems.

*Article originally appears in

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