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perdana discourse series 20 - The Federal & the States: Federal-State Relations in Malaysia


On 24th of August 2016, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad delivered a keynote address on Federal-State relations at the 20th Perdana Discourse Series themed “The Federal & the States: Federal-State Relations in Malaysia”, organized by the Perdana Leadership Foundation. Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad started his keynote address by going through the history of Malaya and subsequently Malaysia.

Malaysia is a federation of states and each State has its own Sultan. The country, however, could not have nine rulers. That was a problem Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, solved by creating the position of the “Yang Di-Pertuan Agong”, the constitutional monarch of the nation. The Council of Rulers agreed on the position being rotated every five years among the State Sultans. It was a unique arrangement, and one that perfectly reflects the relationship and collaboration between Federal and State Governments.

“When the Malay states became independent in 1957, it became independent as a federation. The administration of a Federation is far more complex than that of a union. There has to be a division of power between the states and the central government. This was worked out well by people who were quite knowledgeable about the administrations of the Malay states. Some of the former British civil servants understood the sensitivities of the rulers and their states. They figured out how to bring the states together in a federation while allowing the states to retain some of its identity and the power of the Sultans. Eventually, of course, this became part of the written constitution.”

“Now, the Malaysian Constitution derived much from the British Constitution. That is to say, while rulers are to be maintained, their powers are curtailed when it comes to the administration (of the government). They would still be the titular heads of state but the head of the administration will be chosen by elected representatives, working through the state or federal legislative councils. This was agreed upon but then we cannot have nine rulers even if it’s a federation. The founding fathers such as Tunku Abdul Rahman decided that in order to have a single head of state, one of the nine rulers should hold that post. But if this were to be a permanent post, it would not be accepted by the rest of the Malay rulers as they considered themselves to be equal to one another. This was resolved by creating the position of Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who would be the Federal Head of the Government but who would be installed for only five years. Subsequently, another Sultan would be appointed as the next Yang di-Pertuan Agong,” said Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Following an active Question and Answer session with Tun, a panel discussion was held, moderated by Professor Dato’ Dr. Ahmad Murad Merican, the Foundation’s Resident Fellow and Faculty Member of the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CENPRIS), USM. Panellists were Associate Professor Dr Shamrahayu Abdul Aziz, Senior Lecturer at the International Islamic University of Malaysia; Associate Professor Dr Azeem Fazwan Ahmad Farouk, CENPRIS Director, USM; and Mr Abdul Rahim Sinwan, Vice-President of the Muslim Lawyers Association. Some of the topics discussed during the panel session were the role of agencies at state and national levels, legal and jurisdiction issues, and the political relationship between the states and the federal government.

More than 150 people attended the discourse, consisting of students, academics, NGO representatives, media, and members of the public.

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