Devolution: Adenan’s Idea on Power-Sharing

In the West, a leader who is at the twilight of his career is often asked how he would like to be remembered. It is not easy to provide answers to this kind of questions particularly for someone who has been there for quite some time. As a Liverpool fan, for instance, I will always remember Steven Gerrard for his contributions in what is aptly regarded as the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’.

How is history going to judge Adenan Satem?

A federal system like Malaysia is normally consisted of diverse regions and is usually established by an Agreement. The United States of America, for example, was formed by the Philadelphia Agreement. By the same token, Malaysia was created by the London Agreement. Each region joined the union because of the perceived benefits of being a part of a larger political entity, and in the process surrendered some of its powers to the centre. But the centre cannot have all the power otherwise it will become too authoritarian and bureaucratic.

A highly centralised country, many argued, is not healthy for democracy. After its first democratic election in 1979, Barcelona embarked upon decentralisation by creating 10 new districts. The main objectives for this policy are to encourage citizen participations, to improve the delivery of public services and to control the cost of providing these services. Similarly, after its authoritarian government, Brazil promulgated a new constitution in 1988 to give its sub-national governments some autonomy on financial matters. In South Korea, the authoritarian government realised that it had to yield to the democratic demands of the people by undertaking the processes of decentralisation and giving autonomy to local authorities.

South Korea is now a democratic country. Today, there are no more street demonstrations, students and farmers uprisings, and open rebellions in South Korea as seen in the 1970s and 1980s.

The autonomy given by the central administration to the regional authorities did not destroy the socio-political and economic fabrics of the three countries. The sharing of powers in fact has helped to strengthen the processes of modernising the public sector and improving the quality of public service delivery in these countries.

Regional liberty and autonomy help to maintain a progressive and dynamic political union. After more than 300 years of union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Scotland wanted some form of autonomy. It now has its own legislature, and a British Member of Parliament is now also its First Minister.

Will devolution destroy a nation? Experiences from these countries suggested otherwise. In the last two decades, of all the countries in Southeast Asia, Indonesia is one country that has successfully embarked upon devolution. Will Malaysia benefit from devolving powers to Sarawak?

Will devolution impact on Central-State relations? Do we need a shift in the formulation and implementation of central policies affecting Sarawak?

Devolution is about giving some power back to the state on certain issues. The state will then have the autonomy and liberty to decide on what it can do to deal with these issues based on what it deems as appropriate and right. It is about giving the state the responsibility to make decisions and to take political actions. Equality and equity are important concepts to be considered in this respect.

Adenan caught many people off-guard when he started to talk about state autonomy immediately after becoming Sarawak’s fifth Chief Minister 23 months ago. Most Sarawakians, including the politicians, I believed, would have expected him to say the usual stuff when he took over from Taib. ‘Do as it has been done before and I’m safe’ might be the slogan for many leaders in his position, but this new policy initiative is about someone who seems to know why he is in politics in the first place.

Only one man can deny Adenan this legacy and a special place in Sarawak political history. But both he and the Prime Minister need to leave a legacy behind, as Steven Gerrard did in football in the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’.