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Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: Khusrin’s appointment – a larger issue of federalism

DATUK Mohd Khusrin Munawi’s appointment as Selangor’s state secretary has ruffled a lot of feathers in the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) government. Menteri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim said he was bypassed in the appointment process and has excluded Khusrin from executive council meetings. Allegations have arisen that Khusrin’s appointment is politically motivated and is a ploy of the Barisan Nasional (BN) federal government.

The Nut Graph asks political scientist Wong Chin Huat in his column Uncommon Sense how this situation arose, and what needs to be done to ensure it doesn’t recur in the future.

(Khusrin pic: Wiki commons)

(Khusrin pic: Wiki commons)

TNG: Why and how has this issue over the appointment of Khusrin arisen? Is the state constitution flawed in allowing a possibly hostile federal government to appoint a key member of the state civil service?

There are at least three different interpretations over who has authority over the state secretary’s appointment. One view is the Selangor menteri  besar has no say on the appointment. Another is that the federally controlled Public Service Commission has that power but should consult the state government on the appointment. The third is that the appointment power lies with the State Public Service Commission (SPCA).

To me, the law and the constitution should be subject to the test of justifiability and legitimacy. If something in the law or constitution cannot be justified rationally, then it is illegitimate or should be deemed so by the public; and the law or constitution must be changed accordingly.

How legitimate is the PR government’s objections to Khusrin’s appointment as state secretary?

Perfectly legitimate. As said in an apt analogy by some laypersons, would you allow your father or mother-in-law to designate who should be your domestic worker?

Why is the state public service federalised? Should the state government have more control over state bureaucracies?

A few reasons are cited for the civil service’s federalisation. One, expanding the pool of talent and allowing mobility. Two, reducing parochialism of state bureaucrats. And three, standardising administration.

Standardising administration in the sense of reducing intergovernmental rivalry or conflict is an utterly flawed reason for federalising the state public service. Federalism presumes that constituent states have substantially different interests that must be protected from the centre. Hence, non-uniformity and centre-state rivalry should be celebrated, especially in an electoral one-party state like Malaysia. With horizontal separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judiciary largely disabled, vertical division of power among federal, state and local governments becomes key to the survival, or rather, the resurrection of democracy.

Ensuring a state-controlled bureaucracy is vital for federalism, and in the case of Malaysia, democracy. A 1993 constitutional amendment watered down the state’s power to appoint key state officials, namely the state secretary, state legal adviser and the state financial officer. The proposed Selangor constitutional amendment on 24 Jan 2011 to return the state and sultan’s power to appoint these officials is therefore necessary, although not sufficient. PR governments have been largely frustrated by the federal-loyal bureaucrats. It’s time to defederalise state bureaucracies and other state institutions such as the police force.

This is yet another case of the royalty being involved in state politics.  Did the sultan of Selangor overstep any constitutional boundaries? Has the royalty as a whole been testing these boundaries and what does this mean for democratic processes in Malaysia?

The monarchy is an unelected institution. Along with other unelected institutions such as the judiciary, bureaucracy, police and military, it has a role to play in democracy. They are to assist the elected government by either supporting or checking on them, but never to replace or control them.

Competition for control is always latent between elected politicians and unelected officials, be they kings, generals or mandarins. In a properly functioning democracy, politicians compete vigorously with each other but will never go as far as courting the unelected institutions to undermine their rivals.

Anwar (File pic)

From Perak to Selangor, the fiasco today should be blamed principally on the politicians. Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim sinned in intention against democracy in his abortive Sept 16 takeover plot. But Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak sinned in deed against democracy through his undermining of elected governments in Perak and now Selangor. Najib seems unable and unwilling to accept the idea of federalism, constitutional monarchy, and ultimately, a multiparty democracy. For the sake of political stability, voters should really consider if he is still fit to head the government of a federal constitutional monarchy like Malaysia.

Najib Razak


Voters are king in democracies and elected governments their representatives. In a constitutional monarchy, which is a variant of, and not an alternative to, democracy, the monarch plays the ceremonial role of figurehead. The monarch unites voters so they can better check on their powerful employee – the executive.

Eroding monarchs’ constitutional constraints costs them universal popularity among their subjects, and in turn makes them vulnerable to dictatorial politicians’ dominance.

Selangor is looking to amend the state constitution so that state leaders would have more control over the appointment of the state civil service. Do they have the power to do this? Is this an advisable move? What long-term consequences would such an amendment have?

The battlefield is not in the State Legislative Assembly, but in the court of public opinion. If the BN votes against the constitutional amendment, they will be seen as anti-monarchical and anti-federalism, even though they have labelled themselves as monarchists.

The amendment will ensure the power of appointment rests explicitly with the state, hence a shift of power from Putrajaya to Shah Alam, but a new tussle of power may happen between the palace and elected politicians. That danger, however, is possible only if elected politicians are willing to undermine each other to gain power.

If the public shows clear displeasure towards undemocratic and unconstitutional means of wresting power, then no monarchy or any unelected institutions will be foolish enough to get into the political game. Hence, the key to stop the fiasco in Selangor rests eventually with the state or federal elections, whichever comes first.

Given the BN’s expressed hostility towards constitutionalism, federalism and ultimately democracy, even after 8 Mar 2008, one wonders if they can be trusted to be the loyal opposition in the absence of a landslide and clear majority government. We may need to overhaul our political system by changing first the government, and then the opposition.

What long-term solutions can there be for federal-state relations to improve and to stop possibly opposing federal-state governments from obstructing each other’s work?

There needs to be a pact between mainstream political parties to defend elected government. Alternatively, any party that refuses to commit to respecting the outcome of elections, whether through buying over legislators or courting the palace and other unelected institutions, must be seen as fringe and illegitimate and rejected completely by the electorate.

To ensure political stability, political parties’ legitimacy should be judged not on their ends but their means. In other words, a party can promote Ketuanan Melayu as long as it accepts the democratic outcome of elections, while any party that advocates palace or military intervention in politics must be denounced.

When a country is run by democrats on both sides of the divide, federalism is not so much an issue.  Federalism, in fact, may become a mechanism to soften political divides, like how French Quebec was persuaded to stay within Canada.

We will need to renegotiate the entire federal arrangement, with more powers devolved to the states to ensure that not only can Putrajaya and Shah Alam work together, but – more importantly – that Kuching and Kota Kinabalu will stay happily within Malaysia.

In brief, constitutional monarchy and federalism can work for Malaysia if we can keep the troublemaking politicians and bureaucrats out of government.

Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. If readers have questions and issues they would like Wong to respond to, they are welcome to e-mail [email protected] for our consideration.

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3 Responses to “Uncommon Sense with Wong Chin Huat: Khusrin’s appointment – a larger issue of federalism”

  1. Ellese says:

    As usual Chin Huat likes to pick and select facts to misrepresent the picture. Fact one: The Sultan is agreeable with Khusrin’s appoinment. Fact two: The MB is not agreeable with Khusrin’s appoinment. Ipso facto the [proposed] change to the state constitution was not for the Sultan but to benefit the MB. It is a constitutional amendment to satisfy Khalid and not the Sultan. [Whatever] spin you want to make, this is the truth. So the spin to say that the amendments were for the Sultan is hypocritical. It’s for [Pakatan Rakyat]. That’s the truth of the matter.

  2. Merah Silu says:

    Well, the three senior posts are federal posts. So the appointment must be done by JPA and not the MB. Fullstop.

    • neptunian says:

      There’s no logic for the “senior post” in a state administration to be a federal post, especially when federal and state governments are from different camps or political persuasions.

      You can quote all the law books in the world – it does not make this right! This would only go to show that you are morally bankrupt. Would you agree to a competitor company hiring your company’s CEO?

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