Travelling in Croatia up the Dalmatian coast last week by road, I was fascinated at having to cross into a little bit of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I initially assumed this geographical oddity was the result of a post-Yugoslav War deal to ensure Bosnia’s access to the sea, but it is actually due to the 1699 Treaty of Karlowitz between the Ottoman Empire and powerful stakeholders in the region, including the Republic of Venice.
Over millennium before that, the region was home to the Roman emperor Diocletian, who built his retirement palace in Split.
Indeed, in this part of the world, you can find enough lessons on humanity’s propensity towards statecraft, war and politics.
It is often said that getting to know tour guides and taxi drivers is the best way to really understand a country, and coincidentally one of the latter was a retired professor of geography who, upon learning I was from Malaysia, remarked: “That’s a federation that works” compared to the experience of Yugoslavia, in whose wars he participated as a soldier.
Croatia’s economy relies heavily on tourism, but the legacy of war is still pervasive. Young people talk about occasional discoveries of undetonated mines, buildings are pocked with bullet holes and in one church, frescoes and reliquaries take pride of place next to spent artillery shells.
Compared to the violent break-up of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, any peaceful federation would look like a success story.
My new friend asked how Malaysia manages its ethnic diversity, and it got me thinking about the unique nature of our federalism.
In many parts of the world, countries become federations precisely to devolve power to certain ethnic or religious groups – to give participants, particularly minorities, enough autonomy to keep them in, while bringing economic and political benefits to all of its members.
This was the exact reasoning behind the decentralisation efforts of the British administration in the Malay peninsula in the 1920s: offer enough autonomy to the Unfederated Malay States to entice them to willingly join the Federated Malay States.
But unlike the Balkan Peninsula, the states of the Malay Peninsula have been defined more by loyalties to monarchs than by perceived ethnicity (and there is much documentation proving that “non-Malays”, by today’s definitions, rose to the top of these classical administrations).
The historical origins of our states include many mythical stories of amazing individuals, but racial lenses were only applied centuries later for contemporary political ends (the legend of Hang Tuah being the prime example).
Even in Penang and Malacca, notwithstanding British migration policy, intermarriage and cultural exchange created new Peranakan communities.
In fact, the state whose origins most include a motivation to protect an ethnic or cultural identity is Negri Sembilan, whose founders sought to protect its adat, which arose from the import of Minangkabau traditions.
A more naked example of an ethnic motivation was the creation of the Federal Territories which, by the reasoning of its architects, was to ensure that the ethnically diverse federal capital remained in Malay political hands – although this justification was never fully admitted, and was then diluted when Labuan and Putrajaya joined.
As the ongoing Sukma Games provide a wonderful display of state affinities, the issue of federalism is high on the political agenda, with the new government restoring the status of Sabah and Sarawak as partners equal to the 11 states of the former Federation of Malaya.
The first step is to undo the 1976 constitutional amendment that “downgraded” Sabah and Sarawak in the first place, and there is much speculation as to whether all MPs from those two states will vote in favour of it.
Certainly, the statement by former foreign minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman that he resigned from his party because of his stance on the Malaysia Agreement 1963 should get his former Umno colleagues thinking.
But I would ask all MPs to support it, not only because restoring the constitutional foundations of our nation is something that should be championed by all Malaysians, but also because there is no greater time to champion decentralisation in a world where technology can enable more responsive policymaking for local communities.
So when Sabah and Sarawak prove that greater autonomy can deliver better services for their citizens, there is no reason that the peninsular states can’t benefit from the same. The only losers are the centralisers in the federal government who hate the idea that they won’t be in charge of every little thing across the whole country.
Then I will have a really good story for my Croatian ex-soldier and former geography professor turned taxi driver.
First published in theborneopost.com and The Star, 21 Sept 2018.