KUALA LUMPUR • Controversy has erupted in Malaysia over a minister's suggestion to turn Penang state into a federal territory directly controlled by the central government.
Federal Territories Minister Tengku Adnan Tengku Mansor said last Saturday that such a move would help Malays neglected by the opposition-led Penang state government. He then clarified on Monday that the proposal would assist all urban poor in the state, regardless of race.
His idea drew flak from opposition parties, as well as from his colleagues within Barisan Nasional (BN).
Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng responded with a stern "no" in three languages: Malay, Chinese and Tamil. He described Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan as a conqueror.
"The proposal does not make sense at all. It is treason to Penang. We strongly reject any plans to turn Penang into a federal territory," said Mr Lim, who is also secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), yesterday. "If Penang becomes a federal territory, the governor, the chief minister, the excos will be gone. We will only have MPs and this is a big threat to the sovereignty of Malaysia and the rights of Penangites," he said, according to news site Malay Mail Online.
There are three federal territories in Malaysia: capital city Kuala Lumpur, the administrative centre Putrajaya and Labuan, an offshore financial centre.
Malaysia's 13 states are run by state governments comprising elected assemblymen.
ABOUT THE FEDERAL TERRITORIES
• There are three federal territories: capital city Kuala Lumpur, administrative centre Putrajaya and offshore financial centre Labuan.
• Federal territories are funded by the central government.
• They are governed by the Federal Territories Ministry, with Parliament making all their policies.
• Each territory is represented by MPs in the Dewan Rakyat and appointed senators in the Dewan Negara.
• Local governments in the territories are not elected and are controlled centrally via Kuala Lumpur City Hall, Putrajaya Corporation and Labuan Corporation.
•Sources: freemalaysiatoday.com, Malay Mail Online
Penang BN chief Teng Chang Yeow told reporters last Sunday: "From the little legal knowledge I have, you cannot make a state a federal territory. It is against the Federal Constitution. You need to amend the Constitution."
Amending the Constitution requires the approval of two-thirds of Parliament, a majority that the ruling administration does not enjoy.
Mr Teng noted that the boundaries of a state cannot be altered without the consent of that state's legislative assembly and the Conference of Rulers.
According to news site freemalaysiatoday.com, Mr Teng also chided both Tengku Adnan and Mr Lim for talking without thinking.
"The way they talk makes it seem as though it's easy to turn a state into a federal territory," he said. "Do they think it is their father's land?"
Political analysts say the proposal could be seen as a last-ditch attempt by the ruling coalition to weaken DAP's dominance in Penang, ahead of the country's general elections due next August.
"They may be thinking they can curb the political and economic strength the DAP has obtained through the administration of Penang, Mr Mohamad Hisommudin Bakar, executive director of research outfit Ilham Centre told freemalaysiatoday.com.
"Under federal rule, projects and tenders will be controlled by the Federal Territories Minister," he said.
But instead, they could have handed the opposition a cause with which to gain supporters: to save Penang from federalisation.
Legal experts have waded into the debate to criticise the proposal, even as Tengku Adnan on Monday called for the matter not to be politicised.
Federalising a state is illegal, Dr Kamarul Zaman Yusoff, director of the Institute for Malaysian Political Analysis, Universiti Utara Malaysia, told Malay Mail Online on Monday. He said the minister should immediately retract his proposal since it is inconceivable.
Tengku Adnan floated his idea in a radio interview on Feb 1 , during which he suggested turning Penang, Langkawi island and part of Malacca into federal territories.