The Malaysian federal state evolved out of the colonial structure established under British rule that was based on the signing of treaties with Malay sultanate states. In 1948, the British territories on the Malay Peninsula formed the Federation of Malaya, which in turn gained independence from Britain in July 1957. Malaysia was formed in 1963 when the former colonies of Singapore and the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak joined the federation.
Disagreements between the federal authorities and the leaders of the State of Singapore led in 1965 to a Constitution Amendment bill that expelled Singapore from the federation. A constitutional crisis in 1969 resulted in the controversial proscriptive Sedition Act that overrides the balance of powers in the federal system. This legislation enabled the dominant ruling parties (primarily the United Malays National Organization and the Barisan Nasional coalition) to effectively increase the power of the central government.
Federal authorities consistently relied upon their power to amend the constitution to enforce their position on any matters of dispute within federal system. In 2008, however, the ruling government suffered a setback when it lost its two-thirds majority in parliament. After more than 50 years of one-party rule based on a multi-ethnic alliance, Malaysia’s governing Barisan Nasional finally faced its first serious challenge as the opposition won control of 5 of the 13 state legislatures. Pressure for greater federalism – starting with demands for the federal government to stop greater centralization – has begun to emerge from the state legislatures, especially those held by the opposition.
Malaysia, a nation with a population of 26 million, is the only federal country between India and Australia. The Federation of Malaysia is federal constitutional elective monarchy composed of 13 states and three Federal Territories. The King of Malaysia is the Head of State while the Prime Minister is Head of Government. Executive power is vested in the Cabinet, which is led by the Prime Minister and is chosen from among both houses of the Parliament.
Malaysia has a bicameral parliament consisting of the House of Representatives (lower house) and the Senate (upper house). The 222 members of the House of Representatives are elected from single member districts by universal adult suffrage. All of the members of the Senate (70 in total) sit for terms of three years, with 26 directly elected by the 13 State Assemblies, and the remaining 44 appointed by the King on the advice of the Prime Minister. A multi-party system is in place and the government is elected via a first past the post system.
Each of the thirteen states has its own unicameral State Legislative Assembly. Members of an Assembly are elected from single member constituencies during state elections which also use a first past the post system. The assemblies have the power to enact state laws, and the majority party in the Assembly forms the state government. State governments are led by a Chief Minister. Many states of Malaysia also have a traditional hereditary ruler (a Governor or Sultan), and in these states the Chief Minister advises the hereditary ruler.
Local governments, the lowest level of government in the Malaysian federal system, have the power to collect taxes and create laws in the form of by-laws. However, local government are not elected but appointed by the state government, and are headed by a civil servant.