Sabah’s constitutional amendments

Rayner Sylvester Yeo

Sabah's government has promised to enact a two-term limit for the office of chief minister. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, May 27, 2024.

IN my article last month, “Institutionalising term limits for political offices in Malaysia,” it was mentioned that the Sabah government has promised to enact a two-term limit for the office of chief minister.

It now seems that the proposal will finally be tabled.

According to a news report, two bills to amend the state constitution to change the chief minister’s title to “premier” and to set a limit for the chief minister’s tenure to two terms of five years eachare expected to be tabled in the state legislature in July.

A separate bill to replace the title of “assistant minister” with “deputy minister” is also expected to be tabled.

If the bills are passed, Sabah will be only the second state to have a term limit for its head of government after Penang in 2018. It will also the second state to have a head of government called “premier” after Sarawak in 2022.

These two bills represent two trends that are on the rise in Malaysia in recent years.

One is the growing tendency of leaders of Sabah and Sarawak to assert the rights of their respective states under the Malaysia Agreement 1963.

The other is the effort to create more checks and balances in the system of governance.

It should be noted, however, that the term limit for Sabah’s chief minister might be different from the Penang version.

GRS deputy secretary-general and federal minister Armizan Mohd Ali said the Sabah chief minister, after serving for two terms, could become eligible for the office again after a “cooling-off period”.

In Penang, a person who has served as chief minister for two terms cannot hold the office again for the rest of his life.

In political science, the Penang version of a term limit is called a “lifetime term limit” while the probable Sabah version is called a “consecutive term limit”.

An example of a lifetime term limit is the presidency of the United States. The president cannot run for the office again after serving two terms as president.

On the other hand, the term limit of one term for Yang di-Pertuan Agong is an example of a consecutive term limit as it does not prevent a former office holder from returning to the throne, as did Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah, who was our fifth and 14th king.

Sabah is no stranger to constitutional amendments. The state government had in the past amended the state constitution to set a two-term limit for its Yang di-Pertua Negeri, but that was changed in 2018 by the then Warisan-Pakatan Harapan government after the Yang di-Pertua Negeri sided with the government against the previous chief minister in the post-election struggle for power.

Consequently, the Yang di-Pertua Negeri is now serving his fourth term.

Sabah was first to enact an anti-party hopping law in the 1980s, long before such a law was adopted at the federal level or in other states. 

The PAS government in Kelantan adopted a similar constitutional amendment in the 1990s but it was declared unconstitutional by the Federal Court.

Sabah’s anti-party hopping law was similarly declared unconstitutional shortly after that.

A new anti-party hopping law was enacted in the 2023 constitutional amendment after the federal parliament and several state legislatures passed similar laws.

The state government in the 1980s also enacted another constitutional amendment, which states that the leader of a political party that has won a majority of the elected seats in the election and who is a member of the assembly shall be appointed chief minister.

But the amendment was repealed in 2023 by the same bill that reinstated the anti-party hopping law.

The government justified the repeal by pointing out that it will give more flexibility to the Yang di-Pertua Negeri to choose a chief minister because no party has won a majority of seats in recent years.

While the anti-party hopping clause in the bill was unanimously supported, the clause regarding the appointment of the chief minister was opposed by Warisan, which vowed to bring back the law if elected.

The coming July bills are expected to be passed easily, though some leaders such as Bung Moktar Radin of Sabah BN have stated that the name change of the chief minister post is unnecessary.

Some others might think that it has not gone far enough, especially those who have proposed to change the name of the post Yang di-Pertua Negeri back to Yang di-Pertua Negara, which was used in 1963-1976.

Whatever the outcome of the coming July session, there will probably be more suggestions for constitutional amendments floated by various parties in the run-up to the next state election due in 2025.  – May 27, 2024.

* Rayner Sylvester Yeo is a member of Agora Society. He was born in Sabah and is currently residing in Kuala Lumpur. Having grown up in a mixed-ethnic, multi-faith family and spent his working life in public, private and non-profit sectors, he believes diversity is the spice of life.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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