GEORGE TOWN: Kedah menteri besar Sanusi Nor’s repeated claim that Penang belongs to Kedah has once again sparked controversy, earning praise from his supporters and the derision of Penangites.
Penang leaders have since responded by emphasising its equal status in the federation while condemning Sanusi’s assertions as an affront to the state’s sovereignty.
FMT looks at how these claims have unfolded in recent years.
Sanusi first made his claim three years ago, after Penang asked Kedah to protect its water catchment forests. Penang’s water company, PBAPP, requested that logging cease in the Ulu Muda forest reserve to safeguard the water catchment area from encroachment.
Some 80% of Penang’s raw water comes from Sungai Muda, which originates from the upstream forest.
Kedah and Perlis also rely on the same river for water, accounting for 96% and 70% of their water supply, respectively. The river serves a combined population of 4.2 million people across the three states.
Sanusi responded by telling Penang not to meddle in Kedah’s affairs and accused it of interfering with Kedah’s sovereignty after PBAPP made multiple site visits to the Ulu Muda forest reserve.
He then demanded that Penang pay RM50 million a year for water it draws from Sungai Muda, alleging that PBAPP has been profiting handsomely at Kedah’s expense. Penang refused, saying it had every right to draw water from its own territory.
Sanusi retaliated by demanding RM100 million a year in lease payments, claiming that Penang and Seberang Perai were “leased” from Kedah. This demand, made in 2021 and 2022, resurfaced recently when the menteri besar reignited the argument.
In 1786, Francis Light of the British East India Company (EIC) arrived on Penang Island after reaching an agreement with Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Shah of Kedah. At the time, the island was a vast jungle covering nearly 277sq. km. with a population of 58.
In the same year, Siam defeated the Patani sultanate and reclaimed Kedah as its tributary. Sultan Abdullah had sought military backup from the EIC, but it declined.
In 1791, the EIC repelled an attempt by the Sultan to take Penang by force.
According to historian Ranjit Singh Malhi, the 1791 Treaty of Peace and Friendship then followed.
This treaty allowed the EIC to occupy Penang Island, paying an annual sum of 6,000 Spanish dollars for as long as the company remained. According to Ranjit, except for Province Wellesley (Seberang Perai), the island was not ceded in perpetuity, as some have claimed.
In 1800, the Peace, Friendship and Alliance Treaty was signed, with the British increasing the annual stipend to 10,000 Spanish dollars a year.
However, these treaties lost their relevance in 1826, when Penang, Melaka and Singapore formed the Straits Settlements, which were administered by the (British) government of India.
In 1867, the settlements were placed under the direct control of London as a crown colony, said Ranjit.
After Merdeka, the federal government paid Kedah an annual honorarium of RM10,000 under the treaty, which was increased to RM10,010,000 in 2018.
Penang’s status as a sovereign state is enshrined in Article 1(2) of the Federal Constitution.
Article 71(1), read in conjunction with the Eighth Schedule, guarantees that each state, including Penang, shall have its own constitution.
In 1985, the state governments of Kedah and Penang agreed to alter their northern boundaries in Seberang Perai to the middle of Sungai Muda. Previously, the entire river flowing into Seberang Perai was under Penang’s jurisdiction.
An act of Parliament was passed, compelling Penang to relinquish part of the river to Kedah.
Lawyer Andrew Khoo said Kedah’s claim to Penang has no basis, and the status quo should prevail. He said the menteri besar’s suggestion was “daft and dangerous”.
“It is daft because it defies all known legal and constitutional records. Dangerous, because it will prompt historical and geographical revisionism by other states and interest groups that will shatter the very core of our nationhood.
“It is a recipe for national destruction, all for the sake of wanting to be ‘jaguh kampung’ (the local champion) in one part of the country.
“We are seeing this kind of attitude from various politicians, adopting and embracing populist ideas and slogans for the sake of courting quick and short-term gains, but without any consideration for the long-term implications and repercussions for the unity of the country as a whole.”
Universiti Utara Malaysia’s Azizuddin Sani said Sanusi’s repeated attacks on Penang were parts of a strategy to win over Malay voters. However, over time, this rhetoric has irritated Kedahans, many of whom work for, and benefit from, Penang’s economy.
“There is no proof that Kedahans like his tactics. Sanusi, on the other hand, is very confrontational. He is driven by a fetish to popularise himself,” he said.
“If he is using the last general election’s results to claim popularity, he is wrong. The dynamics have changed since Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s government took over,” he said.
Azizuddin said Sanusi’s long-term goal, outside the popularity exercise, appears to be a scaling of the upper echelons of PAS.
“His long stretch is to be deputy president of the party,” he said.