Upholding the nation’s origins


By Clive Kessler

NOV 8 — Their royal highnesses, the Rulers of the Malay states, following their recent October meeting as the Conference of Rulers, have urged all Malaysians to heed the nation’s history. Citizens, they remind us, must recognise the obligation upon all Malaysians to share the land and its benefits equitably. Their highnesses accordingly call upon all Malaysians to respect and uphold “the social contract”.

More recently, in his regular “Reflecting on the Law” column in The Star (“Unifying Role of the Rulers”, November 3), the nation’s leading constitutional scholar Prof Shad Saleem Faruqi voiced a similar plea. Again, he insists, history must be acknowledged, it cannot be denied. There is no skirting around its legacy. The land and its bounty are to be shared in a fashion that is mindful of and faithful to the nation’s historical foundations. All the nation’s citizens, both Malay and non-Malay in their various historically distinctive ways born of how they became incorporated into the one shared nation, are stakeholders in the nation, its present benefits and future destiny.

The same message of historical awareness and responsibility, according to a recent column by Dr Mohd Ridhuan Tee Abdullah in Utusan Malaysia (“Sifat Toleransi Kerana Islam”, October 31), has been voiced by two leading Malaysian scholars of Chinese origins, the eminent historian Prof Khoo Kay Kim and the linguist (and lively Berita Harian columnist) Prof Teo Kok Seong.

There is nothing particularly controversial in what all these various guardians of the national conscience and heritage declare. No responsible political actor or commentator seriously questions these basic ideas. They are widely held.

And yet … The nation is nonetheless still caught up in lively debate, and marked by serious political differences, over these issues.

Why? Because while there is little dissent over the essentials that the Rulers and national scholars have in common affirmed, there still remain some significant differences concerning what those commonly agreed essentials, what we might call the “national fundamentals”, mean and imply.

Eager to uphold national sovereignty and harmony, the Malay Rulers, in their recent statement following their October meeting, expressed the hope that “the people will not allow outside involvement and interference in the country’s affairs”. So I perhaps comment on these matters now, as in the past, at my peril. Not a Malaysian citizen, I may be one of those whom the leading journalist Datuk Kadir Jasin, in the volatile time leading to the 1999 national elections, branded in the New Straits Times as “clueless outsiders”. But one can only speak of the truth as one sees it. And a person of character not only can but must do so.

Shad urges everybody to heed the Malay Rulers’ call to honour the “social contract” that is the basis of the Constitution and through it the nation — a constitution in which their royal highnesses have a pivotal role, an acknowledged standing and in-built position.

What kind of a role, standing, and position these are — to what degree they are symbolic and in what measure politically instrumental, and, where instrumental or “effective”, to what extent their royal highnesses are to be seen as capable of autonomous political action on their own behalf and in what measure they are there more to “be” than to “do”, or simply to serve as the personified embodiments of constitutional principle and the Constitution itself — are significant questions. Matters of heated contestation in Malaysia over the last three decades, these are questions that will not be addressed here.

Setting those questions aside, let us return to the now central idea of the “social contract”. This is what their royal highnesses’ recent statement invokes. This is an idea or phrase that is also used by Shad and Ridhuan Tee as well as by many contemporary political actors especially from Umno and Perkasa.

They all use it to “telescope” together or summarise other things: namely and notably, their view of the nation’s foundations and the manner whereby those negotiated foundations of nationhood, patiently worked through in the “Merdeka process” of the years 1955-1957, were expressed in, and made effective by the promulgation of, the Merdeka Constitution.

The term “social contract” is now used as, and has become for some, a standard “portmanteau term” or summary label for that Merdeka process, for its terms and what the process of agreeing to them as the basis of modern national sovereignty involved.

But, it should be clear, it is a term not of that time but of this, of ours now.

The idea of a “social contract”, in those words or terms, is nowhere to be found in and is no part of the Constitution’s language. Nor was that expression at the time any part of the deliberations and negotiations (“the Merdeka process and agreements”) that made the adoption and promulgation of the Constitution, and hence the creation of nation upon which it stands, possible.

The term “social contract” is a later construction. It is not part of the Constitution but retrospectively offers a certain subsequent — a very partisan and contested — political interpretation of its meaning (namely, that which was famously articulated by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad in his “Ketuanan Melayu” speech in Singapore in 1986).

Now inseparably associated with that much more recently created notion of “Ketuanan Melayu” which Abdullah promoted in that same address, the idea of “the Malaysian social contract” is a retrospective, partisan and revisionist notion (or “reading”) of the essence of national constitutional principle that some have wished to “read back into” the Constitution.

By recourse to this means, this conceptual manoeuvre, they seek to “read back” into the Constitution itself not only the idea of the “social contract” but also its associated companion notion of “Ketuanan Melayu”. In this way, with this stratagem, they are able “read out” these contested notions from the Constitution as if they were there. They pursue this recourse of contriving to find these notions already implicitly embedded there precisely because they are not, and never were, there in the first place.

The “social contract” and “Ketuanan Melayu” are “read back into” the Constitution and not, as this argumentative stratagem and those who employ it seek to suggest, “read off from it”. They must be “read back” into the Constitution, by means of a kind of after-the-event conceptual “smuggling” operation, by creative anachronism designed to serve the ends of a disguised revisionism.

All Malaysians need to be clear — fastidiously clear and precise — about this point. There is no comfort, no support, no entrenched precedental foundation in any of this for the creatively anachronistic, the retrospectively revisionist, the doctrinally expansionist notions that the “new Malaysian social contract theorists” and champions of the notion of “Ketuanan Melayu” seek to find — and happily imagine that they can see — in the foundational constitutional guarantees of modern Malaysian nationhood.

Ironically, the key protagonists on both sides of this centrally important question are agreed that both the spirit and the letter of the agreements reached as the basis for the nation’s founding moment in 1957 must be upheld and honoured.

There is no difference over that point. Both sides insist upon it. But the two sides disagree fundamentally about what those agreements and their implications, what their letter and animating spirit, were.

On the one side are those who for long spoke of, and affirmed their allegiance to, the “Merdeka agreements” that emerged from the “Merdeka process” and the “Merdeka negotiations”. They see those agreements as laying down, with clear and conscious intent, the foundations for an emerging democratic, progressive and secular multiethnic society and nation.

That was for long not only the “orthodox” or conventional view of the matter but the only one that could be given any credence — that had any support, any claim to be taken seriously. It was not just the “default” position but the only one on offer, the only one to be considered.

But from 1986, a different view began to be developed, voiced and promoted, one based upon Abdullah Ahmad’s radical reconceptualisation of the foundations and character of Malaysian nationhood. This view saw the national Constitution that emerged from the Merdeka process as having been advisedly designed and pre-adapted, from the outset, to serve certain subsequently advanced claims of Malay ascendancy in national life.

The Merdeka negotiations and process, in the view of these later thinkers, had solemnised — within what they retrospectively saw and named as a “Malaysian social contract” — their own more recently crafted ideas of “Ketuanan Melayu”.

For them, both the originating legitimation for the broad agenda of “Malay political ascendancy in perpetuity”, and also the crucial enabling mechanisms for asserting and implementing it institutionally, were somehow deeply embedded or powerfully “hard-wired” within the Constitution itself.

As part of a foundational “Malaysian social contract”, the new doctrine asserted, they had been implanted there, by common agreement of all parties including all member organisations of the Alliance Party, from the time of post-imperial national birth by those pre-independence negotiations. For them it was the joint legacy of Malaya’s “Midnight’s Children”.

“Ketuanan Melayu”, Malay social ascendancy and political domination, were accordingly, on this reading, part of the darah-daging, the very flesh and sinew, of the nation. Both explicit and implicit, stated and implied, spirit and letter, tersurat and tersirat, they were intertwined and integral parts of the Constitution itself.

Both sides see as politically “sacred” the nation’s founding moment, the Constitution promulgated at its founding moment, and the processes that made agreement to the adoption of that constitution possible. Both insist that the nation’s founding dispensation be upheld and honoured. They simply disagree — and disagree vehemently — over what that founding national covenant stated and now means, what its essential terms are.

The Constitution and the nationally focal “Merdeka moment” from which it emerged are what philosophers refer to as “essentially contested ideas”. They have become so as a result of the promotion, three decades after Merdeka itself, of a radical reinterpretation of modern nationhood. By its “rebranding” of the Merdeka agreements as the “social contract”, this new view reads the notion of Malay ascendancy, through its association with those new ideas of an originating “social contract”, into the fabric of the nation and the terms of the Constitution itself.

This latter process is circular, not unlike the children’s party game of a treasure hunt. You only end up finding what you have yourself placed there to be later found. Without your efforts to implant it there and make it conveniently available, it would not be there to find. But the illusion — the appearance that it has been there, waiting all the time and available to be found by those who seek it in sincere and truthful determination — is beguilingly created.

The country, notably its major political elements, are these days divided not between those who uphold the social contract and those who would prefer to repudiate it. All sides, all the main political actors and commentators want what they see the nation’s foundational covenant as they see it — labelled by some as the “social contract” and by others, for much longer, as the “Merdeka agreements” — honoured. The problem, theirs and the nation’s, is that they disagree fundamentally what those agreements are, what that “contract” is, what the nation’s foundational covenant says and means.

* Clive S. Kessler is Emeritus Professor, Sociology and Anthropology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.

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  1. #1 by Godfather on Monday, 8 November 2010 - 5:20 pm

    If we ask “What Contract?”, UMNO will reply “The Contract as we define it, and there shall be no dispute over how we see it.”

    If you dispute UMNO’s definition of the social contract, then you could be charged with sedition or harrassed until you have to leave the country.

    Frankly, I see the statement issued by the Conference of Rulers as a call to stop all further discussions on this subject.

  2. #2 by Bigjoe on Monday, 8 November 2010 - 11:06 pm

    Very cheong hei. Put it simply. So long as they insist to lie on a so called ‘social contract’, they insist to break the founding and hence the original idea of Malaysia as a nation. So long as we don’t agree, we don’t have a country..

  3. #3 by vsp on Monday, 8 November 2010 - 11:15 pm

    I don’t think the Malays, except those elitist “Ketuanan Melayu” proponents, would would want to go back to the dark ages of the Ketuanan Melayu era. Ketuanan Melayu implies a master-slave relationship. This means the aristocratic elitist class held unquestioned sway over every aspects of the common Malay lives.

    During the era of Ketuanan Melayu wars among the ruling elitist class was the predominant occupation. Because of this there were scant developments in many areas of the Ketuanan Melayu world. The ordinary Malays were not encouraged to be proficient in any trade or professions, except to plant rice, tapioca, and other minor crops in order to support the war machine of the warring elites.

    The Malay peninsula is very rich in resources like tin and vegetation. The soil is very productive and the climate is very generous to plants. Tin mining was a very lucrative activity but during Ketuanan Melayu rule the Malays were not encouraged to take advantage of the opportunity; the ruling elites preferred the Chinese to carry out the job of extracting the ores from the earth instead of encouraging their subjects to learn the trade; they just collected rents. When the British came to Malaya, they introduced many cash crops that were top money earners for the country but they couldn’t get the Malays to work in the plantations. Most probably the population at that time was decimated due to the incessant internecine wars; so the British had no choice but to import workers from China and India. When the British were about to grant independence to the country, there were practically no professions that the Malays were engaged in, except in rice planting and fishing. Also the population of the Malays and non-Malays were about equal in numbers. Who were to be blamed for such deplorable situation but the ruling elites.

    When the British acceded Independence to the country and gave us a Constitution, they did include minor Ketuanan Melayu elements into it. The Constitution follows the Westminster style of constitutional monarchy. It did not restored the aristocratic Ketuanan Melayu form of governance. Instead the people were empowered to form the government, while the rulers were mere figureheads with no actual powers to dictate the running of the administration. In fact Malaysia is a new country comprising of various stakeholders from many races. The Ketuanan Melayu polity had ceased to exist. The only anachronism is the existence of the rulers but with no powers in reality.

    If the Malays were to understand the ramifications of the Ketuanan Melayu order, they would see how much empowerment and co-existence they would have in Malaysia which were non-existent in the outdated anachronistic Ketuanan Melayu past.

  4. #4 by good coolie on Tuesday, 9 November 2010 - 1:08 am

    Why don’t we ask Tungku, Sambanthan, and Tan Cheng Lok about the social contract? Yes, those statesmen are not alive today, but I am sure quite a number of fellows are still around, who were around when mee was two cents a plate: let them tell us how unequal we are supposed to be! You may force me to say so, but I do not believe it, that some are tuans and others servants. I will vote for those who say all are equal citizens.

  5. #5 by ktteokt on Tuesday, 9 November 2010 - 9:09 am

    What good is a KETUANAN that Me-layu (withers)?

  6. #6 by undertaker888 on Tuesday, 9 November 2010 - 11:07 am

    i wonder if the rulers themselves read the so-sial contract? it is written in england language. i wonder where in the article they translate english words as “ketuanan malayu”.

    is it possible it is “……the Lordship must withers…”? when translated to malay, it is “…Ketuanan mesti melayu…”. and these goons thought that the Malay must be Tuan?

  7. #7 by Godfather on Tuesday, 9 November 2010 - 12:22 pm

    Their biggest fear is to debate the word “equitably”. Since it is so subjective, there will be no end to the debate as to what constitutes equitable treatment. And if we leave it to the Federal Court, we will probably get the decision that UMNO wants – which is the 90:10 formula practised for the past 35 years.

  8. #8 by frustrated doctor on Tuesday, 9 November 2010 - 1:26 pm

    No wonder they want to make history compulsory! Now they can include this ‘social contract’ into it and brain wash future generations. They know they failed previously when the present generation, which never had even heard this word while at school, has started asking for equal rights.

    Malaysia – only country in the world where the majority needs protection form the minority!

    Hidup 1Malaysia – yeah!

  9. #9 by ktteokt on Tuesday, 9 November 2010 - 6:29 pm

    Then perhaps they should rewrite the RUKUNEGARA by first deleting the words “membina masyarakat yang ADIL”!!!!!!!

  10. #10 by Loh on Wednesday, 10 November 2010 - 5:09 pm

    ///The term “social contract” is a later construction. It is not part of the Constitution but retrospectively offers a certain subsequent — a very partisan and contested — political interpretation of its meaning (namely, that which was famously articulated by Tan Sri Abdullah Ahmad in his “Ketuanan Melayu” speech in Singapore in 1986)./// Clive Kessler

    If the constitution is taken as the social contract, then it should refer to the original document without any amendment made to it. In particular article 153 is an aberration to the agreement that all Malayans are equal, and the Malays were given special assistance based on needs, and the position of Malays are subject to review after 15 years. The amendments to article 153 introduced by Tun Razak removed the provision for review, and that introduced doubts as to why Malays were given special assistance. The interpretation is now based on might, the persons who are allowed to demonstrate with tacit approval of UMNO minister.

    The conference of rulers should be above politics. Why do the rulers have to influence the thinking of the people on their political views? The Rulers being above politics should not take side to discourage people from engaging in discussion of issues important to the nation.

  11. #11 by born in Malaya on Wednesday, 10 November 2010 - 11:49 pm

    Like what the other readers are saying:Tungku, Sambanthan, and Tan Cheng Lok went to UK to negotiate Malaya’s independence and there is no way that Tan Cheng Lok and Sambanthan would have agreed/or suggested to the idea of Ketuanan Melayu, a 3 year old would know that these are fabricated later by the UMNOs .

    Tan Cheng Lock (1887-1960), Politician
    The Tan Cheng Lock Papers consist of documents covering all aspects of Tan Cheng Lock’s public life. The most important files are those relating to his leadership of the Malayan Chinese Association during its formative period, the early years of the UMNO-MCA Alliance and the role he played in the struggle for Malaya’s independence. The Tan Cheng Lock Papers is a valuable source for the study of Malaysian history for the period immediately before and after independence.

    Tun Dato’ Sir Tan Cheng Lock was a Malaysian nationalist and founder of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). A fifth generation Chinese Malaysian, his great great grandfather migrated to Malacca from China in 1771. Tan Cheng Lock was a successful businessman in the Malayan rubber, tapioca and gambier industries. He was the Unofficial Member of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlement from 1923 to 1934 and became Unofficial Member of the Governor’s Executive Council from 1933 to 1935. He founded the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and became the first president for the period 1949-1958. In 1952, Tan Cheng Lock and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) under Tunku Rahman’s leadership contested the election as partners. In 1953, he brought MCA into the national coalition “Alliance” together with UMNO, working towards the independence of the Federation of Malaya, which subsequently incorporated the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) in 1955. He was best remembered for his contributions in the business and political arenas and his work for integrating the Chinese and the Indian communities to the nascent Malayan society.

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