Sharing the Nation: Faith, Difference, Power and the State 50 Years After Merdeka by Noraini Othman, Mavis C Puthucheary and Clive S. Kessler (SIRD, 2008, 99 pages).
You have heard about Malaysia’s ‘social contract’ ¬ but you have never seen it. Unlike most contracts, it does not exist in written form. No one even knows the exact wording. But the people who use the phrase seem very sure of its meaning.
This ‘social contract’, when used by UMNO leaders, refers to a deal supposedly struck among leaders of the Alliance in the heady months leading to Merdeka. This deal was supposedly made behind closed doors. We are told, in crude terms, that it means that Malays will continue to have political power forever, in exchange for non-Malays being granted citizenship.
Funnily enough, there is no proof that this was ever the intention of our founding fathers. And even funnier (but maybe not in the haha sense) the term ‘social contract’ was used for the first time only in the 1980s.
Before that, you could say that the bargaining that led to the acknowledgement of the special position of the Malays (Article 153 of the Federal Constitution) was a pragmatic measure that took into account the fact that Malays had been organised socially and politically in the country for much longer than the other major races.
It was also one small sign that the aims of the founding parties of the Alliance were not identical. These parties banded together because they could not have achieved national power so decisively otherwise. It was a fragile coalition glued together by political ambition ¬ the same charge that the Alliance descendents now hurl against Pakatan Rakyat.
Mavis Puthucheary’s opening essay in Sharing the Nation, published to mark our 50th Merdeka, is a clear-eyed indictment of how this mundane and pragmatic measure became a beast that would not stop growing. She shows how the terms of this ‘contract’ are not fixed in stone but have been altered, albeit unilaterally, as when special privileges were extended to the natives of Sabah and Sarawak too. What sort of contract can continue to be valid if the terms keep being changed by only one party?
Yes, the ‘social contract’ has been the subject of much triumphalist ethnic chest-thumping by not only politicians but Malay-centric cultural organisations like Gapena. The ‘special privileges,’ as subsequently enacted in policies like the NEP, are taken as immutable rights in perpetuity rather than (to use Tun Ismail’s analogy) something much closer to a golf handicap. But why on earth should a handicap be a source of pride?
The original social contract of Western political theory refers to a situation where the individual gives up some rights to the state, in exchange for the benefits of being a citizen. But the Malaysian version somehow became a secret deal struck between leaders of ethnic parties.
Abuse of this ‘social contract’ idea has led to people feeling less welcome than they should be. And when people are not welcome, they tend to want to leave. It’s ironic that some of us might feel shock and dismay at the prospect of losing a pile of rocks to Singapore, but nary a twinge that Singaporean universities and corporations are poaching so many of Malaysia’s best and brightest.
“Don’t challenge the social contract!” has been the sabre-rattling cry for the past two decades. The idea is that every little thing that was present in our original Constitution should be preserved as sacred. But these same politicians didn’t get their knickers in a twist when this same Constitution received over 600 amendments in the past half-century. A further irony is that this ‘social contract’ is not even contained explicitly in the Constitution. What gives?
There were many competing interests at play in the pre-Merdeka period. These led to some ambiguities and contradictions relating to the rights and responsibilities of its citizens. But the era of the “gentleman’s agreement” seems to be over. People do not want secret deals (or, worse, secret deals supposedly made by our grandparents’ leaders) but openness. We are no longer feudal subjects but national stake-holders.
Sharing the Nation is a slim book but it packs a wallop. In fact, that if you were paying attention, you would notice that we only talked about the first essay (out of three). If you wanna read the other two, get thee to a bookstore.
(Malay Mail, 28 May 2008).