Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Perform A Legal Obligation and Get A Free Gift

Written by johnleemk on 2:34:05 am Mar 8, 2007.

Some weeks back, there was this controversy about the government running competitions to encourage people to do as they are required by law, and register for their new identity card (apparently it's called the MyKad). The incoming Minister in charge of this whole affair realised the insanity of it all, and called off the competitions.

This, of course, led to angry reprisals from the irresponsible nuts who were too lazy to do their duty as a citizen until there was a free prize thrown in. The government, their reasoning goes, made this promise to give us a car if we signed up, so how can it renege on this promise?

There are two principles, both fundamentally good, that I see in conflict here. The first principle is the rule of law — that nobody is above the law, and that one is bound to perform their legal obligations, including contractual ones. The other principle is the principle of common sense — that you shouldn't have to be given an incentive to do your civic duty.

At first glance, the rule of law case against the government is quite strong. The government made an offer to enter into a unilateral contract with any Malaysian who has not registered for their new IC. Several people accepted this unilateral offer by performing their part of the obligation, i.e. to sign up for a new IC before the opportunity lapsed. Now, the government is reneging on this offer, which is patently unfair under contract law.

Certainly, one might argue that this is just another example of the government abusing the rakyat by promising them one thing and not delivering. I have read not a few commentaries on the situation which enunciated such a stand.

Nevertheless, I think there is an equally strong rule of law case for the government. In the first place, why should the government need to offer people a free prize for them to do what they are required to do as a citizen? These people, who have been lazy bums about doing their civic duty, don't deserve a reward for performing their legal obligations.

At this point, an obscure part of English contract law comes in — consideration. The idea of consideration is that for every contract not under seal (i.e. oral/unwritten contracts), both parties must do something in order to make it legally binding — otherwise, it is merely a gratuitous promise which cannot be enforced.

One thing that has been held not to constitute consideration is the performance of a statutory duty. Let's say I offer you 500 ringgit to testify in my favour in a court case. However, the court subpoenas you to testify as a witness, meaning you are legally bound to testify whether I pay you or not. Therefore, there has been no consideration on your part, and thus I am not bound to pay you anything for testifying.

A similar thing can be said about the case here. Legally, all Malaysians must sign up for the MyKad by a certain date if they do not want to run foul of the law. It cannot be a binding contract if the consideration provided by the uncivic-minded is their performance of something they were already legally bound to do. This statutory duty would have to be performed whether or not anything was offered, making the government's offer a gratuitous promise which it is free to renege on under the law.

In the first place, the government should never have had to come up with such harebrained schemes to encourage performance of a legal duty. It's a testament to the sad state of the law in Malaysia when the government cannot rely on enforcement of the penalties of the law to keep people in compliance with the law.

Some people have suggested that the only reason these contests were held was corruption and political patronage, for the benefit of the firms and individuals who manufactured or sold the prizes to be given away. This is far from unlikely. After all, a top-ranking internal security official has been accused of letting prisoners buy their freedom (and these accusations seem serious, to the point when even the Prime Minister has to speak out to demand that justice be done). It's not far-fetched that a few political functionaries would come up with a harebrained competition to give some kickbacks to their cronies.

Whatever the reasons for this mad scheme, it seems to me that there is no legal basis for enforcing the government's gratuitious (and stupid) promise. There is no legal case, and there shouldn't be anyway, considering it's far from just to reward people simply for doing their civic duty.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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