Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

The Overhyped Merdeka Constitution

Written by johnleemk on 12:05:53 pm Jul 5, 2007.
Categories: ,

Nowadays, it seems to be very much in vogue to praise the 1957 Merdeka Federal Constitution, while denigrating the present Constitution as a patchwork of amendments piled upon amendments which serve no purpose except to entrench the establishment's power.

To a certain extent, this is true. However, if you look at the structure of the Constitution itself, there have not been many landmark amendments. There has been a slow erosion of fundamental freedoms and the ostensible "liberal" (as the Rukunegara alludes to) basis of our society, but I can only think of two landmark course-altering amendments to the Constitution.

The first was the package of amendments passed in 1971 when Parliament was restored after the May 13 1969 racial riots. These amendments permitted the government to curtail freedom of speech on certain sensitive issues that some would pass off as the core of the non-existent social contract.

These sensitive things — ironically issues that remain frequently challenged today — were also entrenched in the Constitution, with a special procedure required to amend them.

The other major amendment was a result of the 1988 constitutional crisis — among other things, the Syariah and civil courts were made equal and the judicial power of the federation was no longer directly vested in the judiciary.

These amendments were groundbreaking, I suppose, in that they altered the character of the Merdeka Constitution — the Merdeka Constitution was a tad more emphatic in its separation of powers and not so aggressive in its promotion of what, for the sake of convenience (at the expense of accuracy), we can call the "social contract".

However, did they alter the actual spirit of the Merdeka Constitution? I would say no, because the Merdeka Constitution never lays out its actual intent — what is the nation, what is the country, what is the society it wants to create? Does it want a totalitarian socialist republic, a federal liberal democracy, a conservative fundamentalist Islamic theocracy? It never specifies its actual intentions — the spirit in which it was written.

And attempting to infer the spirit in which the Constitution was written, it's quite clear that it is not exactly a significant improvement on what we have today. The Merdeka Constitution gives Parliament carte blanche to infringe the civil liberties of Malaysians, and lacks some fundamental safeguards and checks and balances to hold our government accountable.

There is a great deal of noise made about restoring the 1957 Merdeka Constitution amongst the political opposition and non-establishment sectors of civil society. But why this adulation and adoration of a document that is only slightly better than what we have today? Can anyone tell me what is so great about the original Constitution that makes it a significant improvement on the current Constitution?

The current Constitution, after all, is the product of the Merdeka Constitution. Restore that Constitution, but put a bunch of corrupt bastards in power over the next 50 years and we will still end up where we started.

The true test of the founding document of a country is whether it can weather the storms of incompetence and corruption — and this is a test our Constitution has sorely failed. I see no reason to restore a failed Constitution — we are probably better off fixing the root cause of its failure instead.

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