Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Malay and Non-Malay Rights Don't Exist

Written by johnleemk on 10:53:52 am May 8, 2008.
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Fewer things are more important in the Malaysian political world than rights. Whenever we talk politics, it boils down to our rights — the rights of the Malays, the rights of the Chinese, the rights of the Indians, the rights of the East Malaysians, the rights of the Muslims; it goes on and on and on. Yet, paradoxically, while we let our politicians roil us into an uproar over the rights of our respective communities, we hardly ever seem to care about our rights as Malaysians. Even though we supposedly rejected communal politics in the most recent election, at the heart of our political discourse lie communal rights, rather than Malaysian rights. If we want lasting political change, this is the most fundamental paradigm change we have to effect.

Let's start by defining "rights". What is a right? Look it up in a dictionary, and you will find a plethora of meanings. I don't think we have ever bothered to standardise the definition of "right" in the Malaysian political context, so any definition I put forth here is probably unacceptable to many, but nonetheless I will try: for our purposes, a right is something guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. We can talk in terms of rights already guaranteed, and rights we would like to see guaranteed, but ultimately, the only rights we really have are those protected by the supreme law of the country.

Now, returning to our original problem, you might wonder what is so wrong about fighting for communal rights. Don't the Malays have their rights to defend? Don't the non-Malays have their rights too? What of the East Malaysians, or the Muslims and non-Muslims? The Federal Constitution guarantees us all certain rights, doesn't it?

The flaw in this reasoning is that, first of all, many rights we supposedly claim as ours under the Constitution are not there. The right to government funding for vernacular schools? Not there. The privileges of the New Economic Policy? The Constitution doesn't even mention the NEP. Ketuanan Melayu? Not even a whisper of it. Most of these rights are nothing more than privileges the government grants under other laws subordinate to the Constitution; they are not unrevokable rights, but privileges which can be as easily repealed as the privilege to stroll down a city street (ask the lawyers who marched for human rights not too long ago) or even the right of a fair trial (ask anyone detained under the Internal Security Act or Emergency Ordinance).

The second flaw is that although the Constitution does indeed separate us out communally, the vast majority of the rights it guarantees are for all Malaysians. Not for Malays and non-Malays, not for Muslims and non-Muslims, but for everyone. The right not to be enslaved? That goes for all of us. The right to a fair trial (now a de facto privilege because of laws gutting the Constitution)? For all Malaysians. The right to worship in peace? All Malaysians have that. The right to equal treatment under the law? Article 8 guarantees it for all Malaysians. When we talk about Malay rights and non-Malay rights, Muslim rights and non-Muslim rights, we implicitly assume there is a meaningful difference between these things. In reality, we all enjoy practically the same rights as Malaysians.

What about the handful of different rights we enjoy? For the Bumiputra (Malays and East Malaysian natives), Article 153 says they have a "special position" which the government must pay heed to. No specific rights are guaranteed, although the Constitution lists out a number of areas such as scholarships and civil service positions where the government may intervene to advance the Bumiputra. In the very same breath, Article 153 explicitly warns that the government must also protect the rights of other communities. In short, it says "Yes, there are some slight distinctions between the Bumiputra and non-Bumiputra for historical reasons, but everyone is a Malaysian now, and just because the Bumiputra need affirmative action doesn't mean you can ride roughshod over the rights of other Malaysians." In reality, we don't even need the clause protecting non-Malay rights, so to speak, because Article 8 guarantees equality under the law, but the Constitution doubly guarantees protection to all Malaysians.

Some might see hints of doublespeak and cognitive dissonance here; how can you protect the rights of one group without disenfranchising the other? Is Article 153 asking us to do the impossible? I don't think so. I think it clearly leads to the conclusion that certain privileges (e.g. those under the NEP) might be necessary to protect the rights of certain Malaysians, and little more than that. It is literally impossible to read any defence of Malay supremacy into that; if anything, Article 153 upholds the notion that there are only Malaysian rights, not Malay and non-Malay rights, because the only real way that you can defend the rights of the Malays and non-Malays concurrently is to defend the rights of all Malaysians.

The way I see it, all this talk about the rights of the Malays and non-Malays, this community and that community serves as little more than a smokescreen, distracting us from how the government continually impinges on the rights of Malaysians of every different race. Why should freedom of religion be a non-Malay or non-Muslim issue when the Constitution guarantees it to every individual citizen? Why should the citizenship of non-Malays be constantly questioned when everyone's rights as Malaysian citizens are enshrined in the Constitution?

While we bicker over this and that, the government has steadily taken away the liberties that don't belong to any one community in particular. Who benefits from freedom of movement, the right to travel wherever one pleases? Every one of us. Who suffers when that right is arbitrarily taken away, as happened to some West Malaysian opposition activists when they tried to set foot in East Malaysia? Every one of us. Who benefits from freedom of speech, the right to express our own thoughts? Every one of us, from the Indian labourer who marches for HINDRAF to the Chinese shopkeeper who marches for BERSIH to the Malay factory worker who marches for Malay economic interests. And who suffers when the government continually enacts laws which reduce and shrink this right? Every one of us, of course.

If we want a country where every Malaysian can live in peace, where every Malaysian has the same rights and opportunities to strive for their own prosperity and to lead their own lives, then we have to stop talking about the rights of this community or that community. The supreme law of our country draws no such distinctions in the rights it grants. It treats us all as Malaysians, and guarantees us all the same rights. When one of us suffers, all of us suffers.

I know it is a lot to ask of suffering people to be bighearted, to realise that the other side suffers too. But the next time your heart breaks over some outrageous travesty, be it a Bumiputra boy starving to death or a non-Bumiputra straight-A scorer who cannot obtain a place in any public university, just remember: when one of us suffers, all of us suffer. We all have the same rights to human dignity, the same rights to make the most of ourselves. We gain nothing by fighting for the rights of one individual or one community. We gain everything by fighting for the rights of the people of Malaysia, regardless of race or religion, colour or creed.


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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.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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