Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Why Are Non-Malays Citizens?

Written by johnleemk on 3:26:31 pm Aug 29, 2007.
Categories: ,

In all this hubbub about the social contract, and the subject of non-Malays being granted citizenship at independence, we seem to have forgotten that yes, non-Malays actually are citizens.

The question is, why? It's always good to reflect a little, not only on our past, but on how our present would differ if the past had turned out differently.

What would Malaysia be like today if non-Malays had not been granted citizenship at independence? Would this have created a real, united nation-state?

Unity amongst the Malay citizens of the Malay state, maybe. But with almost half the population denied citizenship, denied representation, how could this state call itself a civilised, humane state?

The fact is, there was no way that citizenship could have been denied to half the population. To argue that we should not have granted the non-Malays citizenship is basically tantamount to arguing that we should have deported the non-Malays altogether.

This, of course, would place us in quite good company. After all, Uganda and Zimbabwe did a pretty good job of deporting their ethnic minorities to their ostensible homelands.

In all seriousness, unless we like looking as if we are total imbeciles, there was no real way we could have denied the non-Malays citizenship in the country where they intended and still intend to reside in permanently.

And yet, why is it that every time the non-Malays bring up a political issue, Malay leaders are so quick, so eager, to treat their citizenship as if it is worthless?

After all, Badruddin Amiruldin, the Permanent Chairman of UMNO, had no qualms about telling Lim Kit Siang when he raised the subject of an Islamic state in Parliament some years back to leave the country if he didn't like things.

Is this any way to treat a citizen of our country? Would Badruddin have done this to a liberal Malay who said exactly the same things Lim did? Why are we so respectful of the basic rights of a citizen when that citizen is Malay, and yet so disdainful of those same rights when that citizen is not a Malay?

Likewise, we see our leaders all too eager to tell Chinese and Indian Malaysians things like "balik tongsan" or "go to Singapore" if they have any complaints about their country. As far back as the 1980s, our wakil rakyat went on the record in Parliament to denounce almost half of all Malaysian citizens as "kaum pendatang" and "pendatang asing", as if that somehow degrades their citizenship to the point it means nothing.

When you are the citizen of a country, it means something. It means that country is your homeland, the place you belong. You always have a place in the country you are a citizen of.

You may be maligned, you may be mistreated, but ultimately, you can't be deported. You can't be exiled. You need to be stripped of your citizenship first. Even the apartheid state of South Africa recognised this; even the pre-civil rights era United States only sent back its second-class black citizens to Africa on a voluntary basis.

We like to pride ourselves on not being anything like apartheid South Africa. One of Tunku Abdul Rahman's proudest accomplishments was getting the Commonwealth to sanction South Africa for its horrid discriminatory policies.

And yet, why is it that we so easily slip into the role of being far worse than South Africa? Why is it that our elected representatives — from mainstream parties in the ruling regime, mind you — so eagerly consider Malaysian citizens migrants who can be casually told to hit the road back to their supposed homeland — a homeland they have abandoned generations ago for this country?

You may argue that there are certain "sensitive issues" (a handy catchphrase for quelling all dissent, justified or otherwise) which the non-Malays should never deign to question or discuss, lest they risk their citizenship being stripped.

But let us look at the Federal Constitution. What does it say? At the time of independence in 1957, it made no mention of some binding "contract" explicitly granting citizenship to non-Malays in return for something else. All provisions of the Constitution were treated as equally binding and at the same time equally malleable through the usual process of constitutional amendments.

After the May 13 incident, then yes, certain provisions we may think of as the "social contract" were singled out to be entrenched in the Constitution.

But the special amendment process singled out for these amendments does not say "if you renegotiate this provision, then all other provisions must likewise be renegotiated". If we remove non-Malays' right to citizenship, we do not have to remove special rights for the bumiputra or renounce Islam as the country's official religion. Likewise, if we remove special rights for the bumiputra as a permanent fixture, we need not remove the other portions of the supposed social contract. It is not by any means a "take it or leave it" deal.

Also bear in mind that the Constitution does not protect the New Economic Policy, or any affirmative action policies beyond those explicitly spelled out in the Constitution itself, most of which are relatively benign, such as special quotas and preferences for the bumiputra in education and the civil service.

Neither is Malay supremacy enshrined by the Federal Constitution. The Constitution states that the bumiputra are in a "special position", but fails to elaborate on what that position is. At no point does it indicate that this means that the Malays have the right to unilaterally deprive non-Malays of their fundamental rights as citizens.

In other words, a lot of criticism taken as offensive to the point of demanding the stripping of citizenship and/or deportation, such as criticism of the New Economic Policy or of the ketuanan Melayu ideology, is perfectly fair and permitted under the Federal Constitution.

The leaders in the ruling regime have made no secret of their distaste for criticism of the New Economic Policy or of Malay political hegemony. They brandish their weapons; they wonder when they can use them. On live television in 2006, one UMNO leader proclaimed: "If [the non-Malays] question our rights, then we should question theirs. So far we have not heard the Malays questioning their right to citizenship when they came in droves from other countries."

If the Malays require assistance to prepare themselves to compete, to gird themselves for the brutal battles of the modern economy, as a fellow Malaysian, I would be the first to offer my aid. My belief is that the spirit of the NEP was and is perfectly justified — we must have equality of opportunity for all Malaysians. As long as who your parents are determines what your future will look like, we cannot say we are an equitable, just or fair society — nor can we say we are efficient, in light of the human potential being wasted.

No Malaysian could possibly begrudge a fellow Malaysian the help they need. But what pains almost half of all Malaysians, what alienates them, is the fact that they are told they are not Malaysian. If they are Malaysian at all, that is a status which can be revoked at any time. Even if they want to make this country their home, they are told they are "kaum pendatang" which cannot be welcomed.

Why did we give the non-Malays citizenship? Was it just for show so we could pretend we are a decent country, when beneath the surface, we seek nothing more than the ability to lord it over a supposed immigrant populace which has long since made this country their one and only home? Let's be honest with ourselves. Are the non-Malays citizens, or are they just permanent residents who can be deported at the government's behest? Who does this country belong to — all the citizens of Malaysia, or just citizens of one race?


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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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