Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Social Contract Must Adapt to Changed Times

Written by johnleemk on 3:59:27 am Nov 9, 2008.
Categories: ,

The social contract is something people tell us never to question. If at all we mention it, we are supposed to be deferent towards it, as a measure of the infinite wisdom of our forefathers. But the social contract, however wise it may have been five decades ago, is irrelevant to us today, at least as it is completely understood. The notion that some people are more worthy of being Malaysian than others, or that some Malaysians are innately more loyal to the country is complete nonsense today.

In the first place, what is the social contract? For every politician who has threatened to exile uppity non-Malays and denounce their citizenship, I've got some news: that's violating your precious "social contract". It's in the Constitution. If you want your worship of the social contract taken seriously, you have to be consistent: either you take the whole deal, or you don't.

And quite frankly, I don't see why we ought to accept this whole deal. Let's think about real contracts for a moment. Let's use a common analogy people love to bring up: the tenants sharing a home. First, let's be realistic: if there is a landlord at all, it is God — or fate, if you're an atheist. God let out this country to the Orang Asli first, and later he brought in the Malays. Then with a twist, he let the colonial powers invade us and brought in other peoples to join the Malays. We're all sharing the land now, on a lease from God, and of course to make the sharing fair and equitable, we need an agreement — a contract.

But like any human roommates will, we often end up arguing about the agreement. Who is supposed to take out the trash? Is it okay for one tenant to take the other's leftover nasi lemak from the fridge? Who should oversee the renovations? Even if we sort these matters out in the contract, no normal or even reasonable human being will let that be the end of the matter. Circumstances change, and the reasonable thing to do is to adapt to change.

Let's make this even more personal now — let's make this a family. Because really, that's what we are — whether I like them or not, my parents are my parents and my siblings are my siblings. I may hate some of them, I may disagree vehemently with some of their views, but I still have to love and respect them. That doesn't mean I will do whatever they tell me to do — if my father tells me to jump into a lake I won't do it. But what it means is that when we disagree, we try to do respectfully, and we try to work something out that works for everyone in the family. And realistically, there is no way we will be able to ignore, let alone toss out, whole swathes of Malaysia: you are not going to be able to deport the non-Malays or let the rural farmers and estate workers wallow in poverty, just as you can't disown your flesh and blood.

Now, as a parent or a roommate, maybe you work things out by bossing everyone else in the house around — I don't know. But that strikes me as a particularly bad way to be running a household. If I share a house with someone else, I don't scream at them until they clean the toilet, even if it's their turn and I pay more than half the rent. If my father told my mother exactly how to run her life, she would be mad as hell at him, and for good reason — my father shouldn't be ordering her to massage his feet or yelling at her to shut up. That's not how adults talk to each other. As a Malaysian, I don't like it when one of us talks down to the other, whether it's a Chinese CEO denigrating the abilities of his Malay colleagues or a Malay politician insulting the integrity of his non-Malay constituents.

But at the same time, adults also know that we have to deal with reality. If my roommate breaks his ankle, I can't expect him to mop the floor. If my sister has an examination, I don't expect her to help hang the laundry. Yet, whenever we insist that the social contract must remain perpetually unchanged, we are insisting that we can never adapt to changed circumstances.

The simple fact is, the Malaysia of fifty years ago is not the Malaysia of today. Fifty years ago, most non-Malays could not read or write in the national language, and felt closer to China or India than they did to their homeland. Try today to find a Malaysian who roots for China or India in the Olympics, or who cares more about the fate of the Chinese Communist Party or Congress Party in India than he does about the UMNO party elections. Fifty years ago, it was not unreasonable to assume a non-Malay did not feel very keenly loyal to the country; today, it's perfectly preposterous.

To say that the social contract of fifty years ago remains completely applicable and is thus completely non-negotiable today is to deny that anything about Malaysia has ever changed and will ever change. If you do not see the insanity inherent in this position, that is like saying when I am seventy, I should still be expecting my parents to be cooking my meals and paying my bills. People change; countries change. Our social contract, whether it is in the home or in the public sphere, must adjust accordingly.

Now, inherent too in the social contract is the principle that the disadvantaged must be helped to stand on their own two feet. I don't think any person can be against that. But again, times change, and needs change. When I was three-years-old, I needed knee guards because I kept falling down. Should I still be wearing them now? Of course not — I don't need them now. Some members of our family need more help than others, and it is only fair that they be helped. But those who by now clearly do not need any more assistance — the Nazir Razaks and Ananda Krishnans — they shouldn't be counting on any help from the "social contract".

The level of discourse when it comes to the social contract in our country is pathetic, because we refuse to talk like adults about the agreements we have made. We refuse to adjust to changing circumstances, we refuse to accept that reasonable adults can disagree respectfully about controversial things. A husband and wife can argue about their marriage without getting divorced. Why can't Malaysians talk about the founding basis of our nation without threatening to throw one another out of the country?

First published in The Malaysian Insider.

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