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Rewriting the Social Contract: A Contract of the People

Celebrating our 50th national day by rejecting the social contract that never was.

Written by johnleemk on 11:54:11 pm Aug 22, 2007.

A lot has been said about the Malaysian social contract. All sorts of perspectives and views have been advanced. Much has been made in many fora, from Malaysiakini to establishment media, of this supposed agreement.

I make no secret of my opposition to the social contract; I even have my doubts as to whether it exists as anything other than a boogeyman of the ruling regime.

Having written reams of material on the anachronism and archaism that is the social contract, nothing more than a brief recap should be necessary to sum up why I believe it is long past its due date.

The biggest problem with the "social contract" is its nebulous nature. What is the social contract? Can anyone point to a piece of paper and tell me, "This is our social contract?"

Please don't say it's the Federal Constitution — the Federal Constitution never consigns any class of people to a second class of citizenship, as many proponents of the social contract would have it; indeed, it specifically protects the provisions for citizenship from wanton amendment.

As we can see, there is no obvious literal basis for the view that some Malaysians can be easily stripped of their citizenship or told to leave the country. There is no obvious literal basis for the view that some Malaysians are intrinsically superior or more true blue Malaysian than others.

Even if we assume that there is some unwritten or hidden document which binds us all (though this obviously raises the question of how something which does not exist can be binding), what does this document state?

Let us assume now that this document specifies that the Malay Malaysians granted citizenship to non-Malay Malaysians in return for something. This deal may be binding on those who agreed to it, but why should it bind those who did not?

Even if we take it that every Malaysian alive in 1957 and/or 1963 agreed to this pact, does this mean that the deal can be forced down the throats of Malaysians born past this date? How can this be so when the agreement is nothing more than a verbal understanding, never codified in the law?

And in the first place, if there is a social contract, it seems to me that this was not one negotiated by the people, but negotiated by members of the ruling regime amongst themselves and foisted on the people of Malaysia as a fait accompli. If such an oral contract exists, according to the diaries of Tun Dr Ismail, it concerned only making the Malay language the official language, so the points argued by proponents of the second class citizenship argument are moot.

In any case, there is far too much fetishism of the social contract. As humans, we are inclined to favour the status quo, but there is no rational reason for this. If the way things had always been done was the best way, we should still be living in caves and be subject only to the law of the jungle.

The social contract, as it is understood by those who argue that non-bumiputras are second-class citizens who can have their rights withdrawn if they question anything the ruling regime classifies as "sensitive", is obviously deficient. I cannot imagine anyone in their right mind defending it, and yet many apparently thinking non-bigots do not seem to have a problem with the social contract. In their mind, the problem is with "implementation".

Now, obviously implementation is important. A good principle implemented poorly is little better than a bad principle executed brilliantly. But what good is altering our existing policies if the principles of discrimination behind them go untouched?

Why should the members of one ethnic group be considered the only ones sufficiently loyal to the country to be first class citizens? After all, official government statistics indicate that 70% of those who have given up their Malaysian citizenship in the past decade are Malay.

If the only defence, the only recourse, we can find is that "Our founding fathers came up with it, so it must be good," the debate has clearly and decisively been lost by the social contract. It is completely fallacious to argue that our founding fathers were infallible, that our changed society should still be dominated by the divisions of yesteryear.

Does anyone seriously want to argue that we are like the Malaysian nation of 50 years ago, where a substantial portion of the populace could recall being born or raised overseas, where a substantial portion took as much or more interest in the politics of China or India rather than Malaysia? Does anyone seriously believe that the Malaysians of today have any divided loyalties, any divided feelings about which country is their true homeland?

If not, then why on earth is an agreement crafted by a few men in high places for a completely different society being asserted as the one and only ultimate document which can rule and govern our society today, assuming there is such an agreement at all? If we believe in democracy, even if you argue the society of today is exactly like the society of five decades ago, why should we be governed by a document drafted in secret by a few men, rather than a document which has obtained the approval of the Malaysian people by at least being included in the Constitution approved by an elected legislative body?

Finally, someone may have seen the light. To be honest, I am surprised that anyone in UMNO — yes, the party whose present deputy president once threatened to bathe his keris in the blood of Malaysian citizens, and whose present youth wing's president has similarly waved the keris, while his subordinates demand to know when he intends to use it — would dare to suggest that it is high time we sort out this problem of a social contract foisted on Malaysian society by an elite few.

Muhyiddin Yassin, a vice-president of UMNO, has declared that it is time Malaysians discuss the position of the social contract and hammer out a new "national consensus". Correctly, he points out that Malaysians have moved on since independence — how can a generation which has known no other homeland and no other loyalties be treated the same and behave the same as a generation of true migrants?

Of course, he had to go ahead and spoil it by making a number of boo-boos. He spoke of "reaffirming" the social contract — in other words, go ahead and discuss the issue, but the only conclusion you may reach is the one I want! He insinuated that the thinking of my generation may be deviant because we have been influenced by the West (can anyone tell me what automatically makes anything associated with the West inappropriate?).

Most egregiously disappointing though, was his and other members of the ruling regime's expressed preference for a discussion of the social contract behind closed doors. Excuse me, but if this is supposed to be a national consensus, why are only elite members of the regime allowed to discuss the problems faced by this country? Should we not call this a consensus of rich, powerful and corrupt (the three tend to go together) pricks who presume they know what's best for Malaysians? (About the only good thing I can see plausibly coming out of this is the dissolution of the unfounded belief that the social contract is immutable.)

What our country needs is not some fancy social contract, of which there is no public record. There is no reason for any Malaysian except those who have explicitly agreed to partake of it to subject themselves to an oral contract which has not been put under seal and enshrined in any law. We must and should celebrate our 50th national day by tossing this idiocy of a contract on the dustheap of history.

Who in their right mind believes that loyalty and love for the country is determined by genes? Why is a Malay drug addict considered a "true Malaysian", while a Chinese who dies in the service of his country considered part of the kaum pendatang and a second-class citizen at best? Why can an Indonesian immigrant's son gain citizenship and thus become a "true Malaysian", while people who can trace their local ancestry to centuries back remain pendatang asing? What kind of perverted "social contract" is this?

This perverted social contract, if it exists at all, exists only in the minds of those who choose to accept it. It has never been set out in the law. The choice is ours; we can persist in believing this nonsense that some people are more Malaysian than others, or we can choose to believe that every Malaysian should be judged by their individual deeds, and not prejudged by an accident of birth. The choice is ours; do we wish to see our 50-year-old nation stillborn?