The tale of the sensitive “citizen”

It is an elementary principle in the law of contract, that a contract represents the meeting of minds. It entails the mutuality of obligations and of commitment. It is the law’s means of enforcing a traditional value of “keeping your promise”.

It followed that when one side breached or repudiated his obligations under the contract, it was open to the innocent party to either press for performance or to itself decide to abort the agreement. For those unfamiliar with the law of contract these realities are ingrained in every culture on the premise that one “should do unto others as you would like others to do unto you”.

It is perhaps necessary that the recent statements by Ahmad Ismail be viewed under these spectacles.

In the land of Malaya, there existed a hierarchy of Malay Rulers who governed their citizenry. Across a period of time, colonization rose. With it came new opportunities and new burdens. It opened the gates of immigration and the beginnings of a modern state. The land of Malaya was handed an opportunity and a new challenge, the challenge of dealing with the unknown and the indeterminate. In this time the Rulers came to accept British Advisors in a framework that the Rulers still ruled albeit within limits.

After the war, a reassured Britain sought to exercise its colonial power through the Malayan Union instrument. The Rulers stood in a weak position to oppose it. If they did so, they ran the risk of being labeled Japanese collaborators. While the British were swift to get the Rulers to sign up in time the British government would to learn an important lesson in the art of Malay Statecraft, this took place through the subtle and sustained rise of dissent, clever diplomacy and footwork, ranging from the ulama, teachers, to the common people and ultimately to the birth of UMNO.

There were many facets to the Malayan Union plan, but few will disagree that a key component concerned the grant of citizenship to the migrant races and the curtailment of the powers of the Malay Rulers. In essence, these initiatives would have resulted in Tanah Melayu not being Tanah Melayu. It would have resulted in a situation where the Malays would have been a bare majority in their own nation or even a minority. They would stand with no guarantees in regard to the status, the migrant races who filled the commercial sector and the civil service would stand to rule what was in essence Tanah Melayu.

These experiments are not new South Africa tried to maintain such a status quo of white ruling minority. The colonial masters across history also tried to achieve like ends with a ruling minority reaping the wealth of a nation of the majority. These efforts failed. Thus it became evident that the Malayan Union was likewise doomed to fail. The British acknowledged it. The criticism of the Malayan Union plan rang strongly in England as well, with senior members of the British Civil Service taking a strong position against it.

Learning from this lesson the British moved towards the Federation of Malaya Agreement of 1948. Let us be clear that this was an agreement. While it retained some of the essence of the Malayan Union Plan, it did impose stricter citizenship requirements and it confirmed the special status of the Malays. It was a case of the Malays agreeing to a dilution of their sovereignty in the land of the forefathers in exchange for these guarantees. There can be little doubt that the right to citizenship of the migrant non-malays draws its origin from this very same agreement which confirms the status of the Malays, the status of the Malay language and of Islam. Prior to this the non-malays did not enjoy any political status whatever, they were not the subjects of the Malay Rulers nor were they the subjects of the British Crown. The 1948 Agreement gave them the legal right to citizenship.

It is interesting that even with the 1948 Agreement the practical effect upon Malay political power remained the same. Their hold on political influence had been diluted so had their share upon the national wealth. Let us be under no doubt, the tycoons that hailed from the migrant races did not rise to riches by inventing and patenting new products for the world market. They wealth came from the domestic economy of this nation and the wealth of this land. Yet the Malays seem to have placed such great trust in these safeguards that they were prepared to give away citizenship to these alien races for nothing more than a written assurance in an agreement and with this assurance they were prepared to sign away what would otherwise have been a complete political dominion of their lands.

When the country reached Independence these safeguards found itself into the constitution which was itself a complex balance of competing interests. When Malaysia was formed the indigenous races of Sabah and Sarawak were accorded the same safeguards and more.

Today we are presented with a vogue euphoria of seeking to have “transparent dialogue” or “a debate” or “a round table” or a desire to “get it all out there in the open”. This is understandably fashionable in this new age of the Coffee Bean Court and the Boardroom of the enlightened ones who seem to place a premium on this vast beauty of openness in the comfort of their ethnically creased linen shirts and leather sandals. This carried us on course to a robust debate on the rights of Malays and Islam in the context of the Sharyiah Court’s jurisdiction. It led to a debate on whether there was such a thing as a social contract between the races. It led to a debate on how Muslims may renounce their faith apparently through a declaration by word of mouth.

Placed in this background and in the spirit of openness, in all its beauty, one must appreciate where Ahmad Ismail is coming from. To him if his privileges as a Malay are called into question, then he too wishes to call into question the otherside of the agreement – the privilege of citizenship. Yes it has hurt the Chinese, it has scared other non Malays. But in moments like this we should realize a few factors:

i. we should realize how a Malay feels, when after having made the major concessions of citizenry and the consequent dilution of their political sovereignty in 1948, that they are now faced with these debates as to the standing of the only safeguards they had sought for these concessions;

ii. non Malays must now ask themselves how they feel when another race starts a debate upon a noble aspiration of free speech to question something that they hold sacred.

Much has been said of the arrogance of UMNO. Arrogance is relative, as is opportunism. In 1986 and in the elections that followed, most of the Barisan component parties survived on the wave of UMNO. Gerakan was humbled in Penang by the DAP in 1986, it retained its position then and in a number of succeeding elections with the support of UMNO. The MIC and MCA were no exception. But UMNO kept the faith. Penang remained with Gerakan despite Karpal Singh’s view that the CM’s post should devolve to UMNO. So did the distribution of Ministries. Yet I seem to remember that after one election where, non-Malay votes carried Barisan through, there was a popular rise of “requests” by trade guilds etc as a price for continued support. Yet again this time, in 2008 when Umno’s support slid, we see the rise of opportunism in some component parties. Some of these parties clung to UMNO for survival yet today they open debate disengagement.

If I was a Malay I would see myself in a position of increasing isolation. I would think that unless I was able to anchor sustained Malay support, I would remain at the mercy of fair weather friends. These sentiments exist in the minds of many. But some speak their minds others wait to see where the wind blows.

It is not about an apology and who apologises for whom. We need to make a choice. Either we accept the parameters of nationhood which form the nation’s foundations and build a sustainable future on them. Or we try to reinvest these foundations. If the past is to be an indicator, our country was at its lowest every time we did this. In 1948 – during the emergency, in 1969 – during the racial crisis, in 1987 when Lee Kim Sai of MCA openly questioned the Bumiputera status, in 1998 on the pretext of Refomasi and for the past few years when everything was up for graps, we now ask why is Singapore and Thailand forging ahead and why we are left behind ?

The answers should be obvious. Our moments of greatest prosperity lay in those periods when we accepted our positions in society, counted our blessings, accepted the foundations of our nation, respected our differences and made the government work for us and made the government’s policies work for us, this spirit marked the booming 1990s and our rise from the 1997 recession.

Published in: on September 10, 2008 at 07:25  Comments (51)