Inter-ethnic cooperation was the dream of the forefathers of our Constitution.
THE glorious performance of our athletes at the SEA Games adds pride and joy to our 60th Merdeka anniversary celebration. It was a pleasure to see what dazzling heights our youth can reach when we unite and cooperate for a common cause without allowing race, religion and region to get in the way.
Such inter-ethnic cooperation was the dream of the forefathers of our Constitution. They drafted a Constitution that showed consciousness of the social, economic, political and ethnic realities of the Malay peninsula.
At the same time, it was their aspiration (in the eternal words of our nation’s founder and first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman) to create a constitutional democracy “founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people”.
With all its flaws, our Constitution was a masterpiece of compassion and compromise. Under the guidance of Tunku and his colleagues from Umno, MCA and MIC, our document of destiny incorporated a number of features indigenous to the Malay archipelago – among them, the Malay Sultanate, Islam as the religion of the Federation, and the grant of special position to the Malays and (in 1963) to the natives of Sabah and Sarawak.
However, the Malay-Muslim features are balanced by other provisions suitable for a multi-racial and multi-religious society. Notable features are that citizenship rights are granted on a non-ethnic and non-religious basis.
The electoral process permits all communities an equal right to vote and seek elective office. Membership of the judiciary, the cabinet, parliament, the federal public services and the special Commissions under the Constitution are open to all.
The chapter on fundamental liberties (with some exceptions) grants rights to all citizens irrespective of race or religion. Even where the law confers special privileges on the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak, there is concomitant protection for the interests of other communities.
For example, though Islam is the religion of the Federation, the syariah does not apply to non-Muslims.
Though Bahasa Melayu is the national language for all official purposes, there is protection for the formal study and usage of other languages for non-official purposes. Though Article 89 reserves some lands for Malays, no non-Malay land can be appropriated for Malay reserves. Article 153 on the special position of Malays and natives is hedged in by limitations.
In addition to the above legal provisions, the rainbow coalition that has ruled the country for the last 60 plus two years is built on an overwhelming spirit of accommodation, a moderateness of spirit and the absence of overzealous ideological convictions that in other plural societies have left a heritage of bitterness.
Sadly, dark clouds loom over the horizon.
Sections of the population, the civil service and the judiciary support transformation to a theocratic state. They subordinate the Constitution’s provisions to state enactments passed in the name of Islam. Even fatwas (religious opinions) by unelected syariah officials displace constitutional guarantees.
Universiti Sains Malaysia Professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid points out that due to the Arabisation of Malay society, and the infusion of the Saudi-based Salafist discourse into our education system, a narrow, punitive version of Islam is replacing the admirable, centuries-old Malay tradition of inclusiveness and moderation.
In the name of Islam, scholarly books are banned and ideas are suppressed because they are not mainstream. The federal-state division of powers is flouted by state authorities. The civil service and the syariah authorities sometimes defy civil court orders.
Religious extremism has become mainstream. Moderation is vilified. A divisive issue like the unilateral religious conversion of infant children is not addressed. Sabah and Sarawak complain that some of their Malaysia Day rights have been undermined. Our social fabric is under strain.
For decades, Malaysia was an exemplar of good governance and moderation for other third world societies. But we have regressed. Problems of other divided societies have caught up with us.
Some members of the political and religious elite are bent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. But it is not too late to stem the tide and to return to our winning formula.
In the spirit of Merdeka, we should search for commonalities and recognise our diversity as an asset. For the sake of our children, let us return to the challenging but rewarding path of moderation.
Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi is Tunku Abdul Rahman Professor of Law at Universiti Malaya. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own. He wishes all Malaysians “Selamat Menyambut Hari Kebangsaan” and to all Muslim readers, “Selamat Hari Raya Haji”.