Schools must promote constitutional literacy


  • Reflecting On The Law
  • Thursday, 21 Nov 2019

Despite the importance of the Federal Constitution, Malaysians don’t know it well. It’s time to properly and fully educate the young on its principles and values.

THE Federal Constitution is our nation’s fundamental law. It is the apex of our legal hierarchy of rules and is of superior validity to all laws – whether passed by the Federal Parliament, State Assemblies or local authorities.

Its provisions describe the manner in which the state is organised, government carried on and justice administered. It contains the core, essential features of our legal system.Besides rules, institutions and procedures, it encapsulates the basic values on which our society is founded. In its glittering generalities are contained our Founding Fathers’ lofty vision of a peaceful, prosperous, just, tolerant, democratic and plural society.

The Constitution describes our rights and duties, and our legal relationship with each other and with the many institutions of government. It imposes limits on official powers and balances the might of the state with the rights of the citizens.In our fragmented and divided society, it seeks to promote unity in diversity and weld people into one common nationality.

Regrettably, knowledge of our basic law is lacking within the corridors of power. Constitutional patriotism is even rarer.

The pervasive constitutional illiteracy within the law enforcement agencies manifests itself in many ways – for example, in the manner in which the Constitution and laws are often subordinated to policies, Pekelilings (Government circulars) and “prerogative powers”.

The constitutional position is that powers must be derived from the law and are not inherent in the office or position one holds.

A majority of adults do not have a working understanding of the Constitution. Lip service is paid to the idea of constitutional supremacy in the Rukun Negara and there is little awareness of or respect for the delicate inter-ethnic compromises within the Constitution.

This constitutional illiteracy is owed to the fact that the Constitution is not taught as a general subject in primary or secondary schools or universities. Nor are its fundamentals covered adequately in courses and programmes for public officials. Surely, 62 years after Merdeka, this flaw should be remedied.

Knowledge of the Constitution’s underlying values, principles and procedures will encourage good citizenship and good governance under the law. It will create awareness that rights go hand in hand with responsibilities, and powers come with constitutional limits.

The Constitution’s negotiated compromises will moderate extremism, reduce tensions and promote harmonious co-existence among the diverse races, religions and regions. Equipped with constitutional literacy, our newly empowered youth will be better able to exercise their right to vote.

A coalition of concerned citizens and organisations is therefore proposing that constitutional values and principles be taught to young Malaysians at an early age. The curricula for primary and secondary schools should be revised to incorporate these elements.

Special engagement strategies should be devised in order to imbue the young with the general principles and provisions of our Federal Constitution. The form and medium adopted must be appealing to the young.

All concerned citizens and citizens’ groups – and there are many – should come together in a coalition to pool their resources. They should work closely with the Education Ministry and any other government department that is receptive to this patriotic idea of promoting constitutional literacy.

The problem is that many senior people in the Education Ministry are not convinced of any need to make changes to the curricula. They genuinely believe that the existing courses on Pendidikan Moral, Islam, History and Civics contain sufficient input of constitutional knowledge.

A closer examination of the curricula, however, reveals that the predominant emphasis is on Peninsular Malaya’s history, Islamic ethics, special position of the Malays and the powers and prerogatives of the Sultans.

The principles of constitutional supremacy and separation of powers are not highlighted. The gilt-edged provisions of fundamental rights, the limits on police powers, the federal-state division of competence, the independence of the judiciary, the power of judicial review, the system of parliamentary government and the electoral system are not covered.

Whatever familiarity is imparted is mostly with institutional form and not substance. The principles and values that animate our basic charter are not distilled.

There is very little about inter-ethnic compromises, and the special position of Sabah and Sarawak. A very narrow, ethnic and Peninsular bias exists in educating our youth to the Constitution’s sterling features.

Surely it is time to change this flaw, to be more inclusive and to recapture the spirit of 1957 and 1963.

Emeritus Prof Shad Saleem Faruqi is Tunku Abdul Rahman Professor at Universiti Malaya’s law faculty and holder of the Tun Hussein Chair at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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