Social contract must address environmental rights


RECENTLY, prominent academics Dr Chandra Muzaffar and Prof Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria said that the Federal Constitution and the Rukun Negara, two of Malaysia’s most fundamental documents, are enough to lay the groundwork for redefining our nation’s future. Both said there was no need to set up a new National Consultative Council to set the nation’s course through a new social contract. Their comments were in response to Datuk Seri Nazir Razak’s proposal that a new social contract be drawn up.

While it is true that the social contract spelt out in the Federal Constitution and Rukun Negara has the necessary ingredients for peaceful coexistence among our communities, it is not accurate to say that it adequately lays the groundwork to redefine the nation’s future. This is because it does not address environmental rights.

Achieving unity, preserving a democratic way of life and building a progressive society as stated in the Rukun Negara has little meaning if the environmental rights of communities are not included in the social contract. In fact, there are implications for social relations among communities if environmental rights are ignored, when powerful conglomerates are given exclusive rights to natural resources.

There is a need to redefine what constitutes a social contract in the context of environmental threats such as climate change, and the rights of communities that are affected by indiscriminate violation of nature’s ecosystem. A social contract that has served as an important conceptual tool for managing the relationship between citizens and states has to evolve to address environmental threats that affect the poor and vulnerable sections of society.

It is time for the Malaysian intelligentsia to discuss the potential role of social contracts as a Consti-tutional response to environmental issues. We need a substantive clause on the environment in the Consti-tution and Rukun Negara that guarantees the right to a good quality environment.

The very first Constitution to protect environmental rights was Portugal’s: “Everyone shall possess the right to a healthy and ecologically-balanced human living environment and the duty to defend it”; it goes on to “charge the state” with fulfilling the obligation in eight specific ways (Constitution of Portugal, 1976, Art 66).

We need judicial systems that include environmental tribunals, chambers or courts with special procedures to facilitate the bringing of actions to promote vindication of environmental rights. Therefore, the Association for Community and Dialogue supports the call for a review of our current social contract that seems to be dominated by discussions related to ethnic relations. There is a need to evolve beyond that and address the socioecological realities of this country.

RONALD BENJAMIN

Secretary, Association for Community and Dialogue

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