Malaysia Social Contract (Part 1): Religion and Equal Citizenship

Social Contract (Part 1): Religion and Equal Citizenship

Whoever seeks to redefine our past seeks to hijack our future. In this regard, recent attempts to rewrite the history of the Social-Legal Contract created at the founding of Malaya/Malaysia in 1957 and our Constitutional history are troubling. These attempts at rewriting of history include two goals: 1) legitimize the transformation of Malaysian politics premised on equal citizenship of all Malaysians to one based on Malay dominance (supremacy) since 1969 (one may call it subversion of Malaysian democracy), and 2) to strengthen demands for implementation of Shariah law in all sectors of society.

For example, Rosliwaty Ramly in her article “Understanding The Social Contract” released by BERNAMA (Malaysia National News Agency) on May 31, 2005, refers to the incident where the first Prime Minister of Malaya rejected Lee Kuan Yew’s demand for equal rights for all communities. She cites the PM as asserting that “The Malays are not only the natives of the country but also the masters, and no one has the right to dispute this fact. . . you must accept the rights of the Malays and their position as the dominant community in the country.”

Rosliwaty’s article represents an instructive case of equivocation of crucial technical terms in argumentation. The thrust is however clear: it suggests that the other races or immigrant communities accepted Malay dominance in exchange for receiving citizenship in this country during Independence in 1957. In other words, recent questioning of Malay dominance among the non-Malay communities amounts to failing to keep their side of the bargain in the Social-Legal Contract.

Likewise, Shariah activists now reinterpret Article 3 of the Federal Constitution that says “Islam is the religion of the Federation; but other religions may be practised in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation” to mean Islam is the religion of the State. The corollary would be to subsume Article 11 which enshrines religious liberty under Islamic law. Of course, such a ‘creative’ interpretation ignores the testimony of the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the nation. The First Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman said, “I would like to make it clear that this country is not an Islamic State as it is generally understood, we merely provide that Islam shall be the official religion of the State” (Official Report of Legislative Council Debates, 1 May 1958, Column 4631 and 4671-2).

The former Chief Justice Hashim Yeop A. Sani expressed his view that “The words “Islam is the religion of the federation” appearing in clause (1) of that article has no legal effect and that the intention was probably to impose conditions on federal ceremonies to be conducted according to Muslim rites” (from Our Constitution published by Law Publishers, 1980).

More importantly, the Reid’s Commission said:
There was universal agreement that if any such provision [that Islam be the State Religion, added by author] were inserted it must be made clear that if would not in any way affect the civil rights of the non-Muslims. In the memorandum submitted by the Alliance it was stated “the religion of Malaysia shall be Islam. The observance of the principle shall not impose any disability on non-Muslim natives professing and practicing their religions and shall not imply that the State is not a secular State” (paragraph 169, p. 73).

Shariah activists should remember the saying “Apa yang tersirat adalah lebih penting daripada apa yang tersurat.” Shariah activists also ignore the provision of Article 3 (4) which says that “Nothing in this Article derogates from any other provision of this Constitution.” Article 3 (4) is surely unequivocal in stressing the subsidiary role of Islam in matters of legislation.

I have personally seen a document that was purportedly the minutes of a meeting among the ‘Founding Fathers’ that allegedly suggests the negotiators accepted Malay dominance as part of the deal leading to Independence. Curiously, the alleged document is a plain piece of paper rather than on one with an official letterhead. It is written in Bahasa Melayu. The fact is, all official discussions were conducted in English and likewise, minutes were recorded in English. I won’t be surprised if closer analysis reveals that the type-set on the document comes from a recent typewriter. If I may suggest, someone is a forging historical document to secure legitimacy for demands for Malay dominance and supremacy of Shariah law.

It is easy to expose forged of historical documents. Nevertheless, the interpretation of historical texts will always be a matter of contestation.  I have decided to make available excerpts from historical documents related to the framing of the Federal Constitution so that readers can judge for themselves the relationship between Islam and other religions in the original intent of the Social-Legal Contract (1957 and 1963) which envisaged a new democratic nation that grants equal citizenship to members from all communities within a secular polity.

I trust you will find excerpts from the documents helpful

[You may access PDF versions in the sidebar of this blog]


  1. […] miss the sections containing historical records on the formation of the Federal Constitution. Part 1 and Part […]

  2. […] Social Contract (Part 1): Religion and Equal Citizenship. LINK 2) Social Contract (Part 2): Excerpts from Historical Documents. You can download pdf file […]