Dignity, respect and the ‘social contract’

The Bornean states, which cover a bigger territory than Peninsular Malaya, were never Tanah Melayu and never will be. Tanah Melayu is confined to Peninsular Malaya. 

Joe Samad, Free Malaysia Today

The origin of the social contract is not clear. The argument posits that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedoms, and submit to the authority of a ruler or the decision of the majority in exchange for the protection of their remaining rights or maintenance in a pecking order. According to Kant, it has no basis in history and is useful only as a philosophical explanation of a political obligation.

In any argument on Malaysia, we must first make a distinction between the history of Malaya and the history of Malaysia. The former is distinct and separate from the latter which was formed under the Malaysia Agreement on Sept 16, 1963 (MA63). Peninsular Malays are often confused over Malaya and Malaysia, and freely interchange these to mean the same. But they are not.

Malaya and Malaysia have different birth dates. They are not identical twins, as some make them out to be. They are not tied by the same umbilical cord.

Our histories and cultures are different. For one, we don’t knock other races, call them “pendatang” and ask them to go back to their country of origin. And Sabah and Sarawak were never Tanah Melayu. They are former British colonies and home to 40 or 50 ethnic groups. East Malaysia was not affected by the May 13, 1969 racial strife. The racial narrative of Malay, Chinese and Indian does not apply to East Malaysia.

On July 12, 2008, Dr Mahathir Mohamad wrote a blog post on the “Malaysian” social contract, listing 45 points. This post can be countered in many ways. East Malaysians will always view the social contract argument from the perspective of MA63. What preceded this was history and has no relevance to Malaysia.

There was never a “Malaysian” social contract. But there was an agreement relating to Malaysia between the UK and Northern Ireland, the Federation of Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore, signed on July 9, 1963.

For Sabah, the basis of the Malaysia Agreement was the findings of the British government, working with the Federation of Malaya government-appointed commission of inquiry known as the Cobbold Commission. A list of 20 points was drawn up by North Borneo, proposing terms for its incorporation into the Malaysian constitution prior to the formation of Malaysia.

One of the points drawn up was: “While there is no objection to Islam being the national religion of Malaysia, there should be no state religion in North Borneo, and the provisions relating to Islam in the present Constitution of Malaya should not apply to North Borneo.” Over time, however, these crucial points have been changed or diluted by “Malaya”. Today, the word “Allah” and the Bahasa Bible have been banned in East Malaysia, curtailing freedom of religion.

If there is any social contract, and this is a big “if”, it is related to the history of the Malay peninsula and has no part in the history of Malaysia. Mahathir’s blog, chedet, stated: “The embodiment of the social contract is therefore the constitution of first, the Federation of Malaya and then Malaysia.” Put simply, whatever social contract purportedly existed in Malaya was supposedly extended to Sabah and Sarawak. This is not true.

According to the post, “When Sabah and Sarawak joined the peninsular states to form Malaysia, the social contract was extended to the two Borneo states. The natives of Sabah and Sarawak were given the same status as the Malays. At this time, the word Bumiputera was introduced to distinguish the indigenous Malays and Sabah and Sarawak natives from those descendants of foreign immigrants. Because Malay was widely used in the Borneo states, there was no difficulty in the acceptance of Malay as the national language. The fact that the natives of the two states are not all Muslims necessitated no change in the constitution once the word Bumiputera was accepted. But the official definition of a Malay remained.”

I find this claim mystifying. For so long, we have been referred to as “dan lain-lain” – people with no roots or ethnicity. We have been deprived of our oil rights, taxes, autonomy, and what was promised under MA63. Today, the Bornean states are starved for badly needed development funds.

There is little evidence of a social contract being extended to East Malaysia. The Bornean states, which cover a bigger territory than Peninsular Malaya, were never Tanah Melayu and never will be. Tanah Melayu is confined to Peninsular Malaya. If the Bornean states left Malaysia like Singapore, there would be no Malaysia.

In April, the federal government failed to pass a critical bill which sought to restore the status of Sabah and Sarawak as equal partners with Peninsular Malaysia, as enshrined in MA63. Out of the 197 MPs who attended the Dewan Rakyat, 138 voted for the bill while none voted against it. By virtue of the bill, the federal government recognised the Bornean states as equal partners and not part of Tanah Melayu.

Among the resolutions proposed at the recent Malay Dignity Congress was for top government positions to be held only by Malay Muslims. Such calls would deprive Sabah Bumiputeras of holding top positions in Malaysia, voiding any social contract extended across the South China Sea. This is despite Mahathir’s claim that Bumiputeras in Sabah have been given the same status under the “social contract”.

Like the Chinese and Indian “pendatangs”, none of the ethnic groups in East Malaysia can occupy high positions if we heed the calls of the academics at that congress. The only qualification would be for office bearers to be Malay Muslim. It won’t matter whether they are corrupt. When Richard Malanjum, a native from Sabah, was appointed as chief justice, there was a howl of protest from Muslim groups who questioned his integrity and religion.

East Malaysians also want their rights under MA63. The demand for more oil royalty payments and equal status in the state-federal relationship is growing stronger by the day. Some have openly called for Sabah and Sarawak to secede from Malaysia.

Peninsular Malaysians must be constantly reminded: without Sabah and Sarawak, there would be no Malaysia. So let’s not talk only about Malay rights. Ethnic communities in Sabah and Sarawak, and all other races in Malaysia, have their own rights, too.

The kind of social contract the academics demanded at the Malay Dignity Congress raised racial tension and appeared confrontational in nature. If there are claims of a social contract, it would be better to have peaceful dialogue rather than lashing out diatribes with heavy racial overtones.

Even Mahathir cannot guarantee that Malay dignity will remain intact if they continue to demand and are unwilling to work for it like the “pendatangs dan lain-lain”. Like respect, dignity must be earned, not demanded.