Guest Editorial: Taking on the Biggest Elephant in the Malaysian Room: Article 153

Lim Teck Ghee

“We cannot underestimate the forces 【of extremism】 in the peninsula, Sabah or Sarawak … They would view their survival purely from a particular race or religion and this would, of course, be damaging to the fabric of our country.

I have to continue to reiterate this point because there are forces with some extreme views.

Even after six decades of independence, you can still hear (such sentiments). This should not be tolerated”

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim

Bernama report on PMX Speech, 31 May 2024, Penampang

In the existential battle for a secure and united Malaysia, the latest assurance by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim that his government will continue to fight for, demand and ensure that the rights of every single citizen in Malaysia will be protected and preserved is indeed comforting. However, words and stirring speeches are far from enough.

Indeed, the man regarded as the nation’s and region’s most reformist leader needs all the help that he, and his colleagues from Pakatan Harapan, the current ruling coalition, or any other aspiring government in the country for that matter, can get to win this battle.

The recent rash of controversy over opening university places to non Malay students in UITM, the police reports on the use of the ‘apartheid’ term to describe the situation in Malaysia, and numerous similar public tussles on the rights of Malay and non Malay communities with respect to Article 153 of the Constitution, are evidence that a long running festering wound in the country relates to the policy implementation and ramifications of that provision.

Why a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) is Needed

The implementation of Article 153 is a wound that has occasionally turned gangrenous. It is also one that is possibly the major factor that stands in the way of unleashing the full potential of our young in building a secure, confident and united society.

So what can be done to lance and heal this festering wound? What is the antiseptic needed? And who can take on this operation? Clearly any examination of the special position of the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak and the corresponding legitimate position and interests of other communities as defined in the Constitution and by Article 153 is difficult, if not impossible, to undertake in our supercharged political arena, despite the best intentions of our political leaders.

Not only are entrenched and combative racial and political divides in the way of sensible and judicious deliberation on this subject in Parliament, Article 10 (4) of the Constitution makes it illegal to question Article 153 and its provisions to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities.

Under the Sedition Act, questioning Article 153 is prohibited – even for members of Parliament, who usually have the freedom to discuss anything without fear of external censure or punishment.

However, even if the bicameral Parliament of elected and appointed representatives cannot debate the subject, there is no reason why it cannot initiate an independent and meaningful review and examination of the subject outside its august body by the best minds of the country.

How to establish the RCI

Such an initiative would not require the approval of the ruling or opposition political parties to jump start the process. All it requires is one or a group of concerned members of Parliament – either from the upper or lower House – to table a consensual private members’ bill calling for the establishment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry on the subject matter.

Whilst some opposition to this bill is to be expected, I am hopeful that a majority of our elected or appointed representatives will agree that a Royal Commission should be able to provide the critical, and possibly pivotal, analysis and value that Parliament and the nation badly need on this contentious subject.

Likely Support for the RCI

Apart from inputs by members of Parliament, I am certain that the country’s civil society, business, academic and other organisations will be more than ready to provide feedback and useful suggestions on the composition of the RCI, its terms of reference and other necessary features so that the Commission can arrive at practical findings and the necessary changes in policies and laws to drive the nation forward.

Malaysia has been stuck too long in the stalled and seemingly immovable standing and status on the special position provision for Malays and Article 153. There can be little dispute that the Malay community has progressed far ahead in the sectors specified by the Reid Commission when drafting the constitution in the 1950s.

In fact, Malay dominance in most aspects of society makes a mockery of the claims by Malay ultra nationalists that the community still needs protection and assistance at the expense of other communities and the larger national good.

Surely the younger generation in Malaysia inheriting the country are entitled to a level playing field in all aspects of their life, and to a fresh start without the encumbrance put in place 67 years ago when so much around them in the country and the world has changed.