Revisiting Malaysia’s Social Contract

It was the turn of Malaysia’s Bar Council this time to host a public forum over the weekend in Kuala Lumpur on the country’s Social contract, the arrangement between Malays and non-Malays at the country’s birth to share its wealth.

In the end, no surprises were in store. The four panelists were evenly split, two calling it a piece of fiction, two disagreeing in polite terms. This is an endless debate and we can be sure the Bar Council Forum won’t be the end of the matter. Every school child in Malaysia has been well fed in the early years of independence with tons of material on the Social contract. It’s the younger generation that seems perplexed. Hence, the issue is revisited at regular intervals and the debate continues.

The contract, a simple unwritten arrangement fostered between Malays and non-Malays by the founding fathers, brought about a rare unity among the multiracial peoples of British Malaya and expedited the advent of independence on 31 Aug 1957. The Social contract also paved the way for the inclusion of Singapore, Sabah, Sarawak and Brunei in an enlarged Federation within just six years of the midnight air ringing with shouts of “merdeka” – “freedom” – in Stadium Merdeka in Kuala Lumpur. Brunei stayed out over oil revenues and Singapore, as we will see later, was soon booted out. The Social contract remained intact.

At independence the Malaysian economy was held almost 29 percent by the Chinese; less than 2 percent by the Malays, who were largely outside the money economy; less than 1 percent by the Indians and about 69 percent held mostly by the British and other foreigners. (Malaysia introduced the 20 year 1070-90 New Economic Policy in late 1969. The NEP pledged to eliminate the identification of race with economic function and place of residence; eradicate poverty irrespective of race, color and creed; and ensure that the Malays and other indigenous races own, control and manage at least 30 percent of the nation’s corporate economy by 1990.

But deviations soon set in and there was rampant nepotism, cronyism and corruption to sabotage the NEP and send the economy into a tailspin by the early 1980s. The NEP had to be scaled back to bring the economy out of a recession in the mid-1980s.)

The thrust of the contract was simple: since the Chinese of the towns in particular had considerable economic power in comparison with the largely rural-dwelling Malays who saw themselves as the indigenous people of the country, it was felt that it was only right that the Malays held the reins of political power firmly in their hands in a quid pro quo. This power they would then share with the non-Malays and thereby underwrite the continued economic success of the country. Malay hopes, unlike the disastrous route taken by economic nationalists in so much of Africa, Myanmar and Fiji, hinged on the economy going right. Had the Malays been overwhelmingly in the majority, it is unlikely there would have been a social contract of any sort. The non-Malay numbers almost matched the Malay, even after being bolstered for nearly 150 years by immigrants from the Malay Archipelago. Had overwhelmingly Chinese Singapore been included with Malaya, the Malays would have been in a distinct minority in their “own land”.

There were shades of New Zealand, Australia, Mauritius and the Americas here, all lands where the original inhabitants were reduced to an insignificant minority caught in a vicious cycle of alcohol and drug abuse, poverty, ignorance and disease in vice-ridden shantytowns or in god-forsaken reservations apportioned the most inhospitable and difficult terrains.

The founding fathers, perhaps in a stroke of genius, saw no reason for a time-frame-bound social contract, nor did they see any reason for preserving the arrangement in print for posterity. The social contract, it was foreseen, would serve the nation well and melt away when its time came.

As the nation ends its celebration of its 50th anniversary of independence, an important watershed when we look back at this moment in history in the years ahead, the thinking among many Malaysians is that the social contract has entered the history books as a minor footnote. They point out that not only have Malay numbers increased significantly but the community itself has considerable leverage in the economy of the nation within and without the context of an expanding economic pie.

The levers of the economy at the policy level are almost totally in Malay hands, albeit because of their sheer numbers, although the community continues to be edged out at the retail level. The market is a different ball game altogether.

Not so, scream a vociferous minority, who not only see the social contract as far from having outlived its purpose but insist that it also includes other aspects like the granting of citizenship status to hundreds of thousands of stateless and immigrant non-Malays and their descendents; the position of the Malay rulers, the position of Islam as "the religion of the Federation" according to Article 3 of the Federal Constitution; the position of Bahasa Melayu as the basis of Bahasa Malaysia, the national language, and the sole medium of instruction in education; and the special privileges of the Malays, and by extension, other indigenous peoples of the Federation in the peninsula and Borneo.

This revisionist approach among a diehard Malay nationalist core hasn’t gone down well with the Indians and Chinese in particular and they have made no bones about it in the vernacular media and other channels. Malay moderates feel it’s high time to take the debate behind closed doors, not so much to re-negotiate the social contract, “but to remind community leaders about the history of the past so that they can re-assure themselves and their people once again and renew their faith in the nation and a common destiny, sharing and caring alike”.

(Article 3 of the Federal Constitution states that "Islam is the religion of the Federation but other religions may be practiced in peace and harmony in any part of the Federation." Wanita Umno called in November 2007 at the Umno Assembly for the insertion of the word "official" before the word "religion" to prevent any "misunderstanding".)

Essentially, the various issues being bandied about outside the social contract are either well covered in the Federal Constitution or backed by social convention. Hence, the question of including these in an unwritten political arrangement like the Social contract should not arise at all. Generally, non-Malays are even more for the Malay rulers and see the institution as an important bulwark against mob rule and rabble-rousers. Meanwhile, the Federal Constitution remains secular, despite Islam being recognized by the otherwise color-blind document as the official religion. There’s a fine distinction between official and national and the fact remains that Malaysia does not have a national religion and the Federal Constitution guarantees complete freedom of worship.

Again, the country is definitely multiracial, multi-religious, multilingual and multicultural, as anyone with eyes can see, and nobody can take that away – “Malaysia Truly Asia” runs the official tourism theme proudly all over the globe -- despite conflicting claims that it is an Islamic state one day, Muslim the next day, run according to Islamic principles the third day while admittedly not a theocratic state, a bizarre contradiction in terms.

These shifting mindsets even among the religious moderates can best be seen as their coming to terms slowly and painfully with secular Malaysia and preaching a brave, new way to combat the dangerous mix of politics with religion. Religion is religion, and politics is politics, and never the twain shall meet in Malaysia. We need not go so far as to echo DAP MP Karpal Singh’s infamous outburst not so long ago that, “Malaysia will only be an Islamic state over my dead body”. Karpal was quickly hailed as “the tiger – shouldn’t it be lion – of Jelutong.”

The current debate over the social contract is not the first time that attempts have been made to revise history for reasons of political expediency.

Nearly 40 years ago, after the searing Sino-Malay race riots May 1969 in Kuala Lumpur, many historians attributed the bloodshed to the “breakdown” of the social contract when non-Malay political parties made substantial gains in the May 1969 General Elections. The island of Penang, the Pearl of the Orient, had fallen to the newly-formed Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia, which was in fact mostly composed of ousted rebel leaders from the Malaysian Chinese Association, a key member of the ruling Alliance Party.

The DAP (Democratic Action Party), the Malaysian chapter of Singapore’s ruling PAP, had almost half the seats in the Selangor State Assembly, while the PPP (People’s Progressive Party) made similar gains in its Perak heartland. The MCA saw no further purpose in being part of the Federal Government and pulled out while still remaining as a member of the Alliance. The MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress), the other key member of the Alliance, stayed put in the Federal Government and in the states and at the local levels even as quite a number of panicky families sold their properties for a mere song and packed their bags for India. Elsewhere, long queues of would-be migrants formed for weeks outside the Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian High Commissions in particular and the US Embassy.

The MCA pullout from the federal government was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Race riots erupted first in the Chinatown area of Chow Kit which had a Malay hinterland and soon spread all over the capital city. The incomplete polling was abandoned, Parliament was disbanded, democracy suspended, a state of emergency declared by the caretaker government and Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, seen as too pro-Chinese, was ousted and placed virtually under house arrest for a while. It was like a coup d’ etat. There were isolated incidents everywhere. The police were hopelessly outnumbered and overwhelmed and the Malay Regiment was brought in while the multiracial Federation Army and the famed Sarawak Rangers of elite Iban and other Dayak troops were both confined to their barracks. The Malay Regiment were mindless robots who contributed to the carnage as well in perceived defense of race, religion and country. They were eventually ordered, albeit reluctantly and gently, to return to their barracks but not until the blood-letting had dragged on for some ten days or more of unspeakable tales of horror.

In hindsight, the apologists and conspiracy theorists rationalize that the Malay Regiment ran amok in revenge for the killings over two weeks by the Communist Party of Malaya’s Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army which virtually had a free run of the country while awaiting the return of British troops in strength following the Japanese surrender after the 2nd World War. The Japanese looked on. The MPAJA’s victims were mostly Malays seen as Japanese collaborators. There were feeble attempts in official circles to blame the communists for May 13 but these were quickly denounced and roundly condemned by the man in the street. At the height of the Vietnam War, the communists were the eternal bogeyman in Southeast Asia and everywhere in the Free World.

The Malay Regiment, disgraced in the eyes of the non-Malay population, was replaced by the Federation Army and the Sarawak Regiment and calm quickly returned to the burnt-out streets of Kuala Lumpur. There had been a heavy price to pay in innocent lives, all because extreme-right Malays in Umno, the lead player in the Alliance, had been rattled by the electoral setbacks suffered by the MCA and feared the unraveling of the Social contract. Apparently, the rightwing game plan was to intimidate the political opposition, punish the voters and force the MCA back into the Government. The fact that the political opposition had never been party to the Social contract was lost on the rightwing instigators of the May 13 bloodbath.

Even so, the Gerakan and the PPP were virtually blackmailed, with the promise of democracy being restored, to become members of an enlarged Alliance which was renamed Barisan Nasional. The Social contract was back on track. The Alliance, symbolized by a sailing boat, had sunk. The BN chose the scales of justice as the new symbol.

Hardly five years before May 13, Singapore had queried the social contract as a member of the Federation and was quickly ushered out. It's important that Malaysian history books explore the expulsion of Singapore from the Federation. However, this tragedy along with the Japanese occupation is simply glossed over. The key lies in former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's "infamous" outburst: "If these people (Kuala Lumpur) think they can squat on Singapore and get away with it, they are sadly mistaken." Apparently, Lee was alarmed that Kuala Lumpur had rapidly changed track after Malaysia with the extreme right wing in Umno calling the shots.

A serious deviation of the social contract was the misinterpretation by the right wingers that it was a carte blanche for Ketuanan Melayu --Malays first -- Malay political dominance and supremacy. This was anathema to Lee. Many saw Ketuanan Melayu as nothing less than an unabashed amalgamation of the Nazism of Hitler's Germany and the Apartheid of South Africa's white supremacists with the caste system of the Brahmins of India. Surely, such a system could not be good for anyone, even including the great majority of the Malays themselves.

Sabah and Sarawak, the Borneo states, remained in the Federation after some initial demands for a review by Sabah. Kadazandusun leader, Donald Stephens (later Mohd Fuad Abdullah), was eventually packed off into exile as the High Commissioner to Australia, before making a stunning political comeback in 1976 and dying mysteriously in an air crash shortly after with almost his entire State Cabinet.

Is the social contract still relevant in this day and age? Every two people have three opinions.

A simple reading of history and the demographics shows that the Malay factor will henceforth continue to be an important aspect of the nation’s politics unlike in the early days when the community genuinely feared being swamped by the immigrants from India and China and their descendents. No longer can a non-Malay be the Prime Minister of Malaysia, for example, unless with the consent of the governed, predominantly Malay and other indigenous peoples.

Malays have also entered the money economy in a big way as a community and made considerable gains as well in this field. As the Malays prosper and emerge more educated and universal in outlook, having a stranglehold on politics will be less and less the community’s main pre-occupation and obsession. Herein lie the seeds of destruction of the social contract despite having served the nation well. It is unlikely too that the Chinese parties in government will ever contemplate leaving the ruling coalition and should they do so, as was the case with MCA in the aftermath of the 1969 polls, they would not be wooed back. The Chinese in the political opposition, too long in the wilderness, are waiting in the wings for a historical opportunity to taste the spoils of office.