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Kampung Compass Points Current Affairs A Constitution of Consensus
A Constitution of Consensus PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 16 October 2009 13:14
kuliKeynote speech delivered by Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah at the launch of the book “Multiethnic Malaysia” at UCSI University, Kuala Lumpur - 16th Oct 2009

I am honoured that you have asked me to address you todayI am not a scholar. All I can offer today are the personal views of a Malaysian who has seen a little of the history of this marvelous country, and tried to play my part in it.


I say a marvelous country, because Malaysia, for all its frustrations and perils, is truly special, truly beautiful. We are a coming together of communities, cultures, traditions and religions unlike anything anywhere else.  It is not in political sloganeering or in tourist jingos that we find our special nature. We recover it only by paying attention to the concrete details of our everyday life and our particular history. Wonder is found in the details.


Remembering our stories


Let me tell you a story:


I grew up in Kota Bharu. My father was fond of Western cuisine and had a Hainanese cook who prepared the dishes he enjoyed.

One day, while the cook was feeding the tigers in our home, a piece of meat got stuck in between the bars of the cage. –  I should explain that we had a mini zoo in our home. My father was fond of animals and we shared a home with tigers, a bear, crocodiles and other creatures in the compound. The animals were very fond of my father. The tigers would come up to him to have their backs stroked. The bear would accompany him on his walks around the garden.  The crocodiles made their escape in one of Kota Bharu’s annual floods, which I always remember as a happy time because of the water sports it made possible. My father sent us out to look for them. What he expected us to do when we found them I am not sure. –

To return to my story, one day the cook was feeding the tigers, and a piece of meat got stuck between the bars of the cage. The cook tried to dislodge it. As he did so, he failed to notice the tiger. The tiger swatted his hand. Within twenty four hours, our poor cook was dead from the infection caused by the wound.

Our family was in grief. He was dear to us all.  He had no known relatives. So my father took it upon himself to arrange a full Chinese funeral for the cook, complete with a brass band and procession, and invited all the cook’s friends. We children followed in respect as the process wove its way through the town.


Your own stories, if you recall the actual details, will be no less strange than my own. Some of the details here might scandalize people in these supposedly more enlightened times. They don’t fit into the trimmed down, sloganized narratives of who we are and how we came to be. This is over the years we have allowed politics to tell us who we are and how we should remember ourselves. We have let political indoctrination, jingoism, and a rising tide of bad taste overcome our memory of ourselves. We have let  newspapers, textbooks and even university courses paint a crude picture of who we are, what we fear and what we hope for.  This depletes our culture, but there is also a political consequence:


The picture that our current politics paints of us is devoid of wonder, and therefore of possibility.

Our politics has become an enemy of our sense of wonder. Instead it has sown doubt, uncertainty and fear. These are disabling emotions. It is not by accident that authoritarian regimes everywhere begin their subjugation of people by cutting them off from their past. Systematically, they replace the richly textured memories of a community that make people independent, inquisitive and open with prefabricated tales that weaken them into subjugation through fear and anxiety. They destroy the markers of memory, the checks and balances of tradition and institution, and replace them with a manufactured set of images all pointing to a centralized power.

Our path to  the recovery of a sense of nationhood is not through an equally crude reaction, but through a retrieval of our personal and collective memory of living in this blessed land and sharing it each other. The work done by the contributors to this volume are part of a civilizing project to bring to light the fine detail of who we are, against the politicised and commercialised caricatures that have made our racialised politics seem natural and inevitable.

Our own stories, individually and as a country, are full of curious processions, walking bears, and escaped crocodiles. We should begin to wonder again at this amazing country we find ourselves sharing. In that wonder we shall recover what it is we love about being who we are, who we are amongst, and we shall more fiercely defend not just our own, but each others’ freedoms.


A Constitution of Consensus

One place for us to begin this process together is our Federal Constitution.

The spirit in which Malaysia came to be is captured in our Constitution. At the moment of our independence, Malaysia possessed firm foundations in the rule of law and was permeated with a spirit of constitutionalism.

The pledge contained within the proclamation of Independence says that “…with God’s blessing [Malaysia] shall be forever a sovereign democratic and independent State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people and the maintenance of a just peace among all nations.”

The Constitution is the ultimate safeguard of our fundamental liberties. These are liberties which cannot be taken away.

One view put out by those who are impatient with these safeguards is that our Constitution is an external and Western imposition upon us, that it is the final instrument of colonialism. People have drawn on this view to subject the Constitution to some higher or prior principle, be it race, religion or royalty. Of course, the proponents of such views tend to identify themselves with these higher principles in order to claim extra-constitutional powers. These are transparent attempts at revisionism which erode the supremacy of the Constitution. We should have the confidence to reject such moves politely but firmly, whoever advocates them, whatever their social or religious status.

The truth is that our Constitution was built by a deliberately consultative process aimed at achieving consensus. The Reid Commission was proposed by a constitutional conference in London attended by four representatives of the Malay Rulers, the Chief Minister of the Federation, Tunku Abdul Rahman and three other ministers, and also by the British High Commissioner in Malaya and his advisers.  This conference proposed the appointment of an independent commission to devise a constitution for a fully self-governing and independent Federation of Malaya. Their proposal was accepted by the Malay Rulers and Queen Elizabeth.

The Reid Commission met 118 times in Kuala Lumpur between June and October 1956, and received 131 memoranda from various individuals and organisations. The commission submitted its working draft on 21 February 1957, which was scrutinised by a Working Committee. The Working Committee consisted of four representatives from the Malay rulers, another four from the Alliance government, the British High Commissioner, the Chief Secretary, and the Attorney General.

On the basis of their recommendations, the new Federal Constitution was passed by the Federal Legislative Council on August 15, 1957, and the Constitution took effect on August 27.

As you can tell from this narrative, the Commission solicited the views of all sections of our society and had, throughout, the support and participation of the Malay Rulers and the Alliance government. The process preserved the sovereignty of the Malay Rulers


The resulting document, like all things man-made, remains perfectible, but most certainly it is ours. It brought our nation into being, and it is our document.

The question of whether the Federation should be an Islamic state, for example, was considered and rejected by the Rulers and by the representatives of the people. Had we wanted to be ruled by syariah, the option was on the shelf, so to speak, and could easily have been taken, because prior to this the states were ruled by the Sultans according to syariah law. The fact that we have a constitution governed by common law is not an accident nor an external imposition. We chose to found our nation on a secular constitution after consultation and deliberation.

Our country was built on the sophisticated and secure foundation of a Constitution that we formed for ourselves. For us to continue to grow up as a country we need to own, understand and defend it.

Sadly part of the memory we have lost is of our Constitution and of the nature of that Constitution. Today, in the aftermath of the scene-shifting election results of March 2008, people are restless and uneasy about the ethnic relations, and about their future. There is a sense of anxiety about our nation that is often translated into fear of ethnic conflict.

I think we should not fear. On an inviolable foundation of equal citizenship, the rights of each and every community are protected. These protections are guaranteed in the Constitution. What we should be uneasy about is not so much ethnic discord, which is often manufactured for political ends and has little  basis in the daily experience of our citizens, but the subversion of our Constitution. Such subversion is only possible if we forget that this Constitution belongs to us, protects us all, and underwrites our nationhood and we fail to defend it.

Our country had a happy beginning in being built on firm foundations in the rule of law. A strong spirit of constitutionalism guided our early decades. The components of that spirit are respect and understanding for the rule of law, and the upholding of justice and liberty. That spirits is antithetical to communal bickering and small-minded squabbling over fixed pie notions of education, economy or whatever. That spirit has declined and with it has come all kinds of unease. It is time we recovered it. With its recovery will come our confidence as a nation once more.

The political framework of this country cries out for reform. But reform is not about the blind embrace of the new. That would be to fly from disorder to confusion. Our path to reform must come from a recovery of  the “old” living spirit of Constitutionalism, and the “old” values of freedom and justice, and the “old” memories each of us carries in themselves of what is good about our nation.

So far I have spoken more generally about principles. I want to turn now to some examples of how these can work out in pursuing particular reforms.

National reform must begin with reform of our party system. This is because one of the chief reasons this nation is sick is that we have a diseased party system. A diagnosis of the disease of the party system finds that the parties are sick because they have strayed from from the Constitutional principles that govern them (they are subject to the Societies Act). In doing so they have become undemocratic. In becoming undemocratic they have lost legitimacy. In losing legitimacy they have lost public support and the ability to rejuvenate themselves. The cure, surely is for them to conform themselves again to constitutional principles.

I have warned that Umno, like any other political party that has been in power for so long, must reform, or it will be tossed out by the people. The people themselves have had a taste of the power of their free vote. They know that parties and governments answer to the people, and not vice versa, they want a repeal of draconian laws, and they have lost patience with corruption. They seek accountability, justice and rule of law. The people are ahead of the government of the day, but the principles they want to see applied are universal, and they are enshrined in our Constitution.

It is not just Umno that needs to reform. The entire political system needs to change, to be in greater conformity with our Constitution and in the spirit of the Rukun Negara, which says "from these diverse elements of our population, we are dedicated to the achievement of a united nation in which loyalty and dedication to the nation shall over-ride all other loyalties.”


We should not expect our political parties to reform of their own accord. Leaders who owe their position to undemocratic rules and practices are the last people to accept reform. The people must demand it. I say we need a movement embraced by people at all levels and from every quarter of our rakyat, to establish a national consensus on how our political parties should conduct themselves from now on. In the spirit of the Rukun Negara, that consensus should be based on a set of principles such as the following:

1. All political parties are required to include in their constitutional objectives the equality of citizenship as provided for in the Federal Constitution.

2. An economic and political policy that political parties propagate must not discriminate against any citizen.

3. All parties shall include and uphold constitutional democracy and the separation of powers as a fundamental principle.


4. It shall be the duty of all political parties to adhere to the objectives of public service and refrain from involvement in business, and ensure the separation of business from political parties.


5. It shall be the duty of all political parties to ensure and respect the independence of the judiciary and the judicial process.


6. All parties shall ensure that the party election system will adhere to the highest standards of conduct, and also ensure that the elections are free of corrupt practices. Legislation should be considered to provide funding of political parties.


7. It shall be the duty of all parties to ensure that all political dialogues and statements will not create racial or religious animosity.


8. All parties undertake not to use racial and communal agitation as political policies.


9. To remove and eradicate all barriers that hinder national unity and Malaysian identity.


10. To uphold the Federal and State Constitutions and its democratic intent and spirit, the Rule of Law, and the fundamental liberties as enshrined in Part II of the Malaysian Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


What we need now is the rise of an empowered public. Democracy in Malaysia is fragile so long as public opinion remains weak. Our hope for a more democratic future depends on our ability to build a strong public opinion. It’s good news that a vigorous body of public opinion, aided by information and  communication technologies, is in making on the internet. I myself rely on it through my blog. If not for my blog, what I say would scarcely get out in the mainstream media. We need a freedom of information act, and I call for the repeal of the Printing Presses Act. It is silly that we limit the number of newspapers while every person with a blog or a Twitter account can publish to the world. In limiting the printed media we have only succeeded in dumbing it down, so that those who rely only on the printed mass media and the terrestrial broadcast channels are actually the poorer for it.

Race and hope

Let's end by returning to the theme of racial harmony. I repeat: the constitutional guarantees are ironclad.  We ought to feel secure in the Constitution’s protections of our rights. A free people must be a secure people.

Another story:

In 1962, when I was a delegate to the United Nations, the Late Tun Ismail and I went out one evening to a posh restaurant on New York’s East Side. The maitre d’ turned us away firmly. No, he said, the restaurant was closed for a private function. We could see clearly that the restaurant was open. We understood that we were being denied entry because were “coloured”. This is despite the fact that our reservation had been made UN’s offices.


Today, in 2008, an African American man is President of the United States. He has just won the Nobel Peace Prize. In 46 years, and well within my lifetime, how far things have come. Had you told me in 1962, after that incident, that a black man would be president in my life time, I would not have believed you. This change did not happen without struggle.

From Leo Tolstoy to Henry Thoreau to Ghandi to Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela,  we see a thread of conviction about the overriding ethical claim of our common humanity. It is more important that we are alike in being sons and daughters of God than that we are different. This is also the thread of a spirit and method of resistance. Where all reasonable persuasion fails, the final “No” to wrongdoing, the place at which the citizen stands up to defend something fundamental, is through peaceful resistance. I allude to this only as a reminder of the final redoubt of the free citizen. Things may or may not have come to such a bad state that we must rise in this fashion, but let us be conscious of the power we hold in knowing just who we are and what we are capable of as ordinary citizens.

If the authorities do what is unjust, ride roughshod over constitutional rights and deny the sovereignty of the rakyat and the primacy of our constitution, we rest secure in the knowledge that history shows us that the just cause, defended stoutly, persistently and peacefully, will prevail. And sooner than we might expect.


Keynote speech on the launch of the book, Multi-ethnic Malaysia

UCSI University, Cheras, October 16, 2009

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