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OMG’s ‘A Response to ‘Rukunegara as preamble’‘ dated Feb 10, 2017 merely uses my article as a peg to argue that Article 153 should be amended to include three words ‘based on need’.

In making this proposal, OMG should keep in mind the following:

One, Article 153 in the Malaysian constitution which pertains to the Special Position (SP) of the Malays and the Natives of Sabah and Sarawak and the Legitimate Interests of the Other Communities is one of those Articles that can only be changed by the Conference of Rulers.

If one wants to pose as the champion of an idea one should also be honest with one’s readers about what is possible and what is not.

Two, pushing for greater emphasis upon ‘need’ rather than ‘ethnicity’ is not a new idea at all. It has been espoused by a number of groups and individuals since the nineteen fifties.

Even after the 1971 Constitutional Amendments which brought Article 153 and other Articles in the Constitution related to Citizenship; the status of Malay and other languages; and the role of the Rulers, under the jurisdiction of the Conference of Rulers, many politicians, lawyers, academics and activists have adopted this approach to some of our economic and social challenges.

Apart from the late Dr Tan Chee Khoon, a respected opposition political leader in the sixties and seventies, the upper echelon of the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS) from 1982 onwards often spoke of justice and humanity rather than ethnicity as the basis for extending assistance to people. It is a view that resonates with Islam. It is also embodied in the Rukunegara’s articulation of justice.

In 1978, in the midst of a controversy over university places, I had suggested that the socio-economic situation of the applicant should be given due consideration, instead of focusing largely upon his ethnic affiliation.

For decades now this has been my stance. I have been critical of how certain aspects of the implementation of SP has widened the gap between those who have-a-lot and those who have-a-little among the Malays and how “the legitimate interests of the other communities” in Article 153 has not been given the attention it deserves.

Three, I have been able to do this without launching an aggressive attack upon SP as such.

For I realise that SP is intimately linked to the formation of the State in 1957 and generates deep emotions.

Though elements of it connected to Malay reserves, Public Service positions, scholarships and licences were introduced by the British Colonial Administration, the incorporation of SP into the Merdeka constitution was for the Malay Rulers and the Malay political elite an attempt to protect the rights of the community in the wake of the conferment of citizenship on a massive scale upon a million recently domiciled Chinese and Indians on the eve of Independence.

Special Position paired with citizenship

This is why SP is invariably paired with the question of citizenship. Citizenship for the non-Malays was a move which changed dramatically the political landscape of the nascent State. From a people who gave the land its name, the Malays became a community among communities. What evolved from the Malay Sultanates was not a Malay State which would have been logical but a multi-ethnic state a huge portion of whose citizenry was non-Malay.

Malay nationalism did not give birth to a Malay nation but had to contend instead with a multi-ethnic society which has yet to become a nation in the real sense of the term. OMG should try to understand and empathise with this history and evolution of present-day Malaysia instead of decrying “discrimination for a particular ethnic group”.

Four, it is because SP has such a profound connotation that even the Singapore constitution acknowledges its significance.

In Article 152(2) it states, “The government shall exercise its functions in such manner as to recognise the special position of the Malays who are the indigenous people of Singapore, and accordingly it shall be the responsibility of the government to protect, safeguard, support, foster and promote their political, educational, religious, economic, social and cultural interests and the Malay language.”

This shows that even in a society wedded to meritocracy, there are hard truths that one has to accept.

Accepting hard truths while striving for justice, integrity and dignity is the hallmark of a genuine struggle for change. Seen from such a perspective the quest to empower the Rukunegara is a realistic endeavour which deserves the wholehearted endorsement of the Malaysian people.

DR CHANDRA MUZAFFAR is the chair of the Rukunegara Mukadimah Perlembagaan (RMP) Initiative and chairperson of the Yayasan 1Malaysia.