COMMENT The Rukunegara should be made the preamble (muqadimmah) to the Malaysian constitution. There are seven compelling reasons for suggesting this.
One, the objectives of the Rukunegara are linked to values which are perennial - values such as unity, justice and freedom. Preambles of most constitutions embody this timeless quality since they are meant to serve people beyond the present.
Two, the objectives and the principles of the Rukunegara are inclusive. They transcend gender, ethnicity, religion and region. This is what makes the Rukunegara, potentially, a force for unity in a diverse society.
Three, the Rukunegara commands a high degree of legitimacy. All its principles and objectives resonate with the vast majority of Malaysians. This includes the belief in God, on the one hand, and the commitment to a democratic way of life, on the other.
Besides, this national philosophy or ideology as it has been dubbed was produced by a National Consultative Council (NCC) - albeit operating under Emergency Rule - which represented a wide cross-section of society. All religious groups had seats in the Council. Both labour and business were included. All major political parties from the government and the opposition with the exception of one participated in the NCC under the chairpersonship of Abdul Razak Hussein.
It is equally significant that the Rukunegara was proclaimed to the nation by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong himself on Aug 31, 1970.
Four, given its legitimacy, its inclusiveness and its timelessness, the Rukunegara should now be endowed with the force of law. Only then will the courts be able to bestow it with meaning and substance. Though some judges have over the decades alluded to the Rukunegara in their judgements, it has no role in the adjudication process.
Five, since perceptions of state and society have become more and more polarised in recent years, it would make sense to bring back to the centre a philosophy which has the capacity to draw people together. There is no reason why Malaysians of different backgrounds and persuasions should not rally around a set of objectives and principles like the Rukunegara.
Six, the elevation of the Rukunegara has become imperative partly because of the sometimes subtle push by sections of the Muslim populace for laws and policies that reflect their own particularistic interpretation of Islam which does not always represent the essence of the faith and its practice. Because this tendency is getting stronger, we have to empower a philosophy which is all-embracing and yet resonates with Islamic values and aspirations.
The Panca Sila, the guiding principles of the Indonesian state which has many parallels to the Rukunegara, and is deeply rooted in the psyche of the people, has undoubtedly played an effective role in checking bigotry and dogmatism in the world’s largest Muslim nation.
Seven, as against the bigotry of some Muslim groups, there is the other trend associated with a segment of the non-Muslim citizenry that in the name of hidebound secularism seeks to deny religion any role at all in the public square.
In a society where Islam has been a fundamental factor in shaping the identity of the majority of the people, it is naïve to try to marginalise the religion when addressing societal concerns. It is how Islam is understood and practised that is the critical challenge.
Universal vision of faith
The Rukunegara at least attempts through its first principle, the belief in God, to articulate a universal vision of faith that transcends religious boundaries which is reinforced in its fifth principle by a notion of good behaviour and morality that is not confined to a specific community.
The quest to make the Rukunegara the preamble of the Malaysian constitution has a long history behind it. In early 1971, the late Professor Syed Hussein Alatas, in an essay entitled, ‘The Rukunegara and the Return to Democracy in Malaysia’ (Pacific Community Volume 2, Nos 1-4, Tokyo) argued that the Rukunegara could fulfil the function of a preamble.
“It can be considered”, he wrote, “as an appropriate introduction to the constitution. It reflects the predominant trend in the political and philosophical thinking of the nation.” It is interesting that he also observed “that the late Onn Ja’afar, the founder president of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), the first major political leader that emerged from post-war Malaya, lamented to me privately that the constitution did not contain a preamble.”
After the Rukunegara was inaugurated as the nation’s philosophy in August 1970, Abdul Razak and his deputy, Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, gave some emphasis to the document through schools and the media. On their demise in the mid-seventies, prime minister Hussein Onn and one of his key ministers, Muhammad Ghazali Shafie, continued to champion the Rukunegara.
It was from the eighties onwards that the national philosophy began to recede into the background. In 2005 and 2006, there was a brief effort to revive the document but it did not take off.
From the early eighties, a handful of us - civil society activists and academics - tried to keep the Rukunegara alive through our writings and via seminars and forums. The Rukunegara’s objectives and principles were used as yardsticks to measure the performance of the powers-that-be. Our modest endeavours did not make a dent.
Now some of us are once again seeking to raise the status and role of the Rukunegara. In the midst of the new challenges that have surfaced, making the Rukunegara the preamble to the constitution will give it the weight and value it deserves. It will be so much easier for the citizen to insist that those who wield power and authority should through deeds prove that they are genuinely committed to the objectives and principles of the Rukunegara.
DR CHANDRA MUZAFFAR is the chairperson of the board of trustees of Yayasan1Malaysia.