Tuesday, November 04, 2008


Social contract: What could be next?

Lim Teck Ghee | Oct 21, 08 3:34pm


The statement released by the Conference of Rulers following their 215th meeting needs to be scrutinized in terms of what has recently happened and who has been responsible for precipitating the current situation of racial and religious disquiet which has resulted in that unusual and extraordinary press statement.

My intention is not to engage in discussion about the correctness or wisdom of what is contained in the statement but to point to some differing perspectives that have appeared in academic circles on the contested origins, meaning and implications of the social contract.

Firstly, it is important to note that the term ‘social contract’ is of recent lineage. It was not a term used during the constitutional negotiations; neither does it appear in the days of soul searching in the nation after the May 13 racial unrest.

The very first reference to it appears to have been made by Abdullah Ahmad, an Umno member of parliament in 1986 (who later became New Straits Times editor-in-chief) – that is, 30 years after independence and 23 years after May 13. 

Abdullah’s view of the social contract as reported by The Star (Aug 31, 1986) was as follows: 

“The political system of Malay dominance was born out of the sacrosanct social contract which preceded national independence. Let us never forget that in the Malaysian political system the Malay position must be preserved and that Malay expectations must be met. There have been moves to question, to set aside and to violate the contract that have threatened the stability of the system.

“The May 69 riots arose out of the challenge to the system agreed upon out of the non-fulfilment of the substance of the contract. The NEP is the programme after those riots in 1969 to fulfil the promises of the contract in 1957… The NEP must continue to sustain Malay dominance in the political system in line with the contract of 1957.  Even after 1990, there must be mechanisms of preservation, protection and expansion in an evolving system.”    

According to Dr Mavis Puthucheary who has studied the subject, Abdullah’s speech was roundly criticized at that time - over 20 years ago when it appeared - “as a figment of the writer’s heated imagination and lacking any basis of truth”.

She also writes that several writers at that time too strenuously challenged this social contract argument “on the grounds that Malay political dominance [as it was envisaged by Abdullah in 1986] was a mundane political reality, not a solemn, enduring, immutable and morally binding constitutional guarantee … entered into at the time of independence”.

In the last few years, as noted by Puthucheary, the term ‘social contract’ has again prominently re-entered the vocabulary of politicians and scholars who appear to be uninformed or ignorant about the origins and political connotations of the term and have used it “to fulfill their own preferred notion, and that of their leadership successors, of the future Malaysian nation and its direction”.

Further she has warned of the “subtle, often imperceptible, process of redefinition … and even, opportunistic reformulation” of the social contract concept.

‘A fantasy created by politicians’

Other scholars and writers have also similarly repudiated the notion of the ‘social contract’.  Perhaps the most prominent of these dissenting views in recent times is royal professor Dr Ungku Abdul Aziz, who is reported to have stated that, “There is no such thing as [a] social contract”, and that the social contract is "a fantasy created by politicians of all sorts of colours depending on their interest".

According to the same report, he also stated that the social contract “should rightly be called an ‘economic contract’ to justify affirmative action in areas of education and health for groups that needed it the most”. Finally he was reported to have said that he would save his views for another forum.

Now is the time, perhaps if not within the glare of the larger public arena, for a closed-door meeting of leaders from the various communities to deliberate on what exactly constitutes the social contract, how it relates to the various constitutional provisions balancing the rights and interests of the Malays and non-Malays, and how such a contract can be made compatible with social justice, equal opportunity and the rights and interests of all of the communities that make this country their common home.

Just over a year ago, a somewhat similar call was made by Muhyiddin Yassin, Umno vice-president, who suggested that there is a need for a new national consensus grounded in the “social contract and the constitution”. Unfortunately, his call at that time appeared to be directed entirely to the Barisan Nasional parties. None of the BN parties - including the non-Malay ones - responded to this invitation.   

Now is the right time for all leaders and stakeholders in our country - including those from the component Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat parties and non-political organisations - to find their voice on this possibly the most important subject affecting all communities and the future of our country.    

DR LIM TECK GHEE is former United Nations regional advisor and World Bank senior political scientist.


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