A people’s Constitution

NOVEMBER 28 — Both are lawyers but they can’t be any more different.

Still, they lend urgency of the matter: the need to revisit our Constitution. Tamper it, if we must.

Siti Kasim is value for money, not for facts nor rhetoric but for her unapologetic style and commitment to her causes. 

This was yesterday, this was session six of the International Conference on Nation-Building at Kuala Lumpur’s Majestic Hotel. 

The firebrand woke up the crowd, even if she riled up half of it when she challenged Article 153 as a temporary measure long past its sell-by date.

My friend leaned over to suggest she misspeaks, or at least the activist seems fast and loose with her interpretation.

I retorted that being middling — in deprecative reference to our own organisation, KUASA — in polarised Malaysia secures only obscurity despite limited respectability. 

The extremes hold sway and draw attention from the masses. Which means financial support and votes, both central in political campaigns.

In short, being absolute while intellectually disconcerting electrifies profiles and issues.

That’s the first attorney.

The other legal-mind Lukman Sheriff Alias, in the aftermath of the Tanjung Piai by-election, said Barisan Nasional’s (BN) mammoth win proved there were radical schisms despite the confluence of votes for the old ruling coalition. 

And they have reached epic proportions and require attention even if BN can chest-thump till the new year.

Two groups, according to him, voted en masse for BN for two opposing reasons.

I agree with him in principle.

My rephrase of the said communities would be the Malay base -- down to the perception of an inept government neglectful of their community as a due course of DAP running the federal government -- bailed on Pakatan Harapan; and the Chinese base on the basis this cowardly government has veered from its reform zeal and turned on its own, primarily the debasing of DAP and overtures for right-wing Malay votes, deserves no support.

These are strong statements and both realities are unlikely to be in motion at the same time, but that’s the situation.

Lukman posited last week, “Sooner or later all of us need to acknowledge grievances of all sides and the need to compromise again. Unless all agree to compromise, no one will.”

The divides in the country, one can surmise, have grown unwieldy and what Malaysia means and stands for are completely different to various communities and interest groups. 

More incisively, the confusion from the uncertainties bores a hole through how citizens want to contribute to it, and when it comes to it, defend it.

There’s no bar in town — except maybe the Malaysian Bar — where the two, liberal Siti and self-proclaimed moderate Lukman, can be found together. But they reference the discomfort our present situation procures.

What then to do?

Lukman calls it a need to compromise again, Siti wants to reconstitute our basic law to what it was before decades of amendments and I’d rather us sit down and ask questions again of ourselves and appreciate the answers forthcoming must protect all Malaysians.

To be serious about the Malaysian agenda.

Our laws given to us

The path to our present-day Constitution lies deep inside the traditions of British legal traditions. 

The kingdom’s own experience over centuries with executive rule, legislative prerogative, judicial intervention and respect for personal autonomy breathed through what was sailed into — despite being self-serving and pervasive — into the colonies.

The system of justice was of a colonial master, and the traditions operate in guilt. To seek meaning in the present using the former oppressor’s tools to adjudicate.

Which is why the assembled Reid Commission was fit to formulate independent Malaya’s Constitution in a year. In terms of their training and experience apt to build a British-styled constitution.

Five men, and judges they were. From Britain, Australia, New Zealand, India and Pakistan. To receive 131 memoranda which they discussed over five months when they met 118 times, and then submit a draft four months later.

If only a country was limited to a legal brief by strangers.

Today, we live their legacy. Plus, the numerous constitutional amendments.

Serially unmentioned is the commission’s own admission of contradictions and soft spots in the document, therefore requesting a 15-year review in 1972 to check if the bits worked well or required tinkering. It never materialised. That’s the first misgiving.

The formation of Malaysia (1963), Singapore’s ejection (1965) and the re-rationalisation of Bumiputera rights (1971) were critical points, but far more instructive — for these and the rest — was the effective absence of broad and meaningful consent from the people.

It was passed by a legislative council controlled by the elites. Even later, the 1962 Cobbold Commission to measure the support for Malaysia in Borneo was a glorified study tour.

Most Malaysians endure terms today which their grandparents and great-grandparents were never in a position to determine. Yet we are asked to own all the laws decreed upon us.

The second misgiving is more egregious.

An uneasy peace

Common shot across the bow. If the Constitution was unbearable in parts to many, why was there relative peace till these strange days?

A myriad of reasons, including, for a young country caught in Cold War intrigues and experiencing growing pains, staying together was more important than challenging arrangements. The change of guards last year was a statement the country was ready to graduate.

Those who defend the Constitution lock, stock and barrel do so out of self-interest rather than in the spirit of shaping a just nation reasonable to all its people. 

Because they did stand down when all its amendments were executed. If already perfect, how come the defending turns selective?

As Malaysians become borderless citizens of a world, and its economy wired into a global matrix, surely to sustain the integrity of the Malaysian Federation in a time any nation appeals to its talents to power its engine, our values must match the world’s.

Nowhere else is the value defined better than in our basic laws, our Constitution. It sets the nation’s tone.

The events unfolding, and which continue to unfold, will substantiate what some of us from different walks of life and orientation find, there is a lack of balance.

Whether it is referred to as renegotiate compromises; remove the extensions to the “document” and revert back to factory settings; or reassemble the construct from scratch; all of the intentions won’t materialise without an examination of the Constitution.

At least this can offer our legislators more to do in Parliament than to threaten bodily harm on each other. It might even make them read. That’s almost as valuable.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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