JULY 13 — Some are just born to give more than what they take. Like Malaysia’s distraught ex-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. To mark his 98th birthday, this evergreen beacon of joy reminded millions of Malaysians the land of their birth was never their land.

The column is glad he celebrates while those at the receiving end of his vitriol experience various degrees of existential angst. Well played, maestro, well played. Few can accuse the nonagenarian of losing his vicious edge.


Though tempted to flay him further, right-wing Mahathir is not entirely off-base about constitutional confusions or apparent cognitive dissonances within the country’s basic laws.

What was left to be sorted by the people themselves after the British left, in a reasonable and equitable manner was never led through.

The Reid Commission’s Report — the key document to piece together a Constitution for a free people in 1957 was subject to context, limitations and its time. And therefore, Mahathir’s views have grounds.


What are these contradictions and how were they reconciled in order for our beginnings to be possible?

Citizenship and special mentions

The British intended all residents to belong to the new country. The broader inclusion was inevitable. Malay right wingers argue that an exchange occurred, citizenship to the previously excluded meant recognition of Malay interests.

However, this conveniently ignores that the commission, the Alliance government and council of rulers then felt any constitutionally mandated leg-up for Malays was to be phased out in natural time when there was wider and deeper upliftment within the community.

Right-wingers — young and old, and exceptionally old in the case of Mahathir — have maintained that the special position as outlined in Article 153 and the benign Article 3 which recognised Islam as the religion of the federation consigns ad infinitum those who not defined as Malay by the Constitution to a different stature, one which is less.

The claim has legal basis but is equally rebuttable due to context, limitations and analysis of the era.

History’s passengers

The obvious recrimination is why did they not do better, these lawmakers?

Sixty-six years ago, the world and Malaya were different places.

Insecurities fed community interests in a deeply polarised country. Malays were economically behind and feared they’d be swallowed and shunted out in a new Malaya.

The Chinese community feared the loss of culture and continuation of their way of life — which is predictable since there was no common Malaysian way of life, yet.

The compromises and arrangements were to protect communities more than to promote a national identity. It was minimalist and intended to be functional until the nation chugged along healthier on its own. Which is why the Reid Commission asked Malayans to reexamine the Constitution 15 years later, in 1972 — which never occurred.

Realities around the world shaped the minimalist and problematic Constitution as opposed to an expansionist one which would be near impossible in those days.

1957 was not the epoch of human history. South Africa had a migrant white population dictating the rights and access of the overwhelming native population.

Australia’s Aboriginal peoples were not counted as humans in their census. Xenophobia was common. Australia only permitted Caucasian emigrants till the 1970s under their White Australia Policy.

European countries widely withheld citizenship from those who did not look and speak like them. Countries were to be ethnic enclaves which should look as the name of the country — Germans who look German, if to present the matter coarsely.

America’s civil rights movement was just getting on.

It was chaotic across the region, as new governments from Indonesia to Myanmar had to navigate nationhood and economy with successes as frequent as failures.

One of the countries cited by Commissioner Halim bin Abdul Hamid from Pakistan to champion Article 3 was Spain. By 1978, that country removed Catholicism as its official religion.

Malaya in 1957 needed practical laws which could survive the era rather than raise the democracy bar.

Malaysia is for Malaysians

The world has changed dramatically since 1957 but Malaysia is tied to its past without a willingness to reimagine itself.

A basic necessity to progress is for all citizens to commit to their country. Willingly by large.

It is near-impossible to steady the ship when the very contention of whether citizens are equals is revisited every day around lunch time. But that is Malaysia, a nation which self-flagellates itself and then asks why it is at war with itself. If it did not cost the people’s collective future it would be a fascinating watch.

Let’s set aside the veracity of the arguments. On whether it is justified to separate Malaysians into two classes, one being Malay.

Can Malaysia thrive if it is split? That’s a go past the contentions and to the heart of the matter.

All evidence proves not. It is a no-brainer. At a time where work, life and connections are fluid, countries are about quality membership. Conscious participation by its members.

So, if leaders of Malaysia want it forward, they’d want it together. And the articulations of Malay right-wingers for exclusivity sits unwell in this world, which means being together is a mirage if the expectations of the right-wingers are met.

Their counter argument that half of Malaysia should just accept fait accompli of a symbolic even if not legal segregation of worth is impossible to accept. In the 21st century, in a country at our level of education, economy and progress, it is a non-starter.

It only ends up dispiriting both advocates and rejectors, and duly shrinks the quality membership of the club. There are too many options today.

The world has changed dramatically since 1957 but Malaysia is tied to its past without a willingness to reimagine itself. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
The world has changed dramatically since 1957 but Malaysia is tied to its past without a willingness to reimagine itself. ― Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

Malaysian leadership

So, while Mahathir seems out of touch, it is not that the seemingly progressive Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim would broach the lines set up before him. In all honesty, the current prime minister is far better for race relations than the other options available but does that translate to actual legal progress which secures all Malaysians’ futures?

The path to realign the country to higher universal ideals would require a revisit of old arrangements — justified or not — and to put them in the cold light of day. And reframe the questions to how to move the present to the future rather than to reconcile the present to the past.

Malaysia is at a crossroads. The problems mount and they are difficult to overcome with all the country’s resources. In this millennium the premier resource is people. It needs all its people on its side, not just half of it.

Mahathir may be happy enough for half the country to sing him happy birthday but the country is larger and a longer-term concern. It may survive with half, but it needs all to thrive. Maybe that’s what is actually missing in Malaysia Madani.

The feeling we all are in it together.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.