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1Malaysia and citizenship

Malaysian flag
(Source: Wiki Commons)

SINCE 1Malaysia accords with the Malaysian constitution, what are some of the constitution’s main principles that can help to promote the idea? Is citizenship one such principle?

The concept of common citizenship contained in the constitution is one of the most solid foundations for the creation of a united, integrated nation, a 1Malaysia. Though Malaysian citizens have different origins and histories, their common citizenship binds them together as a single people.

It is reinforced by the recognition in Article 8(1) that “All persons are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection of the law.”  As the late Tun Mohamed Suffian Hashim, one of our finest legal minds argues in his classic, An Introduction to the Constitution of Malaysia, “Today, there is complete equality before the law, save as excepted by the constitution, and no Raja, Tengku, Tun, Tan Sri, Datuk or towkay may claim special treatment in the courts by reason of position or wealth.”

Special position

The exception that the former Lord President of the Federal Court refers to is, of course, “the special position” of Malay [Malaysians] and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak spelt out in Article 153 and other related Articles of the constitution.

If the original intention of this special position was properly understood, it would not be seen as an affront to the principle of equality. The rulers and leaders of the economically disadvantaged Malay community — 64% lived below the poverty line in 1957 — agreed to confer citizenship upon more than a million recently domiciled Chinese and Indians on extraordinarily liberal terms on the eve of Merdeka.

This expansion of the scope for citizenship, which continued for at least 13 years after independence, brought into stark relief the gross inequalities between the communities. Special position was therefore a form of affirmative action that sought to redress socio-economic inequalities through the equalisation of opportunities for hitherto marginalised groups. How it has succeeded and where it has failed in fostering inter-ethnic unity will be the subject of a separate study.

Rights and responsibilities

Eleanor Roosevelt reading the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish text

For now, let us note that apart from common citizenship and equality, rights that are explicitly granted in the constitution and those that are implied, can also, potentially, help to bring the communities together. The constitution not only guarantees a person’s liberty but also provides for the freedom of movement, speech, assembly and association, and religion, while recognising Islam as the official religion of the federation. Malay is the sole official and national language; other languages can be used and studied. These rights and freedoms have enabled both individual and community to identify with the nation and have strengthened the bond between state and citizenry.

At the same time, the failure of the state on occasions to respect the rights of its citizens alienates the latter from the former. When segments of a community perceive — or misperceive — that their rights are not protected, disillusionment sets in and sometimes impacts negatively upon ethnic relations. Individuals and groups in government and opposition, and indeed, within civil society as a whole have from time to time abused the freedom of speech and assembly in pursuit of their own narrow communal agendas. This has invariably undermined the quest for national unity.

This is why rights in any society — especially in a multi-cultural or multi-religious society — will have to be balanced with responsibilities. Citizenship, after all, is about responsibilities inasmuch as it is about rights.

It would be irresponsible of a citizen who is determined to exercise his or her freedom of expression on an ethnic issue to ignore how it will impact upon members of another community. Similarly, a community which seeks to enhance its own cultural or religious rights without any regard for the feelings or sensitivities of the other will only exacerbate ethnic tensions.

In many multi-ethnic societies, the recklessness of political leaders, bereft of a sense of responsibility, has caused communal riots and brought death to thousands of innocents.

It is because responsibility is so crucial for the well-being of any society that Mahatma Gandhi was somewhat dismissive of the attempt to formulate a Universal Declaration of Human Rights that excluded any notion of responsibilities. In a letter to the Unesco director in 1947, Gandhi observed, “I learned from my illiterate but wise mother that all rights to be deserved and preserved come from duty well done.”

The Iranian-American philosopher, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, is also of the view that, “All the rights we have issue from the fulfilling of our responsibilities, and in the Islamic perspective responsibilities always precede rights.” Responsibilities are anchored in the human being’s acceptance of the divine trust or amanah.

Today, more than at any time in the past, human beings, especially those who command power and wealth have to exhibit a profound sense of responsibility in the conduct of their affairs.

Financial chart with arrow pointing downwards
If only everyone acted responsibly (© Ilker/

At the root of most of the grave crises that confront humankind is a lack of responsibility. Would there be the current financial and economic crisis if the principal actors — from hedge fund operators to bankers — had been more responsible and had not succumbed to greed? Would there be an environmental crisis if all of us had been more responsible?  Even within our own setting, would the A(HINI) influenza virus spread so rapidly if the citizenry had been more responsible?

Responsibility as the defining attribute of citizenship has to be given a fresh impetus. Its significance in multi-ethnic Malaysia cannot be emphasised enough. Malaysian society has to be mobilised for this purpose. It is only when Malaysians are deeply conscious of their responsibilities and prepared to act to give them meaning, that we will be able to forge a more meaningful unity among Malaysia’s diverse citizenry. Only then will 1Malaysia resonate with all our people. Favicon

Professor Dr Chandra Muzaffar is chairperson of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia.

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