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The new social contract

MALAYSIANS are constantly reminded of our social contract. As the story goes, some time before 1957, founding leaders from three communities (only three, no others) signed up to this arrangement on how we ought to live together in this land previously known as Tanah Melayu. The terms of the arrangement were simple enough: Malays get special rights in exchange for non-Malays getting citizenship. No lawyer was needed.

But I think all this social contract talk is a load of ______ (please fill in the blanks). The original concept promulgated by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau may have been useful for its time, within an agrarian society, but seems far-fetched in today’s digital, borderless and globalised world.

Just look at the case of modern Malaysia. While the social contract may have sounded good on paper, if at all it was written on any paper, it did not meet the developing sociopolitical needs of the young nation. Malay Malaysians soon found themselves to be economically wanting, while non-Malay Malaysians went on to conduct all kinds of undesirable activities like earning money and getting rich. The economic disparity culminated in the racial riots of 1969, which in legal parlance would be an event of force majeure — something that would have allowed the social contract to be suspended.


Thank goodness it was not suspended. Otherwise, non-Malay Malaysians may have suddenly found themselves packed like sardines on a boat to Medan, Indonesia. Instead, our wise leaders of 1969 decided to re-negotiate the social contract. Lo and behold, the New Economic Policy (NEP) was born.

The NEP was intended to be temporary. But consequently, what was planned to be temporary in 1969 became very much a fixture up until 2010. That has become a point of grievance for many, even among some Malay Malaysians.

To address the unhappiness some have felt, alternative forms of social contracts have been offered to the Malaysian citizenry. PAS offers Islam as the new social contract — accept Islam and be an equal citizen, so say some factions in PAS. The DAP, on the other hand, offers a Malaysian Malaysia. Brown, yellow, black or any other skin colour does not matter, so long as you carry a blue IC and a red passport.

Then, there is the “new deal” for Malaysia espoused by Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) adviser Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim. This man’s a genius, because he has somehow managed to get PAS and the DAP to sit together at the same table, even if they face opposite directions at times. With the marriage of PKR, PAS and the DAP, we now get a “not fully Malaysian Malaysia, Islamic yet meritocratic, unfortunately no catchy name yet, but ‘1Malaysia’ would have been good” policy offered to us by the Pakatan Rakyat.

And then there is 1Malaysia. Few have figured out what it actually is, so I will refrain from commenting on it. Suffice to say that 1Malaysia is different from the DAP’s Malaysian Malaysia, because apparently under 1Malaysia you can still walk around town with a severed cow head and threaten abuse.


The thing is today, nobody needs to submit to our social contract in order to come to our shores. Instead, it is our government pleading for people to come to Malaysia. Hence, we have the Malaysia My Second Home programme. We send delegations overseas to seek foreign direct investments. We have an entire government ministry dedicated to tourism. We implore overseas Malaysians who are surgeons, doctors, biotechnology experts and who-knows-who-else to come home. We even welcome construction workers and domestic helpers because without them, our economy would simply not be able to function.

Frankly, the nation-state is no longer about individuals contracting to live together in a community. Instead, it is about people with talent, capital and ideas contracting directly with the government to bring these assets into the country. These people demand tax breaks, pioneer status and government grants, and the government actually gives in.

The point is, in the original concept of a social contract, individuals gave up their rights to participate in society. Today, governments bend over backwards to attract investments, tourists, talents, capital and ideas. Property is no longer limited to real, as in royal, property, owned ultimately by the sovereign. Instead, we use paperless money to buy paperless shares, and those who gather the most money or shares get to dictate government policies.

(Silhouette by CMSeter /

In today’s social contract, it is not the citizenry who have to behave themselves in exchange for the benefits of society such as peace, security, infrastructure or amenities. Instead, it is the government which must behave by governing properly, acting reasonably, and imposing reasonable taxes, in order that it, the government, may enjoy the benefits of foreign investment, a substantial talent pool, and a contented constituency. These are ultimately what would permit the government to sustain itself. If the government misbehaves, well, there are more than 150 other governments around the world vying for capital, talents and ideas.

Today, it is individuals who are sovereign. These individuals do not sit on thrones or wear crowns. They don’t carry any royal insignia or wear any regal paraphernalia. Instead, they are simply armed with capital, talent and ideas. With these three, any government in the world can be brought to its knees.

Welcome to the social contract of the 21st century.

Chan Kheng Hoe is a born-again capitalist.

Read previous Reductio ad Absurdum columns

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7 Responses to “The new social contract”

  1. sam says:

    “Please come to Malaysia.”

    No, no sir. We are leaving unless you and racist Umno are dethroned.

  2. pei ling says:

    Sweet! I like how Kheng Hoe makes individuals sound so powerful!

  3. Aquarian says:

    It is doubtful whether the cause of the racial riot in 1969 was due to economic disparity, as stated in this article. Some are of the opinion that it was orchestrated politically. It may be more accurate to say that the economic disparity made it possible for some self serving politicians to manipulate the dissatisfaction of the people, leading to the tragic incident that became a black mark in our history.

  4. Cookie says:

    Well Mr born-again capitalist, if what you claim is true (that Anwar Ibrahim is a genius by getting the support from both DAP and PAS), then why does he always make arguable statements? Which sometimes makes me wonder if he really is telling the truth or he’s just trying to gain support by his usual tool(s), which is lying, lying and lying (take “the day he will become the next Malaysian [prime minister]” statement for example).

  5. Azizi Khan says:

    I would like to say Malaysia is progressive country but if I invite my Lebanese Christian friends to Malaysia and if they were to go “Oh my God, this country is beautiful” in Lebanese, they’ll be dragged away by a religious zealot and beaten to death.

    Welcome to Malaysia, have a mostly nice day – as long as you are a Muslim, rich and belong to Umno… hey… hang on a minute!

  6. Hwa Shi-Hsia says:

    Unfortunately the idea that citizens can bring a government to its knees only works if ALL citizens have the freedom to leave for a better country. It is incredibly blinkered to assume that all Malaysians are educated professionals with the money and skills to pick up and move somewhere nicer if our government doesn’t improve. Migration is not a phenomenon that behaves like a free market economy, for better or worse.

    For the sake of people who can’t just chau, those of us who can should consider standing by them to enforce the REAL old social contract – not the capitalist free market, not the “contract” between Malay and non-Malay [Malaysians], but the one where the people say to government: govern properly or we’ll boot *you* out.

  7. Ling Ling says:

    I read your article and could not stop laughing! Individuals are sovereign? Government governing properly? Brought to their knees? Which world are you from? No offence, but thanks for the uplifting read!

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