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A tale of two contracts

MANY are talking about the “social contract” as though it is a single construct with a single meaning: the so-called ethnic compromise in Malaysia. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Academic Dr Mavis Puthucheary has reminded us that the term started being polemicised only since the 1980s. It is also important to understand what the “social contract” means. In my understanding, there are at least two versions of what could be called the social contract.

The original version

The original version, which is also the version understood by most people outside Malaysia, posits a hypothetical contract between an individual and a collective.

Socrates believed citizens had a duty to the political
system they were part of (© Eric Gaba)

For Socrates (469-399BCE), citizens owed their well-being to the political system they were part of. If they did not choose to leave the system, they had to honour their duties while enjoying their rights.

Modern thinkers like Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679CE), John Locke (1632-1704CE) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778CE) took the concept further to explain why the state or political society exists.

Rejecting the notion of the Divine Right of Kings, they did not see governments as heavenly ordained to rule over subjects. Instead, states were formed by rational and self-interested individuals to serve collective interests.

Why, or how, were states formed? For Hobbes, without governments to enforce law and order, the hypothetical “state of nature” (anarchy, if you will) would see “a war of all against all”, and “the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

Hence, the conservative philosopher argued, the monarch needed absolute power for a society to survive.

For Locke, the “state of nature” consisted of families, rather than individuals. The contracting parties were thus the heads of families. In Locke’s scheme of things, the state of nature could devolve into a state of war over matters such as property disputes. 

To protect their property and wellbeing, men entered into social contracts. (And at this point in history, it was men, not women, who held the power to enter into such contracts.) If a government dissolved into tyranny, the people had the right to self-defence against this deterioration into an undesirable state of nature. In other words, the people had the right to overthrow a bad government and install a better one.

Rousseau had a romantic notion of the “state of nature”: a peaceful and quixotic environment subsequently corrupted by economic development and private property. Government was therefore established to mediate class conflicts and protect private property.

Rousseau (Public domain)

His ideal political system was some form of direct democracy in which free and equal persons came together to produce a “general will”.

Whichever notion you take, Western contractarianism is about the relation between an individual (any individual member of society) and a collective. There is no intermediary between individuals and the state, such as ethnicity or class.

The reason is self-evident — if social groups can be contracting parties, there must be first be a contract between the social groups and their respective members.  In other words, you can’t simply take the individuals out from any contractual thinking. To draw an analogy: you can’t have companies entering into contracts before real people enter into contracts to form companies.

The alternative version

There is however another type of “social contract”, where individuals entering the contract represent their clans or classes.

A classic example, but by no means the only one, is the contract narrated in Sejarah Melayu between Seri Teri Buana, the king, and his subject Demang Lebar Daun (whose daughter the king intended to marry).

Demang Lebar Daun pledged that he and his descendents would be loyal to Seri Teri Buana and his descendents as long as the latter promised to uphold the dignity of the former no matter how they may have erred.

Only if the king broke his promise would the subjects be relieved of their obligations. On the surface, this seems to concur with the Lockean notion of the right to displace illegitimate rulers. But there is one fundamental difference.

The Western version — even in the Hobbesian strand — has at its core an implied equality amongst individuals. The tension is clearly defined as between the individual (any individual) and the collective. 

In this alternative version, some are born to be rulers and others to be subjects. One’s identity and rights are therefore not only hierarchical, but also hereditary. In this sense, this version of the social contract agrees more with the West’s pre-contract “divine right” theory.

And similar “social contracts”, whether or not constructed in such language, can be found in other civilisations where segments of society are expected to play their assigned roles for all generations to come. Both the Hindu caste system and imperial China were no less rigid about clan and class boundaries.

Hence, the difference of the two versions of the social contract is perhaps more temporal than cultural.

Which version to teach?

Hobbes (Public domain)

When we talk about the social contract today, whose language are we speaking? That of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau? Or that of Seri Teri Buana and Demang Lebar Daun?

The difference could not be greater. The former implies equality while the latter operates on the basis of hierarchy.

More importantly, the individual-collective version implies periodical renewal, in that it permits revisions, while the ruler-subject version is cast in stone. In this sense, that the Conference of Rulers interpreted the social contract as “all provisions in the Federal Constitution” is most assuring. It’s not even about the “package deal”: it is unmistakably a Lockean position.

If you understand the social contract as a contract between an abstract individual and the collective, what else can it be other than the constitution, the supreme and fundamental law of the land?

And this contract is constantly renewed, as we periodically elect our Parliament which holds the power to amend it. Whether or not, or how, the contract’s contents are amended is a different story.

Being a liberal, I would be most pleased if the Lockean version of social contract is taught in schools and debated in public.

As Thomas Paine said so aptly two centuries ago, “Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.” The most important issue related to the social contract for this generation is not the inter-ethnic compromise, but extensive human rights violations perpetrated by an overgrown state.

Let’s debate Operasi Lalang (the 21st anniversary of which just passed on Deepavali day); the abolition of the Internal Security Act; media law reform; the 1988 judiciary crisis; the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission; the RM5 billion injection into ValueCap Sdn Bhd; and the fatwa outlawing tomboys — all in the name of the social contract!

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.

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4 Responses to “A tale of two contracts”

  1. Pete Wu says:

    “Which version to teach”?

    Dear WCH,

    You have just given them more than they can chew!

    The version they have recently talked about is the Umno’s version…Umno’s version of “Malay” is the superior race, Umno’s version of “Malay” agreed to give citizenship to non-Malays, hence non-Malays must forever accept the system of master and servant…Don’t ever dare to question this! So, we must now go to schools and tell our children this “bigot-ised” story of the Umno-style social contract.

  2. liumx2000 says:

    The social contract is indeed a recent myth in Malaysia’s political aura. The earlier Western origin of this so-called contract will always find its resistance in our mysterious oriental soil. So the twisting of the rule so that it finds ways to grow is, more often than not, necessary; or at least that is what some believe.

    Thanks to recent the statement released by the Conference of Rulers following their 215th meeting, Lim Teck Ghee wrote a not-so-lengthy article to search for this seed in the Malaysian context and ask, “What next?”

    And here we find the grand Malay myth by Tun Sri Lanang (a contemporary of Locke?), which is hardly “social”, cited above.

    It seems that Malaysians are far from these intellectualistic argumentats, but beware, the rakyat will act if things are not well. When that moment comes, let’s hope the action will be a peaceful one, in a truly social contractual spirit.

  3. will says:

    That’s the catch of social contract education. Follow the universal liberal system? Or Malaysia’s give-and-take system? Or the government’s agenda system? This could well shape our young.

  4. Andrew Khoo says:

    Chin Huat,

    Two comments. Firstly, believe it or not, I actually first learnt about the concept of the social contract during history class in Malaysia, somewhere between Forms 1 and 3. And it was the western model. In BM it is (or was then) referred to as “muafakat sosial”. So we did teach it in this country.

    Secondly, the concept of the social contract depends, to a great extent, on geographical mobility. As between an individual and a collective, more often than not the state (initially a city state, then later a nation state), the individual agreed to circumscribe his or her rights in return for the protection of the state. If the state somehow reneged on the social contract, the individual could pack up and move elsewhere. At least that was what he or she could do then. Yes, to a certain extent he or she can still do that today, but it is much more difficult, and is usually limited to those who can financially afford to do so. If the less fortunate attempt to do that, they are referred to as economic migrants or political refugees, and their fate is much more dicey. Not for them any rights to enter into, let alone negotiate, a social contract. At best it is “take it or leave it”; at worst it is tyranny all over again. So is the concept, at least in its pure form, still relevant today?

    If the pure form is no longer relevant today, then only the alternative understanding applies, i.e. the inter-clan or inter-race representative agreement idea. If this was the basis on which Malaya and then Malaysia was established, is it such a good idea to re-negotiate the social contract given shifts in the relative bargaining positions of the various races in this country?

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