I TOOK a look at the New York Times this morning before setting off to work. I found myself very moved by Maureen Dowd’s op-ed article about Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama. Powell’s “Aha!” moment happened as a result of seeing a photograph of a mother hugging the tombstone of her son, a young American soldier killed in Iraq.
On the headstone was inscribed his name — Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan — and a crescent and star to show that he was Muslim. “Who could debate that this kid lying in Arlington with Christian and Jewish and nondenominational buddies was not a fine American?” says Powell.
Why would it even be a question that a Muslim could be a “fine American”?
Barak Obama with his wife, Michelle (© Luke Vargas)
The Republicans have been spreading rumours that Barack Obama is a Muslim. The Democrats have been spooked by these rumours and the damage they could cause Obama on polling day. They have kept Senator Obama as far away as possible from being seen on the campaign trail with anyone looking even vaguely Muslim.
That being a Muslim is regarded not just as a slur against one’s character and patriotism but also as an impediment to becoming the US president is an indication of the unthinking distrust of Islam among some Americans.
Powell asks: “Is something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim American kid believing that he or she could be president?” Well, no, but given the degree of Islamophobia that has been whipped up in the US, I for one cannot believe it could happen in my lifetime.
Would it ever be possible for a non-Muslim to be prime minister of Malaysia? The Federal Constitution has nothing to say about the religion of the prime minister, so notionally it is possible.
But I am not holding my breath. Many people were shocked to discover, after the last general election, that certain states such as Perak have constitutional provisions requiring the menteri besar to be a Muslim. However, the Sultan still has the prerogative to appoint a non-Muslim. But he didn’t.
Colin Powell (Public domain) The fact that the DAP won the largest number of seats in the state assembly should have made it a given, in any normal democratic state, that one of their number be appointed as menteri besar. There were no Muslims among the DAP state assembly representatives, and a PAS state assemblyperson was made menteri besar instead. It is difficult to see how this decision reflected that most basic of democratic principles, the will of the electorate.
Constitutions are funny things. We tend to see them as sacred texts, guaranteeing rights and freedoms, granting protection to citizens, and limiting the state’s powers. Religious people can tend to get a little silly and lose all powers of rationality, common sense, and even compassion when discussing the sacred texts of their faiths. One can get just as air-headed about constitutions.
In their recent press statement, the Conference of Rulers seemed to say that certain people were “disputing and questioning” issues that should be above dispute and question, namely the special position of the Malay rulers, the safeguarding of Islam, Malay as the national language, and the genuine interests of the other communities in Malaysia.
They then caution Malaysians not to question “the provisions in the Federal Constitution which are known as the social contract.” They blame the questioning of the social contract on “the cursory knowledge of those concerned regarding the historical background.”
The rulers say there is a reason “as to why these provisions were enshrined in the Federal Constitution”, and they chide those who “implicate the principles of impartiality and justice without regard for the historical background and social condition of this country.”
There are some who think that the so-called social contract is nothing more than a shibboleth for those who want to retain the dominance of Malays in the economic and political spheres. Let us leave aside for the present the vexed question of whether any such social contract ever existed. It should, however, be noted that the term appears neither in the Federal Constitution nor in any of the political documents in the years leading up to 1957.
The US Constutition (Public domain) I do wonder about the idea that the issues at hand should never be questioned, or, as the rulers say, be subject “to a review or a change because it is the primary basis of the formation of Malaysia.”
The issues in question, because they are characterised as the so-called social contract, presumably have to do with the special position of the Malays, and its subsequent incarnation in the New Economic Policy (NEP) and in other provisions.
Learning from history
In the first presidential elections in the US, only 6% of the population were eligible to vote: by and large these were white-male property-owners. By 1828, nearly all white men could vote, but African Americans and women had a long way more to go before democratic rights were extended to them.
The Constitution of the US as well as the Declaration of Independence are regarded by many as models of liberality and freedom. Yet, these documents enabled horrendous evils such as slavery, genocide against native Americans, and discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, to flourish for generations.
If the “historical background and social condition” of the US at the time of its independence were allowed to dictate its political organisation today, only white-male property-owners would be voting on 4 Nov 2008. Why then should the historical background and social condition of Malaya in 1957 dictate the political structures and rights in Malaysia in 2008?
“No review and no change” is the argument of reactionaries, people who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo at all costs. If Nepal had followed the same principle, it would not have been able in 2008 to rid itself of its monarchy, an institution that had lost all credibility and legitimacy through its venality and corruption. Indonesia would still have discriminatory policies towards its Chinese citizens and all those not regarded as “pribumi”. The Japanese would still regard their emperor as a god.
Former King’s palace in Ghorkha, Nepal (© Adrian Sulc)
It is revealing that the rulers single out “the principles of impartiality and justice” as the reasons for questioning the social contract by some people. There is a tacit admission that the historical and social conditions half a century ago did not allow for impartiality and justice to be fully enshrined in the constitution.
The attitude of some Malays in the 1950s was that the Chinese and Indian minorities were mere immigrants, and should only be granted citizenship on certain conditions. Most people thought of themselves in ethnic terms first: the idea of citizenship was novel, and untried. The world was a different place then.
The rulers have drawn our attention to our nation’s history. Those of us who want change do know our history. Unlike some, we want to learn from that history, and not be imprisoned by it.
Aloysious Mowe, SJ, was born after Merdeka and considers himself Malaysian by birthright and not by anyone’s concession. The last time he checked his passport, it says he was born in Malaysia, not Tanah Melayu.