Tag Archives: Social Contract

The ‘social contract’ and May 13

Joe Fernandez
The current debate over the ‘social contract’ is not the first time that attempts have been made to revise history for reasons of political expediency.

Nearly 40 years ago, after the searing Sino-Malay race riots of Friday, May 13, 1969 in Kuala Lumpur, many historians attributed the bloodshed to the ‘breakdown’ of the ‘social contract’ when non-Malay political parties made substantial gains in the Tuesday, May 10, 1969 general elections. The island of Penang, the Pearl of the Orient, had fallen to the newly-formed Gerakan.

Rakyat Malaysia, which was, in fact, mostly composed of ousted rebel leaders from MCA, a key member of the ruling Alliance Party.

DAP, the Malaysian chapter of Singapore’s ruling PAP, had almost won half the seats in the Selangor state assembly while the PPP (People’s Progressive Party) made similar gains in its Perak heartland. The MCA saw no further purpose in being part of the Federal Government and pulled out while still remaining as a member of the Alliance.

MIC, the other key member of the Alliance, stayed put in the federal government and in the states and at the local level even as quite a number of panicky Indian families sold their properties for a mere song and packed their bags for India. Elsewhere, long queues of would-be migrants formed for weeks outside the Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian high commissions and in particular at the US embassy.

The MCA pullout from the federal government was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Race riots erupted first in the Chinatown area of Chow Kit which had a Malay hinterland and soon spread all over the capital city. The incomplete polling was abandoned, Parliament was disbanded, democracy suspended, a state of emergency declared by the caretaker government and Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, seen as too pro-Chinese, ousted and placed virtually under house arrest for a while. It was like a coup d’ etat. There were isolated incidents everywhere.

The police were hopelessly outnumbered and overwhelmed and the Royal Malay Regiment was brought in while the multiracial Federation Army and the famed Sarawak Rangers of elite Iban and other Dayak troops were both confined to their barracks. The Malay Regiment were mindless robots who contributed to the carnage as well as to the perceived defence of race, religion and country. They were eventually ordered, albeit reluctantly and gently, to return to their barracks but not until the blood-letting had dragged on for some 10 days or more of unspeakable tales of horror.

In hindsight, the apologists and conspiracy theorists rationalised that the Malay Regiment ran amok in revenge for the killings over two weeks by the Communist Party of Malaya’s Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army which virtually had a free run of the country while awaiting the return of British troops in strength following the Japanese surrender after World War II. The Japanese looked on.

The MPAJA’s victims were mostly Malays seen as Japanese collaborators. There were feeble attempts in official circles to blame the communists for May 13 but these were quickly denounced and roundly condemned by the man-in-the-street. At the height of the Vietnam War, the communists were the eternal bogeyman in Southeast Asia and everywhere in the free world.

The Malay Regiment, disgraced in the eyes of the non-Malay population, was replaced by the Federation Army and the Sarawak Regiment and calm quickly returned to the burnt-out streets of Kuala Lumpur. There had been a heavy price to pay in innocent lives, all because the extreme right Malays in Umno, the lead player in the Alliance, had been rattled by the electoral setbacks suffered by the MCA and feared the unraveling of the ‘social contract’.

Apparently, this right wing’s game plan was to intimidate the political opposition, punish the voters and force the MCA back into the government. The fact that the political opposition had never been party to the ‘social contract’ was lost on the right wing instigators of the May 13 bloodbath.

Even so, the Gerakan and the PPP were virtually blackmailed, with the promise of democracy being restored, to become members of an enlarged Alliance which was renamed Barisan Nasional. The ‘social contract’ was back on track. The Alliance, symbolised by a sailing boat, had sunk. The BN chose the scales of justice as the new symbol.

Hardly five years before May 13, Singapore had queried the ‘social contract’ as a member of the Federation and was quickly ushered out. It’s important that Malaysian history books explore the expulsion of Singapore from the Federation. However, this tragedy along with the Japanese occupation is simply glossed over. The key lies in former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s ‘infamous’ outburst: ‘If these people (Kuala Lumpur) think they can squat on Singapore and get away with it, they are sadly mistaken’.

Apparently, Lee was alarmed that Kuala Lumpur had rapidly changed track after Malaysia was formed with the extreme right wing in Umno calling the shots. A serious deviation of the ‘social contract’ was the misinterpretation by the right wingers that the it was a carte blanche for Ketuanan Melayu, Malay political dominance and supremacy. This was an anathema to Lee. Surely such a system could not be good for anyone, even including the great majority of the Malays themselves.

Sabah and Sarawak, the Borneo states, remained in the Federation after some initial demands for a review by Sabah. Kadazandusun leader, Donald Stephens (later Mohd Fuad Abdullah), was eventually packed off into ‘exile’ as the high commissioner to Australia, before making a stunning political comeback in 1976 and dying mysteriously in an air crash shortly after with almost his entire state cabinet.

Is the ‘social contract’ still relevant in this day and age? Every two people have three opinions.


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Social contract myth: Time for new paradigms

Amor Patriae | May 15, 08 4:21pm
I refer to the Malaysiakini

report Don: No such thing as ‘social contract’. 

On April 17, I wrote in my letter and I quote:’A correction, needs to be in place. The idea of ‘non-Malay citizenship in exchange of special treatment of the Malays’ is not based on historical fact but more of Umno propaganda.

It has not been stated in any serious historical work of Malaysia. It is more of a Biro Tatanegara Module which finds entrance in government institutions, universities included. Our historians are well aware of it but chose to be quiet about it. When we ask them, they say there is no point responding to political statements’.

Then I concluded by urging serious scholars to come forward to deny the myth. I am glad that Prof Ungku Aziz rasied the issue. If the social contract is a myth, how are we going to reconstruct the flawed logic? Is this not the time for Pakatan Rakyat Malay leaders to come together and condemn the Umno hegemony of 40 years and to help nurture the nascent Bangsa Malaysia? Where are our civil society leaders? And why are the lead bloggers silent at this defining moment?

We first have to condemn the state agencies that promote and breed racism. The first will be the Biro Tatanegara (BTN) under PM’s department whose only job is to create ill-will towards non- Malays and opposition party Malay members. It is time to remove this deadly virus (BTN) which is a parasite on the Malaysian nation under the payroll of government.

Second, ethnic studies syllabi prepared from school to university are based on the assumption of the ‘social contract’ that was originally developed from BTN modules. This should be revised.

Thirdly, higher learning institutions that are producing research on ethnic relations and ethnicity should move away from ‘social contract’ paradigm to valid sociological/anthropological paradigms.

All ethnic studies institutes/schools that are established in Malaysia are all infested with the deadly virus at the foundational level. A good example is the ethnic studies module prepared by UKM.

When this paradigm shift takes place, the problem of polarisation among ethnic groups in schools or higher learning institutions will fade away. This will be the genuine first step towards creating a better Malaysia.

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Social Contract exist or not? what is the Specialists opinion?


Professor Shamsul Amri Baharudin, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Ethnic Studies (Kita) director

First of all, I would like to say he (Ungku Aziz) is giving an economist response whereby he goes by the letter of the law and he’ll look at statistics and the cost-benefit analysis of things. I don’t know what he reads aside from economic books but political scientists and historians have said that we do have a social contract.

Our constitution has a general and miscellaneous section. No other constitution in the world has this section and it shows that the Reid Commission acknowledged the right of Malay rulers, customs and language. The social contract is a convergence of different opinions. It is an agreement to be different by the people.

The translation of ketuanan Melayu is wrong. It is not Malay supremacy, it is Malay sovereignty. Ketuanan is a very colonial term. (Former deputy minister) Abdullah Ahmad had very little knowledge as to what it means when he first raised it in 1986. Sovereignty is not a foreign concept as it is prevalent in other countries such as Belgium and England with monarchs. The idea that Malays are the boss and the rest is not, is a misconception.

Nobody is dominant. The social contract was raised when the constitution was created and the Reid commission included the condition to satisfy all groups possible. The people then began to see it as a form of agreement and convergence. However, later on, people started seeing it as a contract. Not in a legalistic sort of way but how it was made and how the terms are constantly being renegotiated.

(PKR de facto leader) Anwar (Ibrahim)’s ketuanan rakyat (people supremacy) is no different from ketuanan Melayu. If rakyat means demographics and clearly Malays and bumiputeras being the majority at 60 percent. It is just another idiom to hide the point that Malays are sovereign. Don’t just focus on Malay sovereignty because otherwise it would just be ethnic talk and not a constitutional or Malaysian talk. We have to get rid of such racist perceptions.

Has anyone asked why Sabah has 20 extra conditions like requirement of work permits from those in Peninsula Malaysia? Why don’t we talk about that? We have to look at the social contract from the larger context and not just at the Malays. Peninsula Malaysians should demand for work permits to be abolished if Sabah wants more royalties. The problem is that the issues are skewed and people are blinded by it.

In 1969, the consultative councils made up of 100 representatives around the country thought of formulating this policy in addressing the problems of backwardness faced by the ethnic groups. They were thinking of solving the ownership problems as almost 60 percent of property belonging to foreigners and 21 percent to the Chinese.

The NEP was about increasing property ownership so that it reflected the demographics equitably. The majority at that time did not have majority ownership so to change this, they started with the economy.

Article 153 of the constitution provides the basis which creates the paradigm for NEP. NEP provided the package that stated the target and objectives but there are other ways of doing this. The discussion and debates that we have now is how the package is not working. It is creating unhappiness all around.

This is why ‘Umnoputera’ is now a word, not bumiputera. If you want to go back and change things, the Parliament will have to change it and make it clearer. The social contract will remain relevant so long as the constitution is relevant. The social contract is realised in the constitution which gives us the symbol of the contract.

The NEP was created from the understanding of Article 153 and it ended in 1990. But it persisted until now so it is known as ‘Never Ending Policy’. However, I think it warrants another name – ‘Never Ending Polemic’ as it continues to divide society.

Society is already divided ethnically and to proceed to the next stage, the politicians should use rational thinking instead of exploiting the emotional thinking of the people. The nature of political parties that are ethnicise is that they have to go on being emotional to garner votes.

To me, (Umno Youth chief) Hishammuddin (Hussein) and (DAP chairperson) Karpal (Singh) are no different. They are voicing different voices but it’s all the same and it’s divisive. Our politicians organise themselves on differences.

Onn Jaafar from Umno is the greatest example. After two years he was expelled from his party which shows that if you took a non-ethnic stand, it’s goodbye for you.


Dr Mavis Puthucheary, associate research fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (Ikmas)

Ungku Aziz is right. It is not a social contract which implies the relationship between the state and the people. If you look at the Western concept of social contract like John Locke, the idea of a social contract is that people give up some powers to their political representatives in return, the state will protect them.

There is no social contract because it involves the leaders of the Alliance and the bargain was then placed in the constitution but that does not represent a social contract. The social contract did not come into debate until Abdullah Ahmad raised it in 1986 that there was something that was agreed to by a few people in the past that binds future generations. I’ve challenged it.

The whole question on power sharing is very relevant. One needs to spell it out and it must be agreed upon but some leaders still disagree on what it means. Some say the non-Malays agreed to ketuanan Melayu in this so-called social contract but some say non-Malays only agreed to some kind of bargain without conceding their right to liberal democracy, equal rights and justice.

Political parties are using the social contract out of this context and it has no meaning in Malaysia. So that’s why we need a discourse and debate on this. We need to work out a national consensus in figuring out what and where do we go from here and now. We can all agree that something more than a bargain was made when the state was formed but I won’t call it a social contract.


Dr Azmi Sharom, associate professor, law faculty, Universiti Malaya

In the context of the constitution, there is a certain give and take because the constitution provides for special privileges to Malays. In any normal or ordinary constitution, there would not be any racial bias in it. But this was agreed to by the non-Malays so these special privileges is the beginning of the so-called social contract.

However, to a certain extent it is true – the special privileges involves safeguarding the Malay language, the sultanate and Islam on the surface appears to be going against the grain of equality. The non-Malay Malaysians were happy to accept this then. But the idea of give and take does not extend to the concept of Malay supremacy created by political parties, namely Umno.

The original constitution has elements of compromise but that compromise is from the layman’s perspective, the document does not suggest Malay supremacy or mastery. Ketuanan Melayu is a fallacy. I just don’t see the justification for this. The so-called social contract is relevant only to racists and people who want Malaysians to continue to be divided along racial lines.

But I am also uncomfortable with Ungku Aziz’s view that the social contract should be called an economic contract. The society made a compromise and it is not a contract which implies the people are bound to it for life. Citizenship is not about the economy but the society.

Dr Johan Saravanamuttu, visiting researcher, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas), Singapore

It is obviously a term used by political analysts and there is no formal or legal contract. But the 1957 constitution was written based on a considerable amount of negotiations including various ethnic and political groups.

Not all of their demands could have been included therefore when the constitution was agreed upon by all parties after the entire process, for all intents and purposes is the social contract of Malaysians. The constitution incorporated many of these provisions which people have generally learned to accept.

The relevance of this is that the constitution is a document that is historical and represents the agreement by particular political parties at that particular era. The impact in reading beyond the document is that it lays out provisions of a pact that is not meant to be absolutely permanent. After all, the constitution has been amended hundreds of times, it means the conditions are not cast in stone.

On ketuanan Melayu, there is no such thing as ketuanan Melayu. It is a concoction by political entrepreneurs by Umno on promoting Malay supremacy. The constitution does not say anything about Malay supremacy but only on the special privileges such as land and language afforded to them. It is the jaundiced Malay politicians who use it to embed themselves in position or create and perpetuate power for themselves.


Dr Chandra Muzaffar, academician and political scientist

Well, I think that it is true that the social contract doesn’t exist as a physical document which is drafted and sealed or has a label that tells us it is a social contract. What we have is the Merdeka constitution which is an attempt to balance interests between different communities and ethnic interests within a framework for a certain vision of what a nation state is.

It is very clear that the nation state would be called Malaysia and the basis of the state was from a Malay polity that features the Malay monarch, Islam as the religion of the federation and the Malay language.

On the special position of the Malays and indigenous communities is part of the Merdeka constitution, there was a feeling by the Reid commission that the massive accommodation of recent domiciled non-Malays required some sort of protection of the Malay community which was economically weaker than say the Chinese. The special position was a socio-economical condition.

I don’t see ketuanan Melayu as part of the social contract or Merdeka constitution. By accepting the Malay polity, it does not make Malays and non-Malays unequal and it doesn’t make non-Malays second-class citizens.

Ketuanan Melayu is an idea that is an impediment to ethnic relations for the country. It does not mean one race is dominant and another race is subordinate or a master-servant connotation.


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