On Jan 23, 2017, seven Malaysian citizens launched an initiative to make the Rukunegara the preamble to the Malaysian Constitution (RMP in Bahasa Malaysia). The initiative was endorsed by another 105 Malaysians from all communities and from different walks of life. Since the launch, a steady stream of citizens has expressed support for this move at rmp.yayasan1Malaysia.org. It is significant that this new set of endorsers is also multi-ethnic.
There are also a number of Malaysians who have reservations about this initiative. They have articulated their views through the print and electronic media. We welcome their criticisms. It is this sort of engagement that is essential for a healthy democracy.
While a range of critical comments have been made, the most important of them can be grouped into four categories.
Belief in God
There are those who argue that making Belief in God part of the preamble to the constitution would marginalise atheists and agnostics and could lead to the imposition of this belief upon society. As my colleagues and I have pointed out a few times, the vast majority of Malaysians subscribe to this belief and any vision of the nation and its guiding principles must take this fact into account.
Belief in God is in the preamble of a number of constitutions because it reminds us of the spiritual foundation of life, its meaning and its purpose while emphasising the primacy of moral values in society.
There is no question of imposing this belief upon the population as a whole. Any such compulsion in matters of faith is clearly prohibited in Islam the religion of more than 60 percent of Malaysians. Even in other religious communities, any attempt at coercing or forcing a person to believe in God or in a particular faith tradition, would be regarded as reprehensible.
In this respect we have the outstanding example of Indonesia with its Pancasila. The Pancasila with belief in the one and only God as its first principle is part of the preamble of the 1945 constitution. The principle is embodied in Article 29, Section 1 of the constitution.
Though there are many Buddhists and Confucianists, and presumably atheists and agnostics, among the republic’s 255 million people, they have never been impeded from playing their rightful roles as citizens because of the first principle.
Special Position of the Malays and the Natives of Sabah and Sarawak
A more widespread fear is that some of the objectives of the Rukunegara could be used to undermine certain provisions in the constitution pertaining to the Special Position of the Malays and the Natives of Sabah and Sarawak and the status of Malay as the official and national language.
The Articles on Special Position and the Malay language are entrenched in the constitution which means that neither the people nor Parliament can amend or abrogate those provisions. It is only the Conference of Rulers that has the authority to effect any changes. The incorporation of the Rukunegara as a preamble to the constitution will have no effect on these entrenched Articles.
Besides, a preamble which is a general opening statement may be a guide to constitutional interpretation but is not an enforceable law. In fact, the Rukunegara further strengthens certain constitutional provisions through its enunciation of justice and unity as national aspirations. This is clarified in a Q&A document available at rmp.yayasan1Malaysia.org
There is yet another allegation that elevating the Rukunegara through the constitution is going to weaken Islam. This is because there is no specific mention of Islam as the “religion of the Federation” in the Rukunegara.
Since the Rukunegara is an all-embracing, inclusive document, meant to draw our multi-religious people together, it does not highlight a specific religion or community. In any case, it pledges to uphold the constitution. This means that it upholds the status of Islam as provided for in the constitution just as it protects the practice of other religions.
More important, is there anything in the five aspirations or goals of the Rukunegara and its five principles that does not accord with Islam? One can argue quite convincingly that the way in which the five goals and five principles have been constructed, they are in harmony with some of the fundamental values and ideals of Islam. This is why major PAS leaders who were part of the process of formulating the Rukunegara in 1970 endorsed wholeheartedly the national ideology.
Bestow ‘new’ freedoms?
Critics of this preamble effort have also warned that it will open the door to the introduction of new freedoms which may threaten our harmony and stability. It may legitimise lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) activities or allow Muslims to convert to other religions or make it easy for Christians to exploit Islamic terminologies and the like.
There is nothing in the incorporation of the Rukunegara into the constitution that will facilitate any of these. These are scare tactics employed by those who have no respect for the truth.
One of the main reasons why they have sought refuge in such tactics is because of their irrational aversion to the term ‘liberal’ which appears in the fourth goal of the Rukunegara. The goal seeks “to ensure a liberal approach to her (Malaysia’s) rich and diverse cultural traditions.” It is crystal clear that ‘liberal’ here means ‘accommodative’ or ‘inclusive’.
It is largely because Malaysians and the government have been liberal or accommodative towards our cultural diversity that we have managed to sustain a degree of inter-ethnic harmony.
It is only too obvious that the arguments against our RMP endeavour are not based upon sound reasoning. Irrational fears appear to have gained hold. The critics have not been able to counter the three main reasons why some of us are determined to incorporate the Rukunegara as the preamble to the constitution.
One, there is an urgent need to re-affirm our commitment to the founding principles and goals of the nation encapsulated in the Rukunegara. There is no clear indication today of where the nation is headed to, what its direction is.
Two, we need to bring a truly national perspective to bear on all our policies and laws. This is the role that was envisaged for the Rukunegara. It was supposed to shape all our policies and plans. The Second Malaysian Plan (1971-75) was a modest attempt with that aim in mind.
Three, the Rukunegara was envisaged as a common platform to forge better ties among the different communities and regions. Today this has become imperative especially if we reflect upon growing state-centric sentiments in Sabah and Sarawak. A common platform by definition has to be inclusive and all-embracing. There is no place in such a platform for supremacist or chauvinistic sentiments.
If we are forced to fall back upon the Rukunegara to re-affirm our founding principles and goals and to establish a common platform, it is because we are in no position to forge a new consensus today. There are so many cleavages in our society. These are not just ethnic or religious or regional or generational. The political divide is as daunting as any of the other schisms.
The most crucial ingredient in elevating the Rukunegara to a higher level is sincerity. It is because of a lack of sincerity that we paid mere lip-service to the Rukunegara for decades.The principles of the Rukunegara were recited at school assemblies and printed on the back cover of school exercise books.
It is because of this superficial approach that the people never questioned why only the five principles and not the five goals were highlighted when it is the goals that lay out the direction of the nation. Why even something as basic as the way ‘Rukunegara’ is written - is it one word or two words, ‘Rukun Negara’ - has still not been resolved!
To make the Rukunegara integral to the lives of all Malaysians, each of the five goals and five principles will have to be translated into concrete, tangible lines of action. For instance, there will be a better appreciation of the ‘rule of law’ in the Rukunegara if people are made aware of how we fail to live up to this principle each time the power of a person supersedes a law or the function of an institution.
Similarly, if we link the rising cost of living which impacts adversely upon the poorer segment of society to our inability “to create a just society in which the wealth of the nation is equitably shared” the people will understand why the third goal of the Rukunegara is so significant.
As the people realise how relevant the Rukunegara is to their lives, so should the government demonstrate its fidelity to the nation’s ideology by anchoring it in the supreme law of the land, by making the Rukunegara the preamble to the constitution.
DR CHANDRA MUZAFFAR is the chair of the Rukunegara Mukadimah Perlembagaan (RMP) Initiative and chairperson of the Yayasan 1Malaysia.