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Monday, September 6, 2010

What Social Contract?

by Clive Kessler
Malaysian Insider
September 06, 2010

“Najib warns against questioning ‘social contract’,” it is reported.

This claim is plain and simple “historical revisionism”.

To what “social contract” precisely is the PM referring?

In the 1980s a new political idea was created: that of “Ketuanan Melayu”, of Malay ascendancy, supremacy, domination.

Thereafter, especially from 2008 it has been ever more powerfully promoted, generally in association with the suggestion that a “social contract” had been entered into and constitutionally enshrined in the mid-1950s.

How was this manoeuvre executed? With what purpose and consequences?

It was, from 1986, now newly suggested that the notion of “Ketuanan Melayu” had been part of the “Merdeka process and agreements”, and that the nation’s non-Malay citizens had thereby consented to accept, and thereafter ever live subject to, Malay ascendancy and supremacy.

There was perhaps an implicit, but only implicit, “social contract” formed in 1955-1957. If that is how one chooses to denote the core political substance of the Merdeka process, then that implied “contract” was about inter-communal or inter-ethnic power-sharing and the secular nature of the Malaysian state. It was not about notion of “Malay supremacy”. That notion was only subsequently, indeed very much later, confected.

If there was at that time a “social contract”——if that is how some people later may choose to characterize the Merdeka process and agreements——then what they are referring to is merely a retrospectively imputed or implied social contract.

This term was now offered as a new way of denoting, and seeing, that national political legacy and foundation, that core political substance. But, when reached, in their own time, those agreements, that subsequently implied “contract” (to use the new, and newly inflated term) was not about and did not provide for “Ketuanan Melayu” — nor for the supremacy of Islamic shari’ah law as the supreme and uncontestable law of the land either, for that matter, as some creative constitutional revisionists also now like to suggest.

Yet there was no “social contract” as such at the time. People have only inferred and argued subsequently that there was, because there somehow must have been, such a contract at the time of Merdeka — and, driven by retrospective wish-fulfilment, they have then “filled in” what it pleases them to believe, or passionately desire, that its terms must have been. They “read back” the politics of the present, and their preferred political future that they like to imagine for themselves, into the historic past.

Yet nobody talked at the time, in 1955-1957, about there being concluded any such “social contract”. Nobody seriously imagined that any such contract formally enshrining and constitutionally entrenching Malay domination was being entered into by all the people. Nobody suggested that people, or the nation as a whole, had signed up to and agreed to be bound by any such “contract” providing for enduring Malay ethnocracy — for Malay domination in perpetuity and with the unalterable assent over the generations of the dominated.

Subsequently, from the mid-1980s, the idea that there had been an implicit “social contract” was fashioned. It was suggested that the notion of “Ketuanan Melayu” had, by inference, been part of or implied by that contract.

In this way, born only in the 1980s, the new idea of “Ketuanan Melayu” was “read back”, or subsequently “smuggled”, into the Merdeka agreements and process, or into now authoritatively offered but very questionable claims about what those agreements had provided for and “locked in” as the solemn foundations of nationhood . If there was an implicit contract at that time (it was at first subliminally and then explicitly suggested) then universal assent to “Ketuanan Melayu” was and must have been part of it.

This, quite simply and evidently, is historically erroneous. It is sheer revisionism. It is retrospective meddling with national historical truth and the nation’s constitutional foundations.

Never has the need for clear historical study, analysis, accuracy and faithfulness to the facts been greater.

* Clive S. Kessler is Emeritus Professor, Sociology & Anthropology at The University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia

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