Our Social Contract Crossroad

Posted in Politics, Thoughts by drsivalaw on July 22, 2008

The most important issue confronting our nation today is what is our ‘social contract’? A social contract may loosely be defined as an agreement forged between the state and the individuals that constitute that state. The term social contract describes a broad class of philosophical theories whose subjects are the implied agreements by which people form nations and maintain a social order. This means that the people give up some rights to a government in order to receive social order.

As Jean Jacques Rousseau famously wrote in The Social Contract,

Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.

The liberal view is that governments are constituted among men to safeguard their liberties and not to oppress them. The need to preserve social order therefore should not be used as an excuse to usurp and diminish the freedoms of the individual. The social contract should be designed to set us free within the framework of order, peace and harmony. Malaysia is a multi-racial and multi-ideological state. Our political system has evolved from a fairly stable autocratic substantially one party coalition system to a two party coalition.

There have been many interesting versions of what exactly constitutes the Malaysian social contract. I am of the view that a social contract to be relevant and useful must be an evolving and dynamic thing. It makes little sense to talk of what the founding fathers intended if such intentions have since been reshaped by the actual history of our nation.

Our political system is a legacy from our colonial masters – the parliamentary system of government. This is the system adopted by most commonwealth countries and it is a system that whilst creating stable governments – is susceptible to great abuse. Largely because there isn’t any Separation of Powers between the legislature and the executive. This can be compounded further by a pliant and controlled judiciary. Sounds a familiar story?

To put it candidly, this means without an effective opposition, the government of the day can basically do whatever it likes.

Today, we are at the crossroads of creating a better political system – a system where there is a working opposition and a government subject to accountability. However, I am not convinced that the players are fully aware of this political opportunity. The moment has succumbed to political opportunism.

We had a largely free and fair election, leading to the presence of a strong opposition in parliament and 5 states in opposition control. Two things flow from this – 1. The Barisan Nasional has an opportunity to act as a responsible opposition within these five states and understand the need for a strong opposition within a parliamentary system of government where there is no Separation of Powers between the executive and the legislature. In most instances parliament acts to rubber stamp decisions made by the executive. 2. The opposition has the opportunity to do the same. Create a positive force for change and accountability on the issues that matter and impact peoples’ lives daily.

What in fact has happened is – 1. The Barisan Nasional’s immediate response is that of being a sore loser. Many place the blame with Abdullah Badawi and see his removal from office as the solution. There is very little emphasis on the ideological changes that are required to make Barisan Nasional relevant again.

What we see is lip service to important ideological and institutional changes that are fundamental to Barisan Nasional’s long term relevance. Shooting the messenger rather than the message seems to be the preferred response. 2. The opposition on the other hand appears to want to press home whatever advantage they have quickly rather than by developing credibility by showing their capabilities. This whole issue of getting MPs to cross over is a short term political game where there can be no winners in the long term. Why Anwar wants to form a government in the near future is anyone’s guess but I would have preferred that he showed some respect for the peoples’ mandate. His mandate is to form an effective opposition. Any government formed by MPs crossing over is a fraud on the people. If I were the PM, I would dissolve parliament if that were to occur and call for fresh elections. Is such turmoil in the best interests of the country? Given our present economic woes, I should think not. It is a time for all parties to stop playing politics and address the broader issues of nationhood and good governance.

Several issues need to be addressed with urgency:

  1. The succession issue within UMNO, should be dealt with by UMNO. My only advise is recognize the following:
  • Abdullah Badawi has given this nation a new birth of freedom by allowing free and fair elections.
  • He has freed Anwar during his watch.
  • He has given people the opportunity to voice their dissent without stifling the media.
  • He has promoted greater transparency and accountability within the government. Some say not enough – but we have to start somewhere and he has provided the start.
  • He has allowed and encouraged much needed reform within the judiciary.

2. Najib’s wife has been accused of complicity in the Altantuya murder. She should be allowed the same latitude as any accused person. The presumption of innocence should apply equally to her and the AG should be convinced there is sufficient evidence before charging her. An accusation in itself, regardless of whether it is by way of statutory declaration or not, is insufficient. Same standards should be applied to Raja Petra. His allegations have to be thoroughly investigated given the gravity of the accusations.

3. Same standards should apply to Anwar in relation to the sodomy accusation against him. The police should examine carefully the complaint and objectively determine the prima facie truth of it, having regard to any statement and alibi provided to Anwar before calling for DNA evidence.

4. Those Hindraf leaders under detention should be freed immediately, as a sign of respect to the Malaysian Indian community and in recognition that many of the views expressed were legitimate. This was certainly the view reflected by the majority of the Malaysian Indian community in the recent elections. Whilst I fully condone the Home Minister’s position that law and order should be respected, sometimes peaceful civil disobedience is the time tested solution to correct many social injustices. Certainly this is the path chosen by our founding fathers and great social architects like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

5. A law prohibiting party hopping should not be enacted. This is undemocratic and interferes with a person’s freedom of association. People should be free to join any political party if they have a change in ideology or beliefs. However, the should be a law requiring an Member of Parliament or State Assemblyman who hops to another party to vacate his seat. This is because his mandate is voided when he switches parties.

6. The constitutional guarantee of the freedom of religion and worship should be reinforced with clear legislative guidelines on the jurisdiction of Syariah law. Whilst recognizing the social fact that the majority of Malaysians are Muslims and therefore the need to recognize Islam as the official religion, it is nonetheless imperative that a secular constitution is upheld as an integral part of the Malaysian social contract ensuring peace, prosperity and harmony.

The Barisan Nasional Government has over the years defended this ‘social contract’ even though there have been times when overzealous politicians from within UMNO have pushed for a change in the status quo and a move towards the creation of an Islamic state. PAS on the other hand is a political party astutely committed to changing and redefining this social contract. They have steadfastly promoted the ideal of an Islamic state and have indicated that if and when they are voted into power they will amend the Constitution and introduce an Islamic state. The Pakatan Rakyat in this context faces a serious ideological divide, DAP and PKR are ideologically committed to a secular Constitution, whilst PAS has a divergent position.

We have a nation that is progressive, cultured and prosperous. We now have to create institutions that can protect individuals regardless of their political beliefs. We have to take a no nonsense stand against abuse of power and corruption to ensure a great future for all Malaysians. Let us make Vision 2020 – A vision of a progressive nation that is developed in every sense – not a nation that has a first world infrastructure but a third world mentality.

Let me conclude by sharing another quote from Jean Jacques Rousseau,

As soon as any man says of the affairs of the State “What does it matter to me?” the State may be given up for lost.

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One Response

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  1. sashi said, on July 30, 2008 at 11:43 am

    a good piece of writing, sharing with my friends. keep it coming doc.

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