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Social contract: View it objectively

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Historical facts should be projected in the right perspective without any bias, say P Sivakumar.


I refer to the article entitled, ‘“The Tunku, Merdeka and Malaysia,” by V. Chakaravarthy in Aliran Monthly Vol 30. No 1 where he stated, “Tunku was able to convince the Malays and they showed their magnanimity by granting citizenship to the non – Malays in exchange for the ‘special position’ of the Malays .This was the social contract which was bequeathed to us by our founding fathers’.

Although the article was written in praise of the Tunku, certain aspects of the article, with particular reference to the granting of citizenship to the non-Malays, need to be addressed and put in proper perspective as the above statement is generally the theory propounded by the Malays. At the same time it is also pertinent to reaffirm certain relevant issues regarding the role played by the non-Malays in achieving independence for Malaya.


While the non-Malays are without any reservation grateful to the Malays for accommodating them as citizens of this nation but to say that it was by the magnanimity of the Malays that enabled the non-Malay to enjoy citizenship status is, to say the least, an exaggeration and a distortion of a historical fact. Some Malay politicians even keep harping now and then that the granting of citizenship by the Malays was a great favour done to the non-Malays for which the latter should remain indebted to them for life.

This sentiment is also echoed at the Biro Tata Negara (BTN) courses conducted by the Government where it was alleged that some Malay speakers had blatantly told the non-Malay participants that they should be grateful to the Malays for their magnanimity in granting them citizenship. It looks like even the Government is tacitly reiterating this fact to the non-Malays openly. Such a preposterous statement will not help to foster harmonious relationships between the Malays and non-Malays but will only mar the goodwill that exists between them.

First of all, the Malays do not have the legal authority to grant citizenship to others as the granting of citizenship is governed under the Constitution. It is quite clear that under the Constitution citizenship may be acquired by a person by (a) operation of law (b) registration (c) naturalization and (d) incorporation of territory.

However, it must be pointed out that prior to the Federation of Malaya Agreement 1948 there was no Federal Citizenship. One was either a citizen of one of the Malay states or a British citizen if residing in the Straits Settlement states of Malacca, Penang or Singapore.

However, by virtue of the Federation of Malaya Agreement 1948, non-Malay residents in Malacca or Penang, who were British citizens, were entitled to acquire Federal citizenship automatically by operation of law. Thus the acquisition of citizenship by the non-Malays by operation of law is a vested right under the Constitution and not something given at the behest of the Malays as claimed by some.

To support my statement I quote below from the book entitled, “The Constitution of Malaysia “written by Harry E Groves, Head, of Department of Law and Dean, Faculty of Law, University of Singapore, which is self – explanatory.

“Malays are subjects if born in the State. Others are subjects if born in the State and one parent was born in the Federation of Malaya. Malacca and Penang, being without Rulers, did not have any State citizenship. Those who came within the terms of the Federation of Malaya Agreement , 1948, recognized operation of law, registration and naturalization as methods of acquiring citizenship of the then Federation of Malaya. In addition to all subjects of rulers having Federation citizenship by operation of law, so did citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies who had certain designated contacts with the Settlements of Malacca or Penang or with the Federation of Malaya.’’

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Social contract?

The so-called Social Contract is a term used by latter day Malay leaders like Dr Mahathir to refer to the reciprocal concessions agreed to by our Malay and non-Malay founding fathers to safeguard the interest of the respective communities, as a sequal to independence. Only our founding fathers would know exactly in what context the concessions or compromises were made as the Constitution only speaks of “safeguarding the special position of the Malays and the legitimate interest of the other communities” and nothing more.

However, some Malays claim that the Social Contract was a pledge to confer citizenship rights to the non-Malays upon their agreement to recognize the special position of the Malays. It is a pity that our founding fathers are not around today to confirm the true position. Nevertheless going by the version propounded by some Malays it would appear that the granting of citizenship to the non-Malays was compromised on a quid pro qua basis and not by the sole decision of the Malays. If so, then what is there for these Malays to insist and state that the Malays were the ones who gave citizenship to the non-Malays and to that extent they were very magnanimous.

What about the magnanimity shown by the non-Malays in agreeing to recognise the special position of the Malays in reciprocation to give them a better life? Wasn’t that a magnanimous act on the part of the non-Malays? What if the non-Malays had from the outset refused to concede to the Malay demand on this issue and had remained unyielding till the end. Would the Malays be enjoying the sort of life they are leading without the goodwill of the non-Malays? So, the question of magnanimity did not rest with the Malays alone but with the non-Malays as well. This fact must be appreciated by the Malays at all times. The majority of Malays of goodwill have no problem recognising this fact.

Furthermore, when the NEP was passed in 1970 after the 13th May, 1969 debacle, didn’t the non- Malays unselfishly agree to pass over to the Malays 30% of their business equity in the interest of the Malays, as required by the Government? Wasn’t that a magnanimous act and a great favour done to the Malays by the non- Malays in order to uplift them from their poor economic standing?

Giving citizenship alone is not a bounty, for the non-Malays have reciprocated in no small measure by developing and contributing immensely to the economic progress of this nation, the fruits of which are also enjoyed by the Malays. Hence, it may not be an exaggeration to say that the non- Malays have given more to the Malays than taken from them in the form of just citizenship only. Yet, the non-Malays do not brag or crow about it as it is everyone’s duty to help one another.

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There is also an erroneous perception on the part of some Malays that independence for Malaya was fought by the Malays only. This view is not only unfair to the non- Malays but is without any foundation. Although it must be admitted that the Malays were the ones who initiated the Merdeka movement, they could not, on their own, have succeeded in their mission as the British government was not inclined to grant independence without the participation of the other races namely, the Chinese and Indians. As such the Tunku, as leader of UMNO and the Merdeka movement had to seek the support and co-operation of MCA and MIC respectively to achieve his goal.

These non-Malay political parties gave the Tunku their whole- hearted support in his hour of need. If the Chinese and Indians had dissented they could have left the Tunku in the lurch by telling the British that they were not interested in independence and preferred to remain as British subjects.But the non-Malays, being magnanimous, didn’t do that. Instead, they co-operated with the Tunku to lift the country from the colonial yoke. To pursue their goal, the three political parties namely, UMNO, MCA and MIC formed a coalition, known as the Alliance to ask for independence from Britain and what followed next is all history, with Malaya attaining independence on 31st August,1957 to the jubilation of all the races.

I quote below the relevant passage from Mr. Harry E.Groves book (pages 12 & 13) which reveals that the quest for Merdeka was the joint effort of all the races and not that of the Malays alone. To say otherwise is tantamount to ignoring and dismissing the non- Malays and their loyal support to the Tunku in his effort to gain independence for Malaya.

“The sentiment for independence continued to grow during the ‘emergency’ period of Communist warfare. In time it became apparent that independence could only be achieved through some joining of forces of the communal parties; and in 1952 the United Malays National Organization , the Malayan Chinese Association, and the Malayan Indian Congress formed a political coalition , the Alliance ,which carried a number of State and Settlement elections. The British Government in 1954 agreed to make a majority of the seats in the Federal Legislative Council elective rather than appointive as formerly. Of the fifty –two seats to be filled in the first such election in July, 1955, fifty-one were won by the Alliance , with voting across racial lines being one of the most striking features of the elections. Discussions were begun in August, 1955, between the British Secretary of State, the Rulers and the new Alliance Ministers on the next steps toward self-government.

It was agreed that the Reid Commission to review the Constitution of the federation should meet in London early in 1956 . The Federation of Malaya Constitutional Conference met in London in January and February, 1956. Agreement was reached on full self –government and independence within the Commonwealth. A Commonwealth Constitutional Commission was agreed upon to make recommendations for a constitution. Only five members served on this Commission: Lord Reid, a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, as Chairman, Sir Ivor Jennings , Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, Sir William McKell, a former Governor-General of Australia, Mr  B Malik, a former Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court, and Justice Abdul Hamid of the West Pakistan High Court. No Malayans served on this Commission .

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The Commission was given five specific terms of reference:

a. the establishment of a strong central government with some autonomy in the States,
b. safeguarding the positions and prestige of the Rulers,
c. providing for a constitutional head of state,
d. creating a common nationality and
e. safeguarding the special position of the Malays and the legitimate interests of the other communities.

The Commission met in Malaya in the summer of 1956 . It solicited memoranda from organizations and individuals and received 131 such memoranda. It held 81 hearings in support of the memoranda throughout the peninsula . It visited each State and Settlement conferring with officials , British and Malay , and met informally with other official and private persons

• The Commission went to Rome to prepare its report”…
• The new constitution came into being with the new nation on August 31, 1957, Merdeka Day.

However, notwithstanding the fact that independence was achieved some 53 years ago, it is lamentable that we are still living as Malays, Chinese and Indians and not as one people. It will be noted that an interesting feature of the terms of reference to the Commonwealth Constitutional Commission, as revealed in Mr. Harry E. Groves’s book, at page 13 (see above extract) was the creation of a “common nationality”, following independence. It is regrettable that the Government has failed to achieve this noble objective hitherto. On the other hand the Government has divided the people into Bumiputras and non-Bumiputras to be treated differently contrary to the spirit of the Constitution.

Perhaps the Government prefers to run the nation on ethnic lines as it brings advantages to certain groups of people. This kind of classification certainly does not augur well for the future of the nation as it is bound to create chauvinistic instincts in some people, especially among some Bumiputras, and keep them apart from the others forever.

If the Prime Minister, Dato Seri Najib bin Tun Razak is really sincere about uniting the people under his 1 Malaysia concept then it is high time we dismantle racial borders and treat all as one people.

In conclusion, suffice to say that ours is a wonderful nation where all the races have been living together harmoniously for generations in the spirit of give and take. Hence , let not a few overzealous Malay leaders distort historical facts, on the pretext of seeking glory for their race by portraying themselves as the only magnanimous people on earth. What these misguided individuals are doing is using the name of the Malay community to promote their own selfish interest. Thinking people can see through them.

The intention of the writer in writing this article is not to criticize anyone but to stress that historical facts should be projected in the right perspective without any bias so that our harmony and peace can be preserved for our mutual benefit.

P Sivakumar is an Aliran member and President of the Malaysia Indians Business Association.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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22 Sep 2010 6.35pm

If anyone were to read the biography of Yusof Ishak and supplement the reading by going through the memoirs of Mustapha Hussein, the story of Brunei’s history plus do some reading about the early years of Utusan, it will be noticed that there was a lot of recommendations made for the future of the country which were not implemented. Among those not implemented (related to) the sultans…. When I look at the history of sultans in this country I notice they did not achieve anything like what the Brunei sultans achieved. The states in Malaya (and that itself was a fairly recent name) were never united. There was no empire to speak of created by the sultans in Malaya unlike the sultans of Brunei. Suffice to say, … in protecting and uplifting the lot of the Malays … the first real attempts started around the time Utusan was established and fought for since then. The key person who established our country’s existing set up was Tunku including reinstating the position of the sultan’s after the war with the help of the British. I’d say the British… Read more »

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