Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) refer to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s dialogue with Kolej Matrikulasi Pulau Pinang students on 5 August.
While answering a student’s question on education quotas, Anwar tried to justify the bumiputra quota for university and college seats on the grounds of the “social contract”.
We are appalled that the prime minister, who claims to be reformist, invokes the notorious social contract when speaking of equitable access to tertiary education. The allusion to the social contract to defend bumiputra quotas in tertiary education is a dog-whistle excuse for defending the concept of “ketuanan Melayu” (ethnic Malay supremacy) as part of our country’s policies.
The social contract excuse has been regularly used in Malaysia by ethno-nationalists, particularly from Umno, to assert Malay dominance over the other races. It is a pernicious concept that should not be adopted by a PM who leads Pakatan Harapan, which is supposed to be a reform political coalition.
Both the social contract and ketuanan Melayu are not concepts that exist in the Federal Constitution, and therefore cannot be used to subvert the sacrosanct principle of equality under Article 8 of the Federal Constitution.
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Though affirmative action for Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak is present within the Constitution through Article 153, its scope is limited. Article 153 certainly does not create any extra-legal concept of social contract in the narrow form advocated by the right-wing, and now echoed by Anwar himself.
It is highly disturbing that when asked a legitimate question by a student on the pressing problems of educational inequity faced by the ethnic minorities, Anwar resorts to this kind of pseudo-concept, not found in our constitution or laws.
In any event, the quota system in university and colleges contained in Article 153(8A) of the Federal Constitution was only introduced in 1971, so it is not something that was originally part of the Constitution to begin with. Just as such an amendment was made, it is also possible for it to be removed at a suitable time. It is not written in stone.
Above all, it is not a provision that aims to protect a phantasmal “social contract”, but to ensure that the underprivileged would have equal opportunity to enrol into an institution of higher learning.
If Anwar speaks of history, as he said to the student who posed the question, then he should also consider the comment by the Constitutional (Reid) Commission which stated in their report that the present affirmative action under Article 153 should in due course be reduced and ultimately cease operating to ensure equality between races and communities.
Furthermore, by stating that he is afraid to lose elections if the varsity quotas are scrapped, it is a tacit acknowledgment that the government is not bound by principles of reform but is guided instead by their desire to capture conservative Malay votes. Hence, it is an unmistakable betrayal of the promise of reform.
Anwar, who leads the charge of the ‘reformist’ government must reject the language and concepts of Malay supremacism such as the “social contract”. Above all, he must not give a new lease of life to the febrile fantasies of some sections of the right wing and extremists.
Change is not easy, but it is the charge that has been entrusted to the government and they must not backtrack now for the sake of retaining power. – LFL
Zaid Malek is director of Lawyers for Liberty