IT is Christmas time again, one of the best times of the year for Malaysians of different ethnicities and religions to gather and exchange greetings, and for their children to swap gifts. It is a time for togetherness and love. But this year, an open letter issued by 25 eminent personalities is one of the hot topics that people are talking about, and for some, a subject of debate.
The signatories of the 19-paragraph letter comprised former high-ranking civil servants, including directors general, secretaries general, ambassadors and prominent individuals, all of whom are Malays.
The open letter has, in a way created, quite a storm in our multiracial and religious society, especially among the so-called silent moderate Malaysians. The letter decried the “lack of clarity and understanding” of the place of Islam within Malaysia’s constitutional democracy, as well as a “serious breakdown of federal-state division of powers, both in the areas of civil and criminal jurisdictions”.
It also expressed concern about how religious authorities were “asserting authority beyond their jurisdiction”, and that fatwas issued had violated the Federal Constitution as well as the consultative process.
More importantly, it openly urged Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak to demonstrate leadership and initiate a rational and informed consultation process to end the problem.
The open letter has since generated intense reaction from various parties, some appreciative and others outright hostile.
The intellectual reaction from a group of 33 Muslim scholars warrants special attention. In their response, they reasoned that “no country can ignore the wishes of such large majorities without adverse consequences to stability and peace. We need to find ways to accommodate the Muslim need for shariah within a democratic constitutional framework without impinging on the rights of minorities”.
They further argued that “therefore, the government should set up a high-powered committee to review our Federal Constitution and to recommend amendments to incorporate the needs of the Muslims and entrench the rights of minorities. A constitution is not cast in stone as to be unchangeable. It is a living document and has to grow with the changing needs of our people.”
They raised one critical issue concerning the dynamic link between the Constitution and a changing nation such as Malaysia. It is important to stress here that a constitution is the bedrock on which a living, evolving nation is built. It is and must be a timeless yet durable foundation that individuals in a changing nation can count on.
Much like a contract, the Constitution sets forth certain terms and conditions for governing — a basic structure that holds the same meaning today as it did yesterday, and should tomorrow. It binds one generation to the next by restraining the present generation from political experimentation and excesses.
If the Constitution’s meaning can be erased or rewritten and the authors’ intentions ignored, it ceases to be one. Instead, it becomes a concoction of political expedients that serve the contemporary policy agenda.
For a nation that has witnessed some very disquieting developments in recent years, this appeal for a rational and informed dialogue by all stakeholders could not have come at a better time.
In this regard, we should all be reminded of our forefathers’ vision of building a “sovereign democratic and independent State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people…” as written in the 1957 Proclamation of Independence more than half a century ago.
In fact, successive prime ministers of Malaysia since independence have never failed to reaffirm their belief in our forefathers’ dream in their own signature policy platform. For instance, Rukun Negara — under former prime minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein — in no uncertain terms declares that one of the ambitions of Malaysia is “guaranteeing a liberal approach towards her rich and varied cultural traditions” and these ambitions are to be achieved through the five principles including “Supremacy of the Constitution” and “Rule of Law”.
And one of the nine challenges laid out in former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s Wawasan or Vision 2020 is “establishing a matured and tolerant society”.
Consistent with his predecessors’ liberal rhetoric, Najib — in his 1Malaysia, People First, Performance Now principles of governance — also proclaims the principle of fairness and inclusiveness for all.
Yet, as the saying goes, all government policies are as good as their implementation and realisation. Sadly, the present reality on the ground could not be more different from the beautiful political slogans.
The common observation is that more and more issues of the day, such as fairness and compassion, have been prohibited from public conversation, let alone debate, under the pretext of “sensitivity” or “political correctness”.
At a critical time like this, the nation is in dire need of courageous, determined and principled individuals, such as the 25 eminent Malaysians, who will stand up for and defend our forefathers’ vision and legacy.
Their call for moderation and rational consultation is definitely music to my ears this Christmas and New Year season.
Khaw Veon Szu, a former executive director of a local think tank, is a practising lawyer. Opinions expressed in this article are his personal views.
This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on December 22 - 28, 2014.