THE last week has been a time of reflection for me about the significance of May 13, 1969, to the future of Malaysia as a nation.
The date has been variously described as “the darkest chapter in the country’s 54 years of independence”, as a “traumatic event” and as a “dark blot in the nation’s history”. Indeed it was all of these.
For a few days in 1969 our primordial instinct of distrust of “the other” held sway; subconscious prejudices, angers and jealousies found expression; desire for vengeance took hold; organised violence was used by a small section of the population to express dissatisfaction with the social order. Mob rule replaced the rule of law.
Fortunately, we have made many strides since then.
The identification of race with social and economic function has been almost obliterated. The vibrant economy has united our disparate racial groups. By encouraging entrepreneurship and allowing the minority communities to provide leadership in the economic arena, twin objectives have been achieved: the economy has developed fabulously and every community has acquired a stake in the country.
For many decades till the 1990s we were regarded by many Asian and African societies as an exemplar of how a deeply divided, plural society can survive and thrive politically, economically and socially.
Not all is well, however. Since the nineties racial and religious polarisation has reached alarming levels.
We have become a “nation of strangers”. It is time, therefore, for building ethnic bridges and dismantling walls; for healing and reconciliation; and for developing a vision of unity.
I couldn’t say it better than Datuk Azlina Aziz (wife of Datuk Seri Nazir Razak).
“It is time for engagement, for listening, for cutting the invisible barbed wires that separate ‘them’ and ‘us’ and extending a hand over the divide to those who may disagree with your views but have as much of a stake and future in the country as you do”.
As we approach 55 years of political freedom what can we do to restore moderation, to recapture the spirit of 1957 and to reintroduce our winning formula for living together?
We need to improve knowledge of the Constitution’s glittering generalities, especially its provisions on inter-ethnic relations.
The lack of familiarity with the basic charter’s provisions is glaring even within the top echelons of the civil service, the police, parliamentarians and politicians.
If we read about the making of the Constitution, we will see that by far and large the forefathers of our Constitution were animated by a remarkable vision and optimism of a shared destiny among the various peoples of the peninsula. “Out of Many, One” was perhaps their creed.
Their life was enlightened by a spirit of accommodation, compassion and tolerance. They abjured ideological purity of the political, economic and religious type.
They walked the middle path of moderation. They gave to every community a stake in the nation.
No group received an absolute monopoly of power or wealth. Every community received something to relish and cherish. Pluralism was accepted as a way of life and the unity that was sought was a unity in diversity.
The Constitution, even in its “ethnic provisions”, sought to avoid extreme measures and provided for a balance between the interests of the “bumiputra” and “non-bumiputra” communities.
Regrettably, a wide gap has developed between theory and practice. In both the public and private sectors, ethnicity reigns supreme. The absence of a Civil Rights Act or a Race Relations Act prevents sanctions against ethnic considerations that transgress constitutional provisions.
Both sides of the divide are to blame for ignoring the painstaking compromises and the gilt-edged provisions of the Constitution. Lack of legal literacy about the Consti-tution contributes to the eclipsing of the basic law.
Instead of constitutional moderation, the demagogues, the racists and extremists of all communities preach their own sectarian interpretation of our “document of destiny” and fan fears and suspicions.
Extremism has become mainstream and moderation is seen as capitulation to other races and religions and as a betrayal of one’s own community.
Our secondary schools and universities must have a familiarisation course on the basic features of the Constitution and the reasons for the many delicate compromises contained therein.
Knowledge of the Constitution is a prerequisite to good citizenship.
Such knowledge will also help to moderate extremism and to give appreciation of one of the world’s most unique and hitherto successful experiments in peaceful co-existence in a nation of dazzling diversity.
At another level, the education system needs to bring kids together, not to separate them on grounds of race, religion or language. If young people do not learn together, how will they live together?
In schools, colleges and universities, inter-faith studies should be encouraged as a step towards understanding, tolerance and unity. Most prejudices are born out of ignorance.
With greater knowledge and understanding we learn that it is not differences that cause disunity.
It is intolerance of differences that leads to disunity and violence.
As a nation we are farther apart today than we were 54 years ago. Knowledge of the Constitution’s delicate provisions dealing with inter-ethnic relations can help provide some understanding of the give and take that lay at the basis of our supreme law.
If we have to go forward as a united nation, we need to go back to the spirit of moderation, accommodation and compassion that animated the body politic in 1957.
> Shad Saleem Faruqi is Emeritus Professor of Law at UiTM. His book ‘The Bedrock of Our Nation: Our Constitution’ was launched by zubedy ideahouse earlier this month.