Citizenship as principle and practice has the promise and the potential for enhancing national integration in a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society like ours. If the principle of common citizenship embodied in the Malaysian Constitution is put into practice it could help to draw together Malaysians of diverse backgrounds through a bond of shared interests and shared values leading towards a shared future and a shared destiny.

One of the two major dimensions of citizenship is already in the consciousness of most Malaysians. Since Merdeka, rights — specifically community rights — have figured prominently in public discourse. So much of the nation’s political, economic, cultural and social life is built around the defence and articulation of community rights. This is understandable for a couple of reasons. With the conferment of citizenship upon domiciled Chinese and Indians on a massive scale on the eve of Merdeka, the Malays as the indigenous people who had established government in the land became a community among communities. Protecting the position of the community as the primary community has been fundamental to its politics. Similarly, Chinese and Indians have been equally zealous about preserving and expanding their acquired rights as latter citizens.

Right from the beginning of statehood in 1957, there was also an awareness within the citizenry of individual rights. The Constitution and a democratic system of governance legitimised the expression of these rights. Encroachments upon, and transgressions of, the freedom of expression and other freedoms by the State have over time strengthened the commitment of many  Malaysians regardless of ethnic affiliation or religious orientation to basic liberties.

While the commitment to rights is vital for sustaining the practice of citizenship, it is a pity that the other dimension of citizenship has not been given the emphasis it deserves. Citizenship would be lopsided and unbalanced if citizens fail to appreciate the significance of responsibilities. That rights and responsibilities go hand and hand is a truism of great weight and value.

In a multi-ethnic multi-religious society like ours one of our heaviest responsibilities is to understand in depth what this nation is and what it is not. Let us begin with what it is not. Malaysia did not just pop out of the ocean in 1957. Neither did its history begin with the negotiations among the different community leaders as they attempted to achieve a consensus on some contentious ethnic issues just before Independence.

The most significant portion of history that is relevant to the Malaysian nation as we know it   today is the continuous presence of Malay Sultanates in the Malay Peninsula from 1136 onwards. At different times and in varying degrees, these Sultanates exercised effective domestic jurisdiction and conducted external relations with other states near and far. The language of the royal courts was Malay, which was the lingua franca of the region and Islam was the basis of law and administration.

It is the responsibility of the present generation of Malaysians to appreciate the link between the Sultanates, the Malay language and Islam, on the one hand, and present-day Malaysia, on the other. It is incontrovertible proof of the fact that the core of contemporary Malaysia evolved from Malay Sultanates. When we pledge our allegiance to the Malaysian Constitution we are in fact acknowledging this crucial aspect of history.

There is another aspect of our history that young Malaysians should also seek to understand. This is the migration of Chinese and Indians to Malaysia from the 19th century onwards during British colonial rule, their domicile and eventual accommodation through citizenship in the post-colonial era. It changed not only the demography of the land but also its economic structure, its cultural pattern and its political ethos. It set into motion the evolution of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation that we share today.

Our responsibility as Malaysian citizens is to develop an appreciation of both these historical processes: the Malay state at the root of the nation and the multi-ethnic, multi-religious Malaysia that has evolved through migration, domicile and accommodation. It would be wrong to acknowledge one and deny the other or to emphasise one at the expense of the other. Indeed, it would be a travesty of the truth.

Sentiments associated with these historical processes expressed through different issues — jus soli and citizenship in the fifties; Malay as the sole official and national language in the sixties; and the New Economic Policy, Chinese medium schools, religious identity and conversions to Islam up to the present  — constitute the crux of the challenge to national integration. Most of the time these issues which are invariably seen through the prism of rights generate friction and tension that polarize the communities. Perhaps a ‘responsibilities approach’ may lessen the potential for conflict and pave the way for solutions anchored in justice and fairness.

In our own modest way, Yayasan 1Malaysia has been trying to balance responsibilities with rights in its programme on the Malaysian Constitution for upper secondary school students. Developing a clear understanding of what this nation is and how we can overcome the challenge of integration is one of the foremost goals of this programme which has connected with hundreds of students and scores of teachers in different parts of the country in the last 5 years. It offers a glimmer of hope for the future.

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