It is extraordinary, what has happened in our country.

On Merdeka Day (31st August) 1970, the fourth Yang di Pertuan Agong presented to the nation the Rukunegara, an ideology that sought to establish a common platform for Malaysia’s diverse communities to live together. The Rukunegara was formulated in the aftermath of the ‘May 13th Riot’ through a consultative process involving a broad spectrum of Malaysian society , helmed by Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, then the Deputy Prime Minister, later the nation’s second Prime Minister. It commanded both symbolic authority and political legitimacy.

And yet, since the 1970s the Rukunegara has been set aside. It is not an instrument that is consciously used as a guideline in the formulation of public policies. It is a national ideology that has had very little impact upon legislation.

National ideologies are often abandoned when there is a massive change in society. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, its constituent states and those countries which were once under its spell in Eastern Europe got rid of the dominant Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist ideology and embraced capitalism and the market. In Malaysia there has been no such radical ideological or political shift. It is the same Barisan Nasional that has been in power right through the decades. But the ideology it promulgated in 1970 serves no purpose and performs no function today.

Contrast our situation with our neighbour Indonesia. It adopted the Pancasila as the philosophical basis of the Indonesian State in 1945 comprising 5 principles which have been integrated into the preamble of the nation’s 1945 constitution. Though Indonesia has undergone monumental political changes in the course of the last 72 years — from a parliamentary democracy to a guided democracy to a military dictatorship to quasi-military rule to a transitional democracy to a full-fledged democracy — the Pancasila has remained the basis of the State. Indonesian presidents whatever their political hue, have always argued that the foundational principles embodied in the Pancasila are immutable.

Why have we not been able to hold on to the Rukunegara as a set of unchangeable goals and principles that would always guide the nation?  There are perhaps three inter-related reasons that explain our situation. One, since it is ethnicity and ethnic politics that define our society, an ideology like the Rukunegara with its universal goals and inclusive principles has not been able to withstand the onslaught of the former.  While the accommodation of ethnic demands is understandable in any multi-ethnic society, the increasing reluctance of many politicians and activists to articulate positions which transcend ethnic and religious boundaries is what makes it difficult for the Rukunegara to develop a significant constituency of its own in a society like ours.  There are countless issues since the eighties related to language and education, the economy and social mobility, culture and identity, which reveal that at the end of the day it is ethnicity that trumps the objectives and principles of the Rukunegara.

Two, the Rukunegara has also been undermined especially in the last two decades by the spread of ideas and attitudes supposedly rooted in Islam which convey a view of society that is the antithesis of the values underlining the Rukunegara. These ideas and attitudes which reinforce exclusivity, unthinking adherence to dogma and prioritize form over substance are now espoused by generations of Muslims at all levels of society. As a reaction to this, some non-Muslim groups are also becoming obsessed with a superficial notion of their own religious identities. In a society preoccupied with such shallow religious thinking, it is not possible to approach the first principle of the Rukunegara, ‘the belief in God’ for instance from a universal, inclusive perspective.

Three, if the Rukunegara has been marginalised, it is also because the national leadership from the eighties onwards has shown very little commitment to the national ideology. Until about 2005, even lip-service to the Rukunegara was absent. There was no attempt to evaluate trends in society from the standpoint of the Rukunegara’s laudable objectives. The widening gap between those who have-a-lot and those who have-a-little, increasingly obvious in the last 15 years, which transgresses the Rukunegara’s objective of “a just society in which the wealth of the nation is equitably shared” should have prompted policy-makers to address the underlying causes of this gross injustice in the nineties itself. Even opposition leaders have not tried to operationalize and concretise the Rukunegara’s objective of “maintaining a democratic way of life.” The Rukunegara has not been integral to their politics because as a document with universal ideals it does not possess the sort of voter appeal which is what the average politician is interested in. The Rukunegara, in other words, does not win votes — which is why it has been neglected by political leaders.

The Rukunegara has to be brought back to the centre of the stage. As I have suggested for a few years now, it has to be anchored in the Malaysian Constitution as its preamble. This was first proposed by a former Cabinet Minister, the late Athi Nahappan, in 1970. Making the Rukunegara the preamble to the Constitution has become more urgent than ever before because there are forces in Malaysian society which are pushing us in a direction which may subvert the very essence of the Malaysian nation. The Rukunegara reaffirms goals and principles that resonate with the vast majority of Malaysian citizens.

Dr, Chandra Muzaffar is leading a small group of Malaysian activists, academics and lawyers that is campaigning to make the Rukunegara the preamble ( muqadimmah) to the Malaysian Constitution.


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