BY TUNKU ZAIN AL-‘ABIDIN
AUGUST 5 — Readers of apparently all ages and backgrounds concerned about ongoings in the country have been asking me: What can we do?
This question stems from concern and pessimism about the future of the country, compounded by a fear that they will get in trouble for speaking their mind about certain issues. It is indeed sad that so many people feel this way in a country that was explicitly founded on democratic principles.
On Instagram (@tz.n9) I have shared the speech that the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong delivered in the Dewan Ra’ayat (as it was then spelled, sitting in a hall that is today the Malaysian Tourism Centre on Jalan Ampang in Kuala Lumpur) in its first session on Sept 12, 1959.
In his historic royal address, His Majesty said that the Federal Constitution is “a democratic achievement of the highest order. It is the product of many minds working with a common aim, to evolve a basic charter for this new Malayan nation of ours — a charter drawn from our past experience and suited to the conditions of our surroundings and way of life — a charter of our firm faith in the concepts and traditions of parliamentary democracy — and finally, and most important of all, a charter of our common belief that certain fundamental liberties are essential to the dignity and self-respect of man.”
Speaking to all citizens, Tuanku Abdul Rahman stressed that the Constitution “belongs to all of us” — to the Agong, to the Members of Parliament, and “to the people as the fount of power.”
My great-grandfather referred indirectly to me, saying that the Constitution and our Parliament should “serve the political needs of this new nation now and of generations of Malayans not yet born.” (I am sure he would have said “Malaysians” had he predicted Malaysia’s formation in 1963.)
In a well-functioning democracy, citizens have confidence that national institutions, such as the courts, police and Parliament itself, would operate to defend the Constitution that establishes those institutions in the first place.
It is only when people have lost faith in this process that they ask “what can we do?” The underlying objective of the question is therefore to restore faith in this process; to ensure that the Constitution is respected as the supreme law of the land.
There are many different but valid approaches towards this. Some may feel that they can speak openly in a bold and forthright manner from positions of authority. Others seek strength in numbers and collectively use the freedom of expression that the Constitution is supposed to guarantee.
And some, especially those who continue to serve in important national bodies, prefer to work so that their institution operates in the way that it was intended, whether by setting the right example every day or by whistleblowing cases of wrongdoing.
It may be a difficult concept for millennials to appreciate, but there are citizens who wish to serve dutifully with no thought of reward or their own popularity. With no social media presence, the majority of their compatriots might never know their contributions.
I have had the privilege of meeting several such patriots who consistently refused public recognition. It is important for young Malaysians to know that such people exist, and to understand that just because someone is not publicly doing good, it does not mean that they are not doing good.
It is with a combination of these different expressions of patriotism that our country will persevere. After all, as older Malaysians often tell me, we have had dark episodes before: The Asian financial crisis, the Constitutional crises, Konfrontasi, the Emergency and even during Merdeka itself when observers doubted whether peace and stability would endure.
Yet we pulled through not just because there were those sticking their necks out (literally in the case of our armed forces), but also because diligent public servants kept our institutions going. One hopes the new head of the MACC will be one such person.
Still, as I have said and written numerous times before, the only resilient and sustainable way to safeguard the supremacy of our Constitution is to teach it effectively in schools and demonstrate it in our civic and professional lives — for if citizens fail to respect the Constitution, then leaders have no incentive to do so.
“This Constitution is a comprehensive declaration of duties and responsibilities, authority and prerogatives, affecting all organs of the state and all citizens of the land … It is the compass which will guide us through the unknown future.”
So said the gentleman who adorns our ringgit notes. Today, his message should be as clear as his visage.
* Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin is founding president of Ideas.