SIXTY-TWO years into independence, knowledge of our supreme Constitution’s glittering generalities is woefully lacking in our society.
Not only ordinary citizens but students at all levels of education, employees of the public services, police, army, members of Parliament and State Assemblies and politicians of all shades, are blissfully unaware of the Constitution’s scintillating ideals, its basic principles and its tacit acceptance of our dazzling diversity.
The problem is that our primary and secondary and even our university education does not emphasise a study of the Constitution.
In Year Five, the subject of History covers “heritage topics” like our royal institutions, Islam, Bahasa Melayu and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. The same subject in Year Six covers the position of other religions.
In Forms Four and Five, the Pendidikan Moral subject covers civics and morality, and rights and responsibilities under the Constitution. Regrettably, this subject is available only to non-Muslims! It is as if Muslim kids require no training in these areas.
During History lessons, Form Four and Form Five students learn about the independence of Malaya and the basics of constitutional monarchy, democratic parliament and federal system are covered.
The emphasis is on institutions and not on the principles and ideals that animate these institutions.
The core values of our Constitution – constitutional supremacy, rule of law, separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, need for limits on government’s powers, existence of independent agencies to check and balance the mighty executive, the role of the judiciary and of parliament to enforce accountability and responsibility in government, and the protection of human rights for all – are not adequately covered.
There is no emphasis on the Constitution’s provisions for unity in diversity. The curriculum pays insufficient attention to the Constitution’s recognition of multi-culturalism and religious pluralism. The rights of Sabah and Sarawak are largely ignored.
Even at the university level, there is no compulsory course in our foundational law except in those universities with law faculties.
In the training of civil servants and members of the police and the army, there is some, though superficial, coverage of the Constitution’s basic institutions.
What needs to be done? Knowledge of the Constitution is a prerequisite to good citizenship. Ideally, the Constitution’s values of fidelity to the law, limits on the powers of the state, respect for human rights including equality for all, should be introduced at the formative, primary stage of education.
At the secondary level, the Constitution must be taught as a full, separate subject. But if this cannot be done because “the students are already overloaded”, then the civics, Bahasa Melayu and Bahasa English syllabi must be reorganised to include fuller knowledge of the Constitution.
At the university level, the Constitution should be a compulsory requirement for all students.
All school and university teachers, civil servants, MPs, police and local authority officials and all judges who were trained abroad and did not get to study the Federal Constitution, must go through a familiarisation course on the basic features of the Constitution and the reasons for the many delicate compromises contained therein.
The study of the Constitution must lay emphasis on the basic idea that in a democratic, constitutional society, the Constitution is the supreme law and the litmus test of the validity of all state action. No matter how high and mighty the functionaries of the state may be, the law is still above them. Citizens’ rights are inherent. The powers of the state must be derived from the law.
In the context of Malaysia, the Constitution’s deft handling of ethnic relations must be studied. Such knowledge will 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.
If we read about the making of the Constitution, we will see that by far and large, the forefathers of our Constitution, especially Bapa Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, were animated by a remarkable vision and optimism of a shared destiny among the various peoples of the multi-hued nation.
Their lives were enlightened by a spirit of accommodation, compassion and tolerance. They abjured ideological purity of the political, economic and religious type and 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. Sadly, the ethnic provisions are gravely misunderstood. Overzealousness in their enforcement and abuse of affirmative action provisions to enrich those already rich, leaves a heritage of bitterness.
All patriotic citizens must study and support our Constitution. Towards the goal of enhancing constitutional literacy and providing the seeds for constitutional patriotism, there is a “Constitutional Literacy Initiative” of the Faculty of Law, University of Malaya and the Malaysian Bar.
Members of the initiative give regular interviews on radio. They publish a monthly online bulletin on constitutional developments in the country and abroad. They accept the gracious hospitality of institutions like the National Institute of Public Administration (Intan) and the Foreign Ministry for talks.
They are now working on developing a comprehensive, four-phase syllabus on our Constitution for primary and secondary schools. The bureaucratic hurdles are many but so are the opportunities.
It is our hope and prayer that as constitutional literacy grows, the gilt-edged provisions of our basic law may become internalised in the hearts and minds of our young citizens.
Under the older generation, the Constitution did not really flourish well but one has to hope that in the decades ahead, the younger generation will use it as the chart and compass and sail and anchor of our nation’s endeavours.
This article was first appeared in The Star on 26 September 2019