Time to consider a new social contract

(This post appears as a column in the latest edition of The Edge)

In my last column, I wrote about the parallel lives that some Malaysians lead. Just to recap, this is a situation where the absence of a unitary, single education system is the basis for many young Malaysians leading lives that are divorced from others from different ethnic backgrounds.

So, to take extreme but plausible examples, a Malay child could easily attend a rural national school where there are no students from other ethnic groups then go on to an all-Malay secondary boarding school and end up going to university in the Middle East where, again, he or she does not encounter a non-Malay Malaysian. Similarly, there will be Chinese kids who go to vernacular primary school, then an independent Chinese high school, finishing off in Taiwan and not come into any meaningful contact with a non-Chinese Malaysian.

The effect of these parallel lives is further worsened by occupation – the civil service is dominated by Malays and some segments of the private sector are reflective of a particular race; living arrangements – neighbourhoods are increasingly being defined by the dominance of one race; and lifestyle – the proliferation of satellite television and the Internet has allowed people to stay within their cultural silos 24/7 – for instance constantly watching television channels of their own mother tongue (although some things like Bollywood movies temporarily break the silos by cutting across ethnic divides).

In the first part of this article, I focused on education. The other things may be important but I think the fundamental contributor to the perpetuation of these parallel lives is our democratised but divisive education system. The existence of multiple types of schools has successfully driven a wedge between young Malaysians at their most formative years, and we have been reduced to solving this problem of polarisation and its ugly corollary, intolerance, with expensive band-aids like the national service programme.


I also pointed out two important things regarding this debate about one single school system (the Sekolah Kebangsaan) versus the present multiple-type situation. First, there is a fallacy that if national schools taught mother-tongue languages (Mandarin and Tamil), improve quality and discipline, and addressed the common complaint that these schools have become too Malay or Islamic in character, more non-Malay parents will send their children there as opposed to vernacular schools.

The survey results which I presented in my last column showed that a majority of Chinese parents would still send their kids to vernacular Chinese schools even if all the above reforms took place. What was more alarming was that 60% of the respondents said that sending their children to different schools from other Malaysian kids would not worsen ethnic relations. Essentially, this is an argument for cultural exclusivity and one that is not based on the quality of education.

Second, politically, the single school option appeared to be a non-starter. No political party, on either side of the divide, will touch this for fear of losing votes from the affected communities. This means the parallel lines that define the state of our union are set to continue making the reality of a more united people more of a myth than a reality.

So what do we do? I have thought long and hard about this problem and I see it as one of the most critical issues that prevents us from progressing any further. At first, I was going to suggest more Band-Aids like having more joint activities between different types of schools or joint assemblies and other platforms, which would increase contact hours between our kids. But then I realised that would not even be close to enough.

I looked at the problem again and revisited what I previously thought to be undoable – a single national school. I think the problem with this suggestion in the past was that it didn’t tell us how this could be politically workable. Proponents would state the obvious about its benefits, especially on unity, and maybe challenge what some perceived as a constitutional guarantee for the existence of vernacular schools. But that would pretty much be the sum of the argument. It did not really tell you how this could actually happen, especially with the political stakes involved.

Here’s my suggestion. We can solve the parallel-lives problem by creating a single, unitary education system where all Malaysian kids go to the same school – the Sekolah Kebangsaan. They would have maximum contact hours with each other during their formative years and grow up together. But that is not really the big idea. The big idea is about how to achieve this and more.

My proposal is nothing short of radical. I figured, since we have pretty much run out of effective Band-Aids, I think every option should be considered, even ones that appear sacrilegious. Recently, I tweeted that there needs to be a generational reset in Malaysian politics. Some people who read this took it to mean that we need to see younger leaders come through the ranks. That is, of course, true but it is also stating the obvious and not what I meant.

What I am calling for is a hard reboot of our country. When we reset everything, it allows us to reshape the basis of our union so that it reflects the challenges of our generation. Now, I am not advocating constitutional amendments but rather for us to revisit and rewrite our “social contract”.

We have to remember, when the original bargain was struck, Malaysia was a very different place. The original social contract had to strike a balance between the legitimate concerns of the Malays about their position and also the desire for then immigrants to be part of this land as citizens. But much of the details were filled in later. The spirit of certain constitutional provisions like Article 153 was used to partly justify some aspects of ethnic-preferential policies. The education system was not touched under the original social contract – it allowed for the continued existence of mother-tongue schools.

So while the original social contract was relevant for its time, it does not offer us with enough solutions or room to maneuver today. What we need is a new concord among Malaysians that will help us address not only the never-ending parallel-lives issue but also deal with other fundamental issues regarding preferential policies.

Now, before I am dismissed as a traitor to my own ethnic community, let me stress something. Fundamental provisions in the constitution like Article 153 mentioned earlier would not be touched. There is no threat to the religion of Islam, the Malay language or to the Malay rulers. I think all Malaysians can agree to this.

What I am suggesting is a new contract that can directly address fundamental issues in education and the economy. This would cover the issue of having multiple types of schools in Malaysia and also resolve the long-running impasse on ethic preferences in the economy.

What could possibly come out of this new concord is a single, unitary school system and clear deadlines to New Economic Policy-type programmes of ethnic preferences. This new national consensus will put the interests of all Malaysians ahead of any one community, guided by the principles of fairness, justice and unity. For this to work, we need to ensure it’s a workable plan.

Here are the mechanics for delivering a new social contract: First, we set up a national consultative council framework. This has been done in the past, especially before formulating the New Economic Policy and its successor, the National Development Plan. Basically, key stakeholders ranging from non governmental organisations to subject matter experts are invited to essentially debate and agree on parameters for new policies and programmes. This is to secure stakeholder buy-in from the start.

What is more important than the consultation aspect of this is to get the politics out of it. If we take the example of a single-school system, there would be no agreement among political parties because no one will want to take the first plunge. It is akin to a political prisoners’ dilemma – which is why it is not that important to get buy-in from politicians in the model I am proposing.

Although all political parties – from both sides – would be invited to the consultative council, they would not be the focus of the social contract, unlike pre-Merdeka. Left to the politicians (and I am acutely aware that I am one myself), there will be no new agreement. So, this time they cannot obstruct a new consensus with incessant politicking. All they need to do is to commit to the process and agree with the final outcome.

If the consultative council can fashion a consensus concerning the education system, for example, that agreement would be put to the people for ratification. Again, the idea is to circumvent politics. Taken to Parliament, these big ideas and reforms may die a quick, painful death. Instead we recognise these changes to be fundamental and in need of a more broad-based acclamation. We take it to a referendum.

Now, the main problem with referendums especially when it involves ethnic considerations (as it would in the case of the education proposal) is tyranny of the majority. Simply put, in Malaysia’s case, since the Malay/bumiputera community is in the majority, it is conceivable that a referendum would support a single-school system – which is why I would like to suggest a proportionate referendum.

So, in order for there to be popular, public ratification, each ethnic community would need to show majority support for the reforms. This means, for example, more than half of the Malay community, Chinese community and so on agreeing before it becomes part of a new social contract.

If there is public endorsement for a social contract then there will have to be a transitional period for the changes to take place. For education – if a new social contract succeeds in securing majority support for a single school system – there will have to be a transitional period of maybe 10 years or one school life-cycle before national schools become the only available route.

This would give time to address qualitative issues surrounding national schools, the provisional mother-tongue language classes and other concerns parents currently have. Similarly, for economic issues like ethnic preferences, there will be a transitional period for phasing out some of these policies and moving to purely needs-based programmes.

So, the solution to parallel lives in education cannot be solved with tinkering with the system. We have to insist on a single-school solution. But we must do it as part of a generational reset where we agree to a new social contract that has broad legitimacy from the people and is unobstructed by politics.

The referendum may yet fail. Howeverm if there is conviction and belief that if we strike a new contract for our time where there will ultimately be give and take but our collective future together will be much more secure, stable and prosperous, I think the majority of Malaysians will opt for this hard reboot. To me, there really is no other choice.


Article by YB Khairy Jamaluddin, MP for Rembau, BN and UMNO Youth Chief

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