Sunday, October 18, 2009

Constitutional amnesia?

“You’ve been selected to work as a Civic Education Officer,” a woman with Filipino accent told me on the phone.

“Oh, great! Thank you.” I replied happily.

It wasn’t until I received my job description later that I realised civic education had nothing to do with teaching children on how to become courteous, kind and responsible citizens.

I was the first batch of students who experimented with the new education curriculum when Pendidikan Sivik was changed to Pendidikan Moral. In Moral classes, amongst other things, we learned that if we saw a banana peel lying haphazardly on the floor, we were supposed to pick it up in order to prevent someone else from potentially slipping and injuring themselves.

I finally understood what it really meant when my job description stated that my main duties were to plan, coordinate and implement activities that create and promote awareness amongst the Timorese on their new Constitution, along with their rights as eligible voters and citizens of Timor Leste.

As my work progressed, it began to dawn on me that as young Malaysians, many of us do not really know what our Constitution was all about and, most importantly, the significance of it.

There were moments when I literally felt a sense of sadness because as a “prosperous” country, as opposed to Timor Leste, we are civically bankrupt. It is almost as if we have progressed so quickly that we have forgotten the fundamental basis of what makes our country independent and sovereign.

The saddest thing of all is, it has only been 52 years and we are already taking our constitutional inheritance, something earned through blood and years of struggles and sufferings endured by our fore parents, for granted.

The Timorese may not have much in terms of economic security, but they had one thing that was rightfully theirs: a newly independent country. Like a clean slate, they had a new Constitution, a newly elected president and above all, a citizenship for the first time in their lives.

Thousands of adults, accompanied by their children, would stand in queues every  morning, from Monday to Friday, waiting patiently to be registered as voters before the first presidential election. Once their personal details were entered into laptops, photographs and finger prints taken, they waited with unconcealed glee before receiving their brand new voter registration card. They giggled and laughed shyly as soon as they saw their photos on the cards. When some of them accidentally lost their cards, you could see their distressed faces as they lined up impatiently to get a new one.

When they were told that they would be receiving civic education, they rejoiced in the thought of getting to know their new country and their rights as Timorese, not second-class Indonesians.

In most villages, the four Timorese educators and I were treated like dignitaries. We scheduled our meetings in advance so that the women could plan and organise their domestic chores, and the men, their farming work in advance.

Even before our team arrived at the village centres, hundreds of villagers could be seen from afar, gathered quietly in front of their community halls or churches. Children were less inhibited as they ran towards our approaching car, followed by cacophonies of undecipherable chatter and laughter.

They welcomed us warmly as we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with the suco (village) or aldeia (sub-village) chiefs. When the meeting finally commenced, they would sit silently on the floor as we took them through customised flip-charts, illustrating the Constitution.

Occasionally, there would be one or two who raised their hands to ask questions or state their comments during the session. Unlike Afghanistan, the women participated freely, although with less vigour.

“Can I also be the president of Tim-Tim (the pet name used by Timorese in reference to Timor Timor) one day?” A Pak would ask sheepishly and his question was greeted by roars of laughter from the others.

“During the Indonesian occupation, where do we have HAM (short for Hak Asasi Manusia or human rights)?” another Pak lamented. “How do we know our votes will be secret?” an Ibu asked shyly.

Most of the time, these meetings lasted for more than three hours. Our Timorese educators’ voices would be hoarse from giving long lectures and answering questions while I usually observed in silence, but not without curiosity. The language used was Tetum and while nearly all understood Bahasa Indonesia and had no problem conversing in it with me, most preferred to use the official language amongst themselves.

At the end of the meeting, some villages presented us with “tais”, a typical Timorese hand-woven scarf, as tokens of their appreciation. We stood humbly before the chiefs as they wrapped the scarves around our necks one by one while the congregations applauded our effort. By the end of my mission, I must have had collected more than a dozen of them.

This was one of the things I loved most working at grassroots level in Timor Leste.  We went with nothing to offer except information and yet the communities welcomed us with open arms.

It was in Timor Leste that I had heard of people talking about the Constitution and human rights so passionately. It may be a nation with a high illiteracy rate, yet there was a strong sense of activism amongst the people. Nearly all the adults I met had either directly or indirectly fought for the independence of their country. As a result, they treasure and understand the value of their Constitution, a powerful symbol that signifies their existence as a free and independent nation.

After fifty two years of independence, we as Malaysians are now experiencing collective amnesia. Never have I once heard or spoke of the Federal Constitution with my family or friends. How could we when our education system does not teach us its values and meaning. We were too occupied trying to pass our Moral examinations and what does that get us today, when young urban Malaysians are becoming more obnoxious and rude?

Come election time, we think about which party will serve the interest of our individual races the best. Many do not even bother to register as voters, what more exercising their rights to vote.

Come Merdeka Day, it’s all about waving the Jalur Gemilang and displaying our patriotism and love for our country. But what is our country and who are we showing our affection for? Is our country represented by the government, or by 26 millions Malaysians?

I think it’s time for all of us to go back to where it had first begun, when we had collectively decided that we, the rakyat (not the government), shall be free and it is us who decide what our Constitution is.

Let our forgetfulness be a temporary amnesia, not a permanent one.

Do share with me your understanding of our Federal Constitution and how we can create better awareness amongst Malaysians on what it means.

This article appeared on The Malaysian Insider on 16 October 2009 under the same title.

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