COMMENT BY YB PROF DR P.RAMASAMY, DEPUTY CHIEF MINISTER II, PENANG
BM may be the authoritative text of the Constitution, but what about the original text
The Federal Constitution is the supreme law of the state.
Any amendment requires the support of a two-thirds majority in Parliament, Dewan Negara and the consent of the Agong afterwards.
The amendments cannot be enforced arbitrarily even though the Constitution is a responsive living law and reflects the larger change of society.
Recently, the suggestion of Attorney General, Idrus Harun to make the Bahasa Malaysia (BM) version of the Constitution as an authoritative text needs to be discussed and considered carefully.
Although the Constitution has allocated the BM version instead of the English version as authoritative text, problems may arise regarding the interpretation of the text, word meaning, singular or plural and translation.
In other words, a single focus on BM as authoritative text may lead to a situation where the original source may be forgotten at the sacrifice of narrow-minded nationalism.
Although the Constitution allocates the BM version as an authoritative text, questions arise regarding the future of the original source of the BM version which is the English version.
The question is how can BM be such an authoritative text when it has been translated from the original English version.
It’s fine for lawmakers to use the BM version as an authoritative source, but then what is the relevance of the source.
Will the original source in English be removed as an unauthorized version or source?
But when it comes to the dispensation of justice, if there is dispute, then there may be a need to refer to the original text, in other words, the English version.
If the Constitution considers the BM version as an authoritative text, then how would they refer to the original English version.
Arguments in favour of making the BM version of the Constitution authoritative has raised concerns among rights groups.
They argued, for example, that there is a fundamental difference in the meaning of parent in the English version compared to “mother and father” in the BM version.
Whereas in the English version, the word parent refers to both parents, mother and father, with plural meaning.
However, in BM version, it means that it’s either mother or father.
Federal Court ruling in 2018 in deciding a case in favour of mother, Indira Gandhi decided that the word paternal means father and mother.
In other words, without consent of both parents, children under the age of 18 cannot legally convert religion.
There is concern raised mainly by non-Muslims that dependence on the BM version of Constitution as authoritative text may complicate care affairs when separated or divorced parents leading to penuk religious aran of one of the parents.
Political parties such as PAS welcomed the BM version as authoritative text because its short-sighted stance on religious conversion depends on the BM version where it is either father or mother consent.
It is not altruistic attitude of PAS to think about the Constitution holistically.
It’s always about biased political advantage.
The BM version may be translated as authoritative text in line with provisions in the Constitution.
However, the fact that the BM version of the authoritative text does not escape the fact that it has been translated from the original English version.
Some are running from this absolute truth. If the English version is abolished as the original text of the Constitution, then dependence on the BM version will open the door for myriad legal disputes challenging previous decisions based on the English version The lines of the Constitution.
Idrus should not think and act as if with the thought of accepting the BM version because the authoritative text of the Constitution is in line with the aspirations of the country.
The Constitution never provided a timeline to replace the English version with the BM version, although the BM version can appear as authoritative text.
The primary importance of justice, equality and democracy should be the guiding principle and not the mechanical introduction of BM version as an authoritative text.
Although the BM version was introduced as an authoritative text of the Constitution, the English version should remain as a guide to legislative and constitutional principles.