Understanding the Rukun Negara – KSInsights Apr 2024

Published on 07 May 2024

Malaysia’s Rukun Negara is nearly 54 years old. This blueprint for national unity was drafted in 1970 after the convulsions of race riots on 13 May 1969. A National Consultative Council (NCC) of 67 distinguished persons was assembled under the chairmanship of Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, then Deputy Prime Minister and chairman of the National Operations Council.

Some of the towering personalities on the NCC were Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, Tun Tan Siew Sin, Tun V.T. Sambanathan, Tun Ghazali Shafie, Datuk Harun Idris, Datuk Haji Mohamed Asri, Tun Datu Mustapha Harun, Tun Hussein Onn, Dr Syed Hussein Alatas, Prof Ungku Abdul Aziz, Tan Sri Syed Jaafar Albar, Tengku Ahmad Rithauddeen, Tun Dr Lim Chong Eu, Tan Sri Dr Aishah Ghani, Tan Sri Lim Phaik Gan, Datuk Seri S.P. Seenivasagam, Tun Sakaran Dandai, Tan Sri Ong Kee Hui, Datuk Stephen Kalong Ningkan, Bishop Gregory Yong and Rev Datuk Denis Dutton.

The NCC drew from all races, religions and regions. The ruling Alliance and opposition parties (except one), federal and state governments, including Sabah and Sarawak, and civil society groups and minorities actively participated. Regrettably, women were represented by only two members.



The NCC chiselled out five stirring objectives of our nation. These were:

  • Unity
  • A democratic way of life
  • A just society where the prosperity of the country can be enjoyed together in a fair and equitable manner
  • A liberal approach towards our rich and varied cultural traditions; and
  • A progressive society that will make use of science and modern technology.


Supporting the five objectives were five transcendental ideals:

  1. Belief in God
  2. Loyalty to the King and country
  3. Supremacy of the Constitution
  4. Rule of law; and
  5. Courtesy and morality.

Regrettably, the five objectives are rarely talked about and public authorities and school books give attention only to the five ideals.


The Rukun Negara was launched by the then Yang di-Pertuan Agong on 31 August 1970. Like the Pancasila of Indonesia the Rukun Negara was meant to be the chart and compass and sail and anchor of the country. Unfortunately, it could not be presented to Parliament because the Emergency Proclamation of 15 May 1969 had suspended Parliament. A major difference with Indonesia is that the Rukun Negara was not drafted at the time of independence but 13 years later to guide a nation traumatised by the tragedy of 1969.


Ideally, the Rukun Negara should have been incorporated into the Federal Constitution as a Preamble. But because Parliament was not in session in 1970, and amendments to the Constitution require special parliamentary legislation, the Rukun Negara began its journey as an extra-legal ideological statement. It has never been converted to law and is not backed by any criminal sanctions. Perhaps it is time to do that now given our regression in race and religious relations.


The Rukun Negara was drafted in 1970. Despite its brilliance and transcendental content and despite the passage of 54 years since its inception, it has not become the guiding light it was meant to be.

It is with this backdrop that in mid-2016, a group of individuals led by Dr Chandra Muzaffar of JUST International, brought together a group of community representatives to draft a Preamble for our Constitution based on the Rukun Negara and to propose its adoption by the government and Parliament.

I was given the task of capturing the high aspirations of the group and adopting and adapting our existing and venerated national ideology – the Rukun Negara – as the template for our Preamble. We prepared a Report and wrote to all Ministers and MPs. Sadly our Report and proposal received very few replies.

We were of the opinionthat incorporating the venerated provisions of the Rukun Negara into the opening passage of our document of destiny (our Constitution) will strengthen both documents for the following reasons.


The Objectives and Principles of the Rukun Negara are substantially in line with the provisions of our supreme Constitution. In fact, the Rukun Negara distils the essence of our Constitution. It provides a guide to our legislature, judiciary and executive.

The Rukun Negara’s “supremacy of the Constitution” is provided for in Article 4(1) and 162(6) of the Constitution.
“Belief in God” is honoured in Articles 3 and 11.
“Loyalty to King and country” are required by innumerable provisions including Articles 32-38.
“Rule of law” is implied in provisions for judicial review of governmental action in Articles 4, 121 and 128.
“Morality” is safeguarded by empowering Parliament in Articles 10 and 11 to enact laws to safeguard morality.
“Democratic way of life” is promoted by innumerable provisions conferring personal liberties[1] and providing for elected and representative assemblies.[2]
“Rich and varied cultural traditions” are protected by provisions for freedom of religion,[3] right to native languages and traditions,[4] customary rights,[5]
Freedom of speech, assembly and association,[6] and the special rights of Sabah and Sarawak in our federal set-up.[7]


Like the Rukun Negara, our Federal Constitution supplies the foundation for moderation, tolerance, harmony and national unity. Even in its “ethnic clauses” the Constitution reflects a remarkable spirit of compromise, compassion and moderation.


In recognition of the fact that Malaya was historically the land of the Malays, the Merdeka Constitution incorporated a number of features indigenous to the Malay archipelago, among them:

Sultanate: The Malay Sultanate was preserved (Article 71). But was converted from an absolutist monarchy to a constitutional one.

Islam: As Islam was the defining feature of the majority Malays, Islam was adopted as the religion of the Federation but with freedom to other communities to practise their faiths in peace and harmony (Article 3).

Syariah laws: The Constitution provides for the existence of Syariah laws and Syariah courts to deal with matters of Islam. However the application of Syariah laws was subject to a number of restrictions. First, though Islam is the religion of the Federation, the country was given a supreme Constitution. Second, the Syariah applies in only in 25 or so areas enumerated in the Constitution’s Ninth Schedule, List II, Para 1. Third, Syariah courts have no jurisdiction over non-Muslims.

Malay special position: The historical tradition of a “special position” for the Malays and (in 1963) the natives of Sabah and Sarawak was continued in Article 153.

Malay reserves: Malay reservation lands were recognized (Article 89).

BM: Bahasa Melayu was entrenched as the official language for all official purposes but with freedom for other communities to preserve their languages and to use them for non-official purposes (Article 152).

Customary laws: There is special protection for the customary laws of the Malays and (since 1963) native law in Sabah and Sarawak.

Rural weightage during elections: There is weightage for rural areas (which are predominantly Malay) in the drawing up of electoral boundaries (Twelfth Schedule).

Official posts: At the federal level, except for the post of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, non-Malays were eligible to hold any administrative, judicial or legislative post in the government. But the historical reservation of some top posts in the State Executive for Malays was continued unless the Sultan allowed otherwise.


The Malay-Muslim features in the Constitution are balanced by other provisions suitable for a multi-racial and multi-religious society. The Constitution is replete with safeguards for the interest of other communities, though the actual practice shows a wide disparity between theory and reality.

Citizenship: Citizenship rights were granted to all persons on a non-ethnic and non-religious basis (Articles 14-19). The concept of citizenship by birth in the country) was part of the Constitution in 1957 and was used to grant citizenship to 1.6 million non-Malays at the time of Merdeka.

Electoral process: The electoral process permits all communities an equal right to vote and to seek elective office at federal and state levels. Race and religion are irrelevant for eligibility to vote and contest. (Article 119).

Fundamental rights: The chapter on fundamental liberties grants human rights to all citizens irrespective of race or religion (Articles 5-13). Subject to a few exceptions fundamental rights are available to all persons equally.

Federal posts: At the federal level, membership of the judiciary, the Cabinet of Ministers, Parliament, the federal public services and the special Commissions under the Constitution are open to all irrespective of race, religion or gender.

Education: Education is free at the primary and secondary levels and is open to all irrespective of race or religion. However, university education is subject to strict quotas (Article 153(8A)). To open up educational opportunities for nonMalays, private schools, colleges and universities are allowed. Foreign education is available to whoever wishes to seek it.

Financial assistance for education: Malays as well as non-Malays are eligible for government education scholarships and loans.

Protection during an emergency: Even during a state of emergency under Article 150, some rights like citizenship, religion and language are protected by Article 150(6A) against easy repeal.

Sabah & Sarawak’s special rights: The spirit of give and take between the races, regions and religions is especially applicable to Sabah and Sarawak. These states enjoy special legislative, executive, judicial and financial powers: Schedule 9.

Article 3(4): Though Islam is the religion of the Federation, Malaysia is not a theocratic state. The Constitution is supreme. The Syariah does not override the Constitution (Article 3(4) and the case of Che Omar Che Soh (1988).

Religious freedom: The Syariah does not apply to non-Muslims. All religious communities are allowed to profess and practise their faiths in peace and harmony. State support by way of funds and grants of land is often given to other religions. Missionaries and foreign priests are allowed entry into the country. Every religious group has the right to establish and maintain religious institutions for the education of its children.

Vernacular languages: Though Bahasa Melayu is the national language for all official purposes there is protection for the formal study in all schools of other languages if 15 or more pupils so desire. There is statutory protection for the existence of vernacular schools and legal permission to use other languages for non-official purposes.

Malay reserves: Though Article 89 reserves some lands for Malays, it is also provided that (i) no non-Malay land shall be appropriated for Malay reserves and (ii) that if any land is reserved for Malay reservations, an equivalent amount of land shall be opened up for non-Malays.

Article 153: Article 153 on the special position of Malays is hedged in by limitations. (i) Along with his duty to protect the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak, the King is also enjoined to safeguard the legitimate interests of other communities. (ii) The special position of the Malays applies only in four prescribed sectors and services. (iii) In the operation of Article 153, no non-Malay or his heir should be deprived of what he already has. (iv) No business or profession can be exclusively assigned to any race. No ethnic monopoly is permitted. (v) Article 153 does not override Article 136. Quotas and reservations are permitted at entry point but once a person is in the public service he should be treated equally.

Unity does not mean uniformity: The various communities were allowed to maintain their distinct ethnic identities, cultures, religions, languages, lifestyles, dresses, foods, music, vernacular schools, etc. Culturally the country is a rich cultural mosaic. Secularism and religion live side by side. Mosques and temples and churches dot the landscape. Despite the prohibitions for Muslims, non-Muslims are not forbidden to take alcohol, have gambling permits, rear pigs, and dress in their own or the ways of the West. Political parties, businesses and cultural associations are allowed to be organized on ethnic or religious lines so much so that Malaya (later Malaysia) began its tryst with destiny looking a little bit like a rainbow with colours that are separate but not apart. Some success has indeed been achieved to discover that which unites us and to tolerate that which divides us. Sometime ago we scored fairly well on the World Peace Index, being ranked 19 out of 153 states evaluated.


In the commercial and economic area, there is the right to property, freedom of trade and commerce, a relatively open, globalised economy, encouragement to the non-Malay dominated private sector to invest in the economy, freedom to import and export, and to transfer funds to and from abroad. In general, economic opportunities have given everyone a stake in the country. The non-Malay contribution to the building of the economic infrastructure of the country has given the country prosperity as well as stability.


Sadly, we have suffered a regression. Since the nineties racial and religious polarization has reached alarming levels. Ethnic and religious ideology and racial politics are causing a hardening of cultural boundaries. We have become a “nation of strangers”. In many corners of the world walls of separation are being dismantled. Sadly, in our society these walls are being fortified.
The task of restoring the spirit of tolerance and accommodation is an arduous one. We all have a role to play. As a beginning, let us improve constitutional literacy. And incorporate both parts of the Rukun Negara as a Preamble to our supreme Constitution.


07 May 2024