Article 1 of our Constitution reads:
“This Constitution may be cited as the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore.”
Article 2 continues:
“In this Constitution, unless it is otherwise provided or the context otherwise requires - “Cabinet” means the Cabinet constituted under this Constitution … “
Not very inspiring is it? I doubt fervent drumbeats of national pride thump in the depths of your soul when reading the opening lines of our Constitution. Most countries’ constitutions, however, start with some declaration or other that sets out the purpose of the constitution and thereby of the state: the state is truly constituted by its founders. These can be quite poetic and lyrical. Let’s look at a two examples.
Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America:
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to Ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Preface to the Constitution of Japan:
“We, the Japanese people … determined that we shall secure for ourselves and our posterity the fruits of peaceful cooperation with all nations and the blessings of liberty throughout this land, and resolved that never again shall we be visited with the horrors of war through the action of government, do proclaim that sovereign power resides with the people and do firmly establish this Constitution … We, the Japanese people, desire peace for all time and are deeply conscious of the high ideals controlling human relationship and we have determined to preserve our security and existence, trusting in the justice and faith of the peace-loving peoples of the world. We desire to occupy an honored place in an international society striving for the preservation of peace, and the banishment of tyranny and slavery, oppression and intolerance for all time from the earth. We recognize that all peoples of the world have the right to live in peace, free from fear and want … We, the Japanese people, pledge our national honor to accomplish these high ideals and purposes with all our resources.”
Have a look at almost any other constitution. It is virtually universal to express the desire of the people and to tell the story of how the constitution came to be written: in Japan’s case above, out of the ruins of war. China’s constitution starts with a somewhat rambling but proud history of the ancient land. The Namibian and South African constitutions call for their nations to rise from the hell of apartheid and to never return.
Is such lyricism necessary in a legal document? Singaporeans are generally fairly practical folk who arguably care more for substance than form. Singapore’s independence was also not violent or hard-fought; in fact it was almost forced against its will. Yet I think there is value in remembering where we started and where we want to go, to have a higher ideal to always aspire to. This may also go some way towards resolving our national identity crisis.
But there is no need for us to struggle to artificially write something pseudo-inspirational. The great Lee Kuan Yew proclaimed our separation from the Federation of Malaysia in what I think are very beautiful words. Here is the Proclamation of Singapore in the Separation Agreement:
WHEREAS it is the inalienable right of a people to be free and independent;
AND WHEREAS Malaysia was established on the 16th day of September 1963, by a federation of the existing states of the Federation of Malaya and the States of Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore into one independent and sovereign nation;
AND WHEREAS by an Agreement made on the seventh day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty-five between the Government of Malaysia of the one part and the Government of Singapore of the other part it was agreed that Singapore should cease to be a state of Malaysia and should thereupon become an independent and sovereign state and nation separate from and independent of Malaysia;
AND WHEREAS it was also agreed by the parties to the said Agreement that, upon the separation of Singapore from Malaysia, the Government of Malaysia shall relinquish its sovereignty and jurisdiction in respect of Singapore so that the said sovereignty and jurisdiction shall on such relinquishment vest in the Government of Singapore;
AND WHEREAS by a Proclamation dated the ninth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty-five The Prime Minister of Malaysia Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj Ibni Almarhum Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah did proclaim and declare that Singapore shall on the ninth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty-five cease to be a state of Malaysia and shall become an independent and sovereign state and nation separate from and independent of Malaysia and recognised as such by the Government of Malaysia.
Now I LEE KUAN YEW Prime Minister of Singapore, DO HEREBY PROCLAIM AND DECLARE on behalf of the people and the Government of Singapore that as from today the ninth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty-five Singapore shall be forever a sovereign democratic and independent nation, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of her people in a more just and equal society.
A “more just and equal society”. I find in this oxymoronic turn of phrase the essence and the marvel of his words. One would think that something is either just and equal or it is not. 1+1 = 2: it cannot be any more equal or less equal. Yet here he recognises that justice and equality cannot be attained but can always be hoped for. No one really knows what justice is, and no two people in the world can truly be treated equally, different and diverse as we all are.
“Singapore shall be forever a sovereign democratic and independent nation”. This is also tremendously inspiring. Forever, not just today and tomorrow, or the next couple of hundred years, but forever. As Chan Chun Sing demonstrated in the run-up to last year’s General Elections, many Singaporeans and perhaps Chan himself believe that Singapore will eventually and inevitably go the way of the Demak Sultanate and the Lanfang Republic. Not LKY, not in these words. Forever we will be free, or at least we try.
In any case, I suggest that these words, rather than remain in a separate document, should be included in our Constitution as a preamble, as a reminder of our beginnings and as a clarion call to all who act in the name of the Constitution - the President, the Cabinet, MPs, judges - to always keep in mind the goal of “a more just and equal society.”