Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

A Playmaker and Moderator: Lord Reid and the Framing of the Malayan Federal Constitution

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

A Playmaker and Moderator: Lord Reid and the Framing of the Malayan Federal Constitution

Article excerpt

Constitutions often have an idiosyncratic element; this is not discernible in their formal text, but is evident in the primary records of their drafting. The views of the framers and important political interest groups on constitutional issues, the internal debates, and the extent to which some individuals, more than others, shaped the document are visible only from a close scrutiny of the primary constitutional records. Examining the origins of a constitution enables us to understand better the reasoning that underlies the final document. The historical process of constitution-drafting among the nations of Southeast Asia is among the least researched area of Southeast Asian Studies, however. In contrast, in the United States, Britain and India, the historical constitution-making process has received considerable attention. (1) Constitutional documents reveal considerably the spirit and intent of their framers and what they hope the constitutions would achieve in the long term and the influence of the prevailing socioeconomic and political forces, including colonialism. In this context, the role of Lord Reid, the British jurist who led a five-man Commonwealth constitutional commission in 1956 to frame the Malayan independence constitution, provides a useful study.

Reid's role in the framing of the Federation of Malaya's independence constitution between 1956 and 1957 has received little attention despite his leading role in shepherding a five-man constitutional commission that crafted the historic document. This is compared to studies on the work of the Reid commission as a whole and Sir Ivor Jennings' influence on the framing of the constitution. (2) Reid was a strong and independent character who stood his ground against the Colonial Office during the framing of the constitution to emphasise the impartiality of the commission. An examination of Reid's role in the framing of the document is valuable for several reasons. First, it provides a clearer picture of his personal role and influence in shaping the Malayan Constitution. Second, it provides useful insight into the 'balance' he sought to embed in the constitution between the competing demands from the various interest groups, which has not been adequately examined previously. Third, in terms of broader Southeast Asian historiography, this examination of Reid's role in the constitutional process reveals the importance and relevance of examining constitutional history to understanding the foundations of post-Second World War nation-states in the region.

More specifically in terms of Malaysian historiography, an examination of Reid's influence would offer another significant perspective on the historical constitution-framing process in Malaya, in addition to informing scholars and students of Malaysian constitutional law. Contemporary constitutional debates would be ill-informed without a deeper understanding of the constitutional history which shaped the contours of the post-independent state. Only a few works have touched on Reid's role in the commission. In the existing works, Reid has appeared as almost insignificant in the framing process, even if his more robust personal behaviour has attracted some attention and controversy. Simon Smith, (3) for example, has briefly discussed the work of the commission, but largely focused on issues related to the Malay Rulers and has not given adequate attention to Reid's personal role and influence. My own earlier study briefly discusses Reid's leadership of the commission, but its main focus is the broader framing of the Malayan Constitution. (4) Andrew Harding's contextual analysis of the Malayan Constitution provides a useful legal analysis of the constitution, but does not shed much light on Reid's personal role in shaping it. (5) Harshan Kumarasingham's compilation of Jennings' writings provides an interesting insight into the workings of the commission from Jennings' perspective, but does not enlighten us on Reid's influence on the framing of the draft constitution. …

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