Friday, February 13, 2009

For the love of the sultan

This following article is taken from The Nut Graph.
For the love of the sultan
13 Feb 09 : 11.00PM

By Wong Chin Huat

AS in most other monarchies, Malaysians have been taught to love king and country. But rarely have we asked or been told why. This appeared to be okay until innocence was lost. For some of us, this occurred during the recent Perak crisis; for others, it could have occurred earlier. While innocence lost cannot be regained, it can be replaced with enlightened reconciliation and reasoned affection.

Enlightened reconciliation and reasoned affection — this is what is most urgently needed in Perak. This is especially true after a recent Merdeka Centre poll revealed that 74% of 507 Perak voters feel "the state assembly should be dissolved to pave the way for elections."

Sultan Azlan Shah (Source:

Like the democratically elected Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, they have begged to differ with the sultan. In polite court address, they too have "menyembah mohon derhaka".

Deputy Umno youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin and his supporters have suggested banishment for people who "defy" the monarch. Well, then, Perak's neighbouring states — Kedah, Penang, Kelantan, Selangor, and Barisan Nasional (BN)-ruled Pahang — should be prepared to accept 882,953 political refugees, or 74% of Perak's total electorate in the last elections. Ipoh would be a ghost town.

Dignified and efficient

Now is the time for Malaysians to truly understand why we should love the constitutional monarchy as we know it from its British or European origins.

King Louis XIV (Public domain)

In a typical absolute monarchy, the hereditary ruler enjoys absolute power and is unconstrained by a constitution or other institutions. Its extreme form was succinctly expressed by France's King Louis XIV: "L'etat c'est moi" ("I am the state"). An absolute king is not only the personal embodiment of the state, but also effectively the head of government.

Historically, the democratisation of absolute monarchies took two different paths. In the US, after the war for independence (1775-1783), the king was replaced with a president, who is effectively an elected monarch. The US president is both the head of state and chief executive, whose power is checked only by Congress and the judiciary.

With the most profound change in the method of selection — from "genetic lottery" in royal succession to popular mandate via democratic elections — the presidential republic was born.

Britain's gradual transformation — beginning with the Magna Carta in 1215, ending with the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1689 — kept the hereditary monarchy. It merely changed from absolute to constitutional.

"Constitutional" does not merely refer to having a written constitution, like Malaysia, or a set of constitutional conventions and precedents, like the UK. The UK's constitutional monarchy has the monarch as the state's figurehead.

In other words, the head of state (the constitutional monarch) and the head of government (the prime minister) became separated in the UK. The prime minister, indirectly elected and checkable via no-confidence votes in Parliament, has exercised the real power in government.

Compare the constitutional British monarchy with the absolute Bruneian sultanate. Currently, the sultan is also the prime minister, defence minister and finance minister.

Walter Bagehot (Public domain)

What is the rationale of having a constitutional, passive monarch? Cynics in Britain will say the changing of the guard in Buckingham Palace and all the pomp and ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II are good for tourism. It is worth spending taxpayers' money on the royals.

In 1867, the constitutional authority Walter Bagehot argued that a constitution should have two parts. The first part, what he called "the dignified", is meant "to excite and preserve the reverence of the population". The second part, or "the efficient", is meant to "employ that homage in the work of government".

In other words, the head of state must be above partisan politics because his or her main function is to unite citizens of different political persuasions.

Political parties may be at each other's throats. Ultimately, however, one party or coalition will form His or Her Majesty's Government while the other serves as His or Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.

In this sense, "menyembah mohon derhaka" — a loyal plea for the ruler's permission to oppose him or her — displays the true spirit of the Westminster constitutional monarchy.

Lovable rulers

In contrast, when the head of state is both symbolic and powerful, his or her function of dignity will be affected by the function of efficiency, positively or negatively.

Hence, with a popular president like Barack Obama, the esteem for the US presidency increases. However, with a polarising president like George W Bush, half of the population might have felt ashamed to be identified with the country.

Mr President (© art_es_anna / Flickr)

Bagehot's insights were apparently shared by many European states — even when they decided to throw out their monarchies, they opted to have ceremonial presidents instead of executive presidents.

US-style presidentialism is mostly found in Latin America today. Few examples throughout the world can be considered successful. The bigger part of the democratic or democratising world chooses to become either parliamentary republics or constitutional monarchies.

If there must be one person whom everyone can look up and plead allegiance to, he or she must not be partial. The need to seek popular mandate in this sense has paradoxically become a disadvantage, making a dependence on the "genetic lottery" more sensible.

I would argue that this is the best defence for the constitutional monarchy. A head of state must be loved by all, for being loved by all is his or her main function. A hereditary head of state fits best — although inherited leadership flouts democratic ideals — because he or she is free from electoral pressures and can therefore be dignified.

But dignity of the palace, the very rationale of constitutional monarchy, could be at risk in Perak and perhaps the entire country.

This is the best time for true loyalists to offer their services to the throne. Restore that dignity so that the monarch remains loved by all.

If the majority of Perak subjects want fresh elections, then the only way to mend the fence is to call for fresh elections.

The Pakatan Rakyat is doing the rightful thing in their defence of the constitutional monarchy by asking the court to confirm the legality of their government. However, a favourable outcome for the constitutional monarchy might be a double-edged sword. People might ask why the Perak Sultan seemed to deviate from what he said in 2004, that a
ruler's role was "purely formal" — Bagehot says "dignified" — upon request to dissolve the legislature.

To prevent embarrassment to the palace, the best solution is for the BN-installed Menteri Besar Datuk Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir to request for dissolution of the assembly. That would make the Pakatan Rakyat's constitutional suit academic.

The opinion poll result is a call of duty. If Zambry is a loyalist, now is the time for him to act accordingly. If the people want him, he may return as the 14th menteri besar after fresh elections. If they do not, why should he insist on staying and tarnishing the reputation of the 481-year sultanate?

While others may argue if Nizar is Hang Jebat or Tun Perak, this is a good chance for Zambry to play Hang Tuah.

For the love of the sultan, Zambry could ask urgently for the state assembly to be dissolved.


An anak Perak, Wong Chin Huat believes that good sense among the public must prevail to restore the dignity of constitutional monarchy, democracy and political stability in Perak and Malaysia. Tolerating political falsehood is as dangerous as taking fake medicine. A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, he is based in Monash University Sunway Campus.

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