©Sunday Star (Used by permission)
by Syed Haizam Jamalullail & Tunku' Abidin Muhriz
THE Conference of Rulers, a unique gathering of monarchs with origins in the Durbar of 1897, convened for the 216th time last week since its first meeting in this format on Aug 31, 1948. Throughout its history, it has made many important decisions as required by the Constitution, and has acted as a check–and–balance in the interplay between the branches of government.
In addition to their independent roles in their own kingdoms as Heads of State, the Conference enables them to act collectively on matters pertaining to the federation as a whole.
The idea that a monarchy, an institution that derives its legitimacy largely from heredity, can be “democratic” can seem counterintuitive. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that monarchies are conducive to democracy and freedom.
The states that make up Malaysia have had monarchies for centuries: Kedah’s first sultan reigned in 1136. Their Royal Highnesses continue to be the apolitical symbols of their states, Heads of Islam and fountains of honour and mercy. They are all connected with the military and His Majesty the Agong is the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.
In a statement issued at the previous Conference of Rulers, the monarchs showed that they understand their role of safeguarding “Islam, Malay as the national language, and the genuine interests of the other communities in Malaysia”.
As we move into the terrain of a two–party system, the need for an apolitical Head of State to provide a symbol of unity becomes greater than ever.
Where the democratic process fails whether because of political incompetence, military coups or foreign interference, the monarch becomes the last line of defence. This backup has been invoked most famously in Spain in 1981 and Thailand in 1992. In the former, King Juan Carlos (who had earlier relinquished authoritarian powers inherited from General Franco) thwarted an attempted military coup by calling for unambiguous support for the legitimate democratic government in a public broadcast and personally summoning senior military figures to the palace. In the latter, King Bhumibol similarly summoned rival leaders to the palace, leading to the resignation of the coup leader.
In both cases political turmoil and violence was averted.
Of course, not all monarchs are benevolent or enlightened, and that is why history also features innumerable regicides, such as those of Charles I of England or Louis XVI of France.
Today’s absolute monarchies join communist republics and military dictatorships at the bottom of the lists mentioned earlier. That is why constitutional monarchy evolved as a system, to ensure the institution served to prevent authoritarianism by denying powers to other institutions, to intervene only when necessary and to unite the people.
In countries experiencing ethnic division, such as Belgium, the king provides the principle source of unity by being uniquely “Belgian”. We see similar sentiments here in the speeches of our Rulers and the eagerness of people of all backgrounds championing various causes to appeal to the Agong, the Supreme Head of Malaysia.
Courageous and loyal
Recently, our Rulers have in their own way proved to be courageous and loyal to their people in this time of political uncertainty. March 8 provided numerous tests for the institution.
In the Mentri Besar issues in Perlis and Terengganu, the Raja of Perlis and the Regency Council of Terengganu appointed the individual who commanded the confidence of the majority of the State Assemblymen and thus the electorate that they represent.
This may have contradicted the wishes of the Federal Government and ultimately the Umno presidency, but these actions were entirely upheld by the state constitutions.
Similarly, in Selangor and Perak, the Sultan had to appoint a Mentri Besar from a coalition of parties that were in Opposition prior to March 8. They had to determine whether a united and formidable state government could be formed.
Respective Rulers have also stepped in during potentially explosive issues created by certain parties. The Sultan of Selangor, for example, reiterated his position as the Head of Islam in the state and the role of the Islamic Affairs Council during a proposed fatwa on the practice of yoga. This statement alleviated the tension that was created.
The statement on the Social Contract by the Conference of Rulers was also released to ease widespread anxiety. By reasserting facts already in the public domain about the Constitution and Social Contract, they showed astuteness in reading the mood of their subjects.
Earlier this month, the Raja of Perlis reiterated that “the different races must build understanding and respect each other’s rights as part of the social contract”.
The recent events in Perak can be classified in the same category albeit with a more magnified reaction. As a result of defections from three assemblymen, Barisan Nasional acquired majority control of the State Assembly.
The Sultan, a former Lord President, invoked Article 18 of the State Constitution to resolve the situation. This decision was made in light of his role as a defender of the people and in accordance with the law, which provided this discretionary power for circumstances such as these.
It is a shame that many quarters have directed their anger at the monarchy and not at the assemblymen.
Missing from the discussion is the responsibility of the parties to reform their own processes to select reliable candidates. And most analysts have failed to appreciate the consequences of a snap election.
The existing animosity between the parties could have resulted in heightened tension and negative campaigning, possibly leading to violence. The costs of running the election and the security required would also have to be borne by the taxpayer in this time of economic crisis. And even after all that, the result could have been similar anyway.
The actions of our Rulers after March 8 have been more evident at a time when it is most needed and at a time when impatience and weak political integrity have led to an uncertain environment.
As Pak Lah (Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah AHmad Badawi) moves on, having not regretted his commitment to more democratic space, we can hope that a more independent media, alongside the judiciary, police and other institutions can be protected by the Rulers, playing their role as guardians and ombudsmen for all Malaysians.
Syed Haizam Jamalullail is involved in Sustainable Investments at a London–based Fund Management firm. He holds an MA (Honours) in Human Sciences from Oxford and a Graduate Diploma in Law. Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz heads the Project to Advance Democratic Institutions at the Malaysia Think Tank. He obtained his BSc and MSc from the London School of Economics and Political Science.