Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Make the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Reign For Life

Written by johnleemk on 1:19:41 pm Apr 10, 2007.

The monarchy — or rather, monarchies — system in Malaysia is one of a kind. As has been remarked before, Malaysia is probably the only country in the world with nine monarchies.

What makes the national monarchy — the Yang di-Pertuan Agong (who for the sake of convenience, will henceforth be referred to as the King) — special is that it is an elected post. Specifically, the King is a member of the Conference of Rulers, elected by the Conference of Rulers.

The various rulers and the King himself are viewed in a very special light by the law of the land. To question the existence of the monarchy is tantamount to sedition under the Sedition Act, and to question any provision in the Federal Constitution pertaining to the rulers' sovereignty is similarly sedition under the law.

Fortunately, I am not of the republican persuasion. Even if I were neutral, the general whackiness of the anti-monarchists in most countries would be enough to make me outright antipathic towards them.

What troubles me is that our unusual monarchy lacks many of the benefits that normal constitutional monarchies bring. There are a few benefits which they do confer; for instance, the head of state is not the head of government (no President Mahathir for us, thank you!).

Nevertheless, because a new King is elected every five years, we are forced to routinely shell out money to pay for the pomp and splendour of a new installation. (I understand the new King's installation is coming up, on 26 April 2007 if I am not mistaken.)

Meanwhile, one key benefit of the monarchy — in that it serves as a unifying symbol for the nation's people — is absent. In other countries, such as Great Britain, the monarch, because he or she reigns for life (or until abdication, at any rate), the people become intimately familiar with him or her and learn to love him or her. To them, the monarch represents the traditions of their country, and serves as a unifying figurehead.

As I put it once, in the Parliament of the United Kingdom, there is only Her Majesty's Government and Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition.
The members of Parliament may be divided on what course of action is best, but there is no division about the question of their loyalty to the monarch. The monarch symbolises the country and the people.

It is true, of course, that similarly in Malaysia, we have His Majesty's Government and His Majesty's Loyal Opposition. But politicians often conveniently forget this, and wind up accusing other MPs of disloyalty to King and country.

One thing that, in my opinion, makes matters worse is that the King serves only for five years. Before the people can even invest a significant portion of their thoughts and emotions in their monarch, he is snatched away from them and replaced. The monarch becomes a non-player in Malaysian politics and governance because of his short tenure.

It is of course true that the various state rulers rule for life, but don't seem to play much of a uniting role either. Still, the amount of influence they have over things becomes greater because they have more clout — there is no statutory limitation on how long they can serve.

In the case of the errant Klang municipal councilman, it took the Sultan of Selangor's condemnation to galvanise the state government into action. Would the King be able to bring about a similar reaction? It seems doubtful, and I think this is in part because his short tenure gives him little reason to do much besides carry out his duties as a figurehead.

The King must be more than a figurehead to his people. He must be a person who people can invest their emotions and trust in, and limiting his term to five years severely hampers this, because it prevents people from truly being able to see their monarch as a uniting symbol, representing the country and its people.

The end result? We invest our emotions and trust in the head of government. Would as many people have turned out for a Queen's funeral as did for the funeral of the late wife of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi? I think not.

This is in part because, as I mentioned, there's not enough time for the people to have gained an emotional stake in the new royal family, and also because the short tenure precludes the new royal family from doing much to gain the trust of the people. Unwittingly, our elective monarchy has turned us into an effective republic.

Worst of all, we have all the disadvantages of a republic without the benefits, and all the disadvantages of a monarchy (nine monarchies, actually) without the benefits.

We end up having a head of government who is the de facto head of state, serving as the uniting symbol for the country — and unwittingly becoming a dividing symbol when there are people critical of his policies. Meanwhile, our taxes continue to subsidise the extravagant lifestyles of nine royal families.

Nevertheless, the royalty represent a unique tradition that should not be abolished. I believe that politically, a constitutional monarchy has a very important role to play in serving as a neutral uniting symbol for the entire country.

It's difficult to unite behind a head of state who is also the head of government (President George W. Bush, anyone?). That's why a monarchy is actually a form of checks and balances in itself, by preventing charges of disloyalty when someone is critical of government policy.

My solution to our problem of the short-tenured King is simple. Make the King reign for life. The Conference of Rulers will still have a role to play, for it must elect a new King from one of the nine Malay rulers when the old King passes away.

At first glance, this seems unfair to the eight monarchs who are not picked to be King, because it is very unlikely that they will ever stand a chance of being elected as the next King, barring an abdication or unexpected death. However, I think this represents an incentive for the rulers to improve themselves.

At present, the rulers have a not unjustified reputation of being aloof from the people. The royal families rarely do more than symbolic and token duties — it is rare that they step in to serve the country in some capacity.

The two states with an elective monarchy, Perak and Negeri Sembilan, have a reputation for producing excellent rulers. This is not surprising, since the competitive elections give all the princes a strong incentive to be the best they can be.

Perak has produced a Lord President of the Supreme Court, and the Oxbridge- and Harvard-educated Crown Prince recently gave a brave speech in support of the Constitution and multiracialism that has been welcomed by almost all quarters of civil society.

These are the kind of monarchs this country needs. And these are the kinds of monarchs this country will get if we make our elective monarchy a truly competitive elective monarchy. At present, thanks to the five-year terms, every state monarch has a shot at the throne at least once in his life.

If the elections for the Yang di-Pertuan Agong were truly competitive, gone would be people like the Sultan of Johor (whose claim to fame is physically assaulting several people). In would be people like Raja Nazrin, the Oxford- and Harvard-educated Raja Muda of Perak. These are the kinds of Kings Malaysia needs to serve for life — people who can reign and rule wisely, advise the government prudently, and unite the country.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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