Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Conflating Head of Government and Head of State

Written by johnleemk on 3:01:17 pm Jul 14, 2007.
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Today, I was taken on a short tour of Putrajaya, that immense waste of money belonging to the Malaysian public. The highlight was the Putrajaya International Convention Centre, but I couldn't glean much information from the tour guide.

Not that I was inclined to — the first thing he said over the lousy public address system on the tour bus was that he wouldn't bullshit about the grandeur of Putrajaya, and would let the tourists decide for themselves based on the facts.

After all, it's so convenient to do that for foreign visitors, but we can't have that for Malaysians, now, can we? That's why we kidnap them and throw them in jail — so Malaysians can't have the facts and decide for themselves.

After that piece of bullshit, I was not interested in straining to hear something I could barely make out over the lousy public address system anyway. However, while we were walking inside the PICC, I noticed that while in a conference room meant for heads of state, he kept referring to the Malaysian Prime Minister.

It wasn't just him. The brochures printed by the PICC (which, unusually for Malaysian media, were written in grammatical English) made a similar mistake. A placard was even placed in the room to indicate where the Prime Minister sits.

As it turns out, the conference room was even purpose-built for the Malaysian Prime Minister — the Prime Minister is always seated at an angle where he can see his official residence office.

All of this really begs the question — since when was the Prime Minister a head of state? The Prime Minister is the head of the Malaysian government, but the head of state is the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

It's understandable (if not really acceptable) for a layman to make this mistake. But for the government apparatus to make this mistake...it's really simply unacceptable and intolerable.

Not that this is the first time. People, including government bodies and individuals, have this habit of referring to the Prime Minister's wife as the first lady, when in reality, the first lady of the country is the Yang di-Pertuan Agong's consort. (Still, this is nothing too important to nitpick about — I suppose finding a title for the Prime Minister's spouse can be difficult.)

It should be a concern to everyone that the government seems intent on undermining the difference between the head of state and the head of government. The King is supposed to be above politics; he is an institution. He is a non-political symbol of loyalty to the country and its principles.

Mahathir Mohamad tried to undermine the monarchy in Malaysia. To an extent, that is understandable — the feudal nature of our country must be addressed. The monarchs are treated as if they hold political power, when their purpose is not political, but to act as symbols of the state and its institutions and traditions.

But we cannot allow the monarchy to be abolished. Treated properly, it can be a bulwark of our country's laws and institutions, and prevent the country from being dragged down into the mudslinging battles of presidential politics.

We need to recognise the different roles heads of government and heads of state play. At the moment, the Prime Minister constantly takes centre stage, outdoing the role of the King, and making our head of state virtually worthless.

We must restore the symbolic role of our Yang di-Pertuan Agong, and one way to start would be to make him reign for life. Our head of state deserves the chance to contribute to our society in his own way, rather than being ignored.


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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.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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