Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Making the Monarchy Work For Malaysia

Written by johnleemk on 2:22:25 pm Jul 18, 2007.
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Not too long ago, I went on a tour of Putrajaya — a tour I found consternating for a number of various reasons, but one of them being the conflation of head of government and head of state.

Since when was the Prime Minister the head of state? The state and the government are not the same. The state is what we commonly know as the country or the nation (although neither term is exactly accurate, in layman's terms, they are synonyms for the state). The government naturally governs the state.

Some countries have a system where the head of state is also the head of government; this is the presidential system used by countries such as the United States and the Philippines. Other countries, such as France, have a Prime Minister or some other post acting as the head of government, but a president who wields sginificant power.

But Malaysia is constitutionally based on the Westminster system, with its clear separation of state and government. The head of state is the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who appoints a Prime Minister to be the head of government.

Increasingly, we see a tendency to confuse the state with the government. But the government does not represent the state; the Prime Minister is not the embodiment of the people. The people have the right to criticise their government and their Prime Minister. It is the head of state who is the embodiment of the state, and thus the people. The Agong is a symbol of non-political loyalty to the nation.

That is why you find that under the Westminster system, we have two opposing groups — His Majesty's Government, and His Majesty's Loyal Opposition. Both groups are loyal to the state, regardless of their political affiliation.

This is what makes a constitutional monarchy unique — there is a check on political partisanship. In the United States, one who criticises the president can be accused of disloyalty to his country, but you would not expect that to occur in the United Kingdom if you criticise the Prime Minister. You can be loyal to the Queen while being critical of the British government.

There is also a check on dominance and egotism under a constitutional monarchy. Being president can go to one's head — witness all the countries where presidents have assumed dictatorial powers after letting praise and electoral success go to their head. On the other hand, have you ever heard of a Prime Minister For Life? Even those who looked like they would cling to power forever have stepped down.

However, in Malaysia, as seen in the example of my visit to Putrajaya, we seem to be callously forgetting the importance of this separation of powers and symbols. We are allowing our Prime Minister to turn into a President, because the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is a symbol that the people never get a chance to relate to.

Just when we are getting comfortable with the Agong, he is replaced by a new head of state. The five-year rotation of the monarchy only serves to continually sever the bond between the head of state and the state he embodies and symbolises.

Moreover, the election of a monarch is nothing more than a farce at the moment. There is no incentive for a ruler to vote for a better candidate, because that guy will get his turn too. Likewise, there is no incentive for individual rulers to serve their people and enhance their credentials because they know they will all have their turn as Agong.

Elective monarchies in our country where you are not assured of ascending to the throne in your lifetime have proven a success in producing monarchs who serve their people well. Look at Perak — its elective monarchy gave us people like Sultan Azlan Shah (once the most powerful judge in Malaysia) and now Raja Nazrin (who hopefully needs no introduction).

The present system only encourages the people to assume that the government and state are the same, because they never get a chance to relate with their head of state, and so opt for the next best thing — their Prime Minister.

In a proper constitutional monarchy, the monarch is a constant symbol of the state's steadfastness. The monarch outlasts the Prime Minister — Queen Elizabeth II has had eleven Prime Ministers. In Malaysia, it is the Prime Minister who outlasts the monarch! Is it any wonder that the people build a closer bond with their Prime Minister, and see him as a symbol of their hopes and aspirations, when this is not his role to play?

The Prime Minister is there to implement policies and to govern the nation. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong is there to represent the nation's aspirations, its sovereignty, and to serve the Malaysian people in a non-political manner. When the Prime Minister serves the Agong, he is indirectly serving the Malaysian people.

The unfortunate truth is that this is far from the reality we have in Malaysia. The reality is that we often treat both our Prime Minister and our rulers far too deferentially — and this culture extends to obsession with feudal titles and lording it over our inferiors, something that one commentator, Bakri Musa, calls the Sultan syndrome.

A true constitutional monarchy would have a symbiotic relationship between the people, the government, and the state, with all three relying on and checking one another. The present system only gives the people an incentive to unnecessarily identify themselves with the government instead of the state, gives the government an incentive to lord it over the people as if it were the state, and the state an incentive to act as the feudal rulers of old being above the law, instead of as monarchs subordinate to the constitution and the laws of the land.

In other words, we have all of the detriments of a constitutional monarchy, and none of the benefits! To restore the symbiotic relationship our nation ought to have, there is one very simple thing we can do: make the Yang di-Pertuan Agong reign for life. We maintain the present electoral monarchy, but instead of making each term last for five years, we make it last for a lifetime.

The result is that the people would begin to identify more with the monarch, who is a fixed figure representing the state and its people, regardless of the government in power. The government would not be so inclined to steal the limelight because it simply cannot — governments come and go, but the monarch remains. Meanwhile, the nine rulers will all have an incentive to prove they can serve their people and act as non-political contributors to the public life of our country.

When the next election of the Agong rolls around, knowing that if they don't seize the opportunity now, they very well may never get another shot at it, each candidate will try to prove they are best suited to be the supreme head of the federation, and thus the rulers will end up electing the candidate best-placed to serve the people of Malaysia.

It's a radical and counterintuitive idea, but nothing would better enhance our constitutional monarchy and clarify the relationship between people, government and state than making the Yang di-Pertuan Agong reign for life.


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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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