Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Pitfalls in Letting the Agong Reign for Life

Written by johnleemk on 1:56:32 pm Jul 26, 2007.

Recently, an edited version of Making the Monarchy Work for Malaysia was published on theCicak, a local publication for youth. I was glad to receive several critical responses pointing out problems with my proposal to make the Yang di-Pertuan Agong reign for life. I won't deny that there are pitfalls in my idea, but I think they are not insurmountable problems.

The point of my proposal is to create an incentive for the rulers to work for the people, but of course this hinges on the assumption that the rulers desire to succeed to the throne. It was pointed out that some rulers have reportedly considered declining election because of the stress of becoming Agong. If it truly is so stressful being the supreme head of the federation, then surely the problem lies in royal protocol, rather than in the concept of a king for life?

It was also suggested that a state under a regent might suffer from some unspecified problems. For the problem of regencies, bear in mind that George III of England was insane for the last decade or two of his reign (leading to this period being labeled the Regency in English history), and England emerged no worse for wear, in a time when the monarchy actually commanded some modicum of power. Under our limited constitutional role for the rulers, I'm not sure what problems an extended regency would present.

The same cogently written comment argued that under the Westminster system, for most intents and purposes, the monarch and government are the same. This statement is correct in that under the Westminster system, we have His Majesty's Government; the monarch is constitutionally bound to follow the advice of the Prime Minister in most matters. The executive branch holds most of the powers once held by the monarch.

However, this does not mean that the monarchy and the government are the same - the monarch is free to act independently of the government in appointing a new Prime Minister, for example. Moreover, we also have His Majesty's Loyal Opposition. The reason that both sides in Parliament are considered to be "His Majesty's" is not because His Majesty is bound to follow the advice of either the PM or the Leader of the Opposition, but because both are sworn to be loyal to His Majesty - hence the monarch being a non-political symbol of loyalty to the nation.

(Unfortunately some Westminster conventions do blur this separation; for instance, the speech from the throne is actually written entirely by the Prime Minister. This has led to the ridiculous event of BN MPs criticising opposition MPs who criticise aspects of the government agenda laid out in the speech from the throne, because the BN MPs don't seem to realise that the speech is actually that of the PM's, not the King's.)

It was suggested that having a competitive monarchy would damage the respect for this institution. I'm not sure what credible basis there is for this fear. Mind you, virtually nothing changes about the present system, except that we make the election more competitive by increasing the size of the potential reward to make it something worth bidding for. The elections are private; the rulers deliberate among themselves, so I hardly see how this would damage public respect for the institution of the Agong. You could credibly argue that the rulers might not respect their eventual choice, but considering that a majority of the nine have to agree on a choice anyway ( i.e. there is no way for a reluctant choice to be unilaterally forced upon them)...

Another suggested that the rulers are genetically inferior and thus patently unsuited to play any role as head of state. There is certainly substantial gossip about the royals being inbred and whatnot, but considering how they tend to marry out these days (and as one commentator sardonically remarked, the future heirs to the Perak throne will probably be Pan-Asians), this is a temporary problem, if it is a problem at all.

A problem I was musing upon did enter the discussion - the fact that we do not have a "single" royal family - does this pose a threat to the stability of the system? I do not think so - I doubt it helps, but I'm not sure it significantly hurts the benefits of a competitive election for the monarchy.

The fear of "divided loyalties" is, I think, overblown. We are not a confederation; we are citizens of Malaysia, and our primary loyalties are owed to the Constitution, and the institutions it provides (including the Yang di-Pertuan Agong; as we are a constitutional monarchy, our monarchs are creatures of the federal and state constitutions). I highly doubt there would be people rising up in arms if their preferred monarch was not elected by the Conference of Rulers; if there was such a debate, I doubt it would harm the country to have a serious discussion about our institutions, as opposed to the dangerous disquiet we have now.

I agree with the idea that we need to radically restructure most of our institutions, but I do not think that the monarchy is one of them. It might not be a bad idea to institute an elective monarchy for all the states with rulers, but that's not something I've really thought about. I think making the Agong reign for life would enable him to play a better role as a symbol of non-political loyalty to the country; enable him to better participate as a non-partisan contributor to civil society; and yet create an incentive for those who aim to succeed the Agong to play similar roles in their own states.

The argument that a competitive election would render the monarchy too unstable seems to miss the part where the Agong reigns for life; the brief turbulence will eventually settle down, and in the long run, there will be little divisive argument. (A competitive election and a five-year term would be something else altogether.)

The best argument I have seen against my proposal is the conjecture that the rulers may choose to elect the Agong on a different basis altogether; the spectre of vote-buying was raised. I confess that there is no easy way to ensure that this does not occur (although I would suggest that at the very least, we should require our rulers, as well as all public officials, to declare their assets to at least create a minimum preventive safeguard against vote-buying).

Another important point, of course, is that once the ruler is elected as Agong, he has little further incentive to behave. However, I would argue that this is no less so under the current system. At least with a life term, if the ruler has a clear pattern of abuse, his legacy would be rightly highlighted as one of a disservice to the people. A five-year term is so short that we cannot tell if what happens on the ruler's watch is a blip of little significance, or represents part of a larger pattern of abuse. At least the thought of a legacy is there to keep the Agong in check under a life term. Ideally, of course, the rulers would behave as public servants not just because of the incentives, but because of their innate character.

Most of the pitfalls pointed out, though, do not appear to have significantly manifested themselves in the two elective monarchies we have locally — both Perak and Negeri Sembilan have been noted for producing rulers of calibre, and it's not really surprising that in both of them, ascension to the throne is not determined by virtue of birth alone. The competition has hardly hurt the institution of the royals in either state, nor has the existence of royal electors equally placed to succeed led to division of loyalties.

I readily concede that my idea is not perfect, but I submit that it is, in all probability, a better system than what we have today, where we have all the disadvantages of a monarchy and none of the advantages.

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