Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Malaysia and the Westminster System

Written by johnleemk on 4:49:49 pm Oct 28, 2007.
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The Malaysian government continues to be embroiled in scandal. Its response to the damaging video clip of a senior lawyer and a senior judge apparently perverting the course of justice has been to attempt to silence the politician responsible for revealing it, without even subjecting the clip to serious scrutiny. As more and more senior figures in the administration become bogged down in this quagmire, the calls for some action to be taken have grown louder.

One of the most popular and prevailing views, especially among the typical anti-establishment types, is that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong has to intervene. A petition has been submitted to the King pleading for him to establish a Royal Commission to investigate the controversy.

I personally doubt a Royal Commission will do much to alleviate the fundamental problems here (anyone remember that Royal Commission on police misconduct? I thought so). But still, it is something which cannot hurt. What is really problematic is the idea that the King should go further — that he should exercise his authority unconstitutionally.

Of course, I have explained the bounds separating constitutional and unconstitutional conduct before. Nevertheless, perhaps the issue could be clarified further.

What some people seem to want is the King to act to depose the Prime Minister — to toss out the current regime. The primary problem with this is that it is completely undemocratic. A benevolent tyrant is a tyrant nonetheless.

The King is the servant of the people. The government is assumed to reflect the will of the people, because we are theoretically a democracy. Of course, we aren't a democracy, but that's not the point; the fact is, close to two-thirds of the populace voted for the ruling regime in the last election. The government thus reflects the will of the people in some sense.

The only constitutional role of the King is to decide when an election is held (and even then, he only has the option of refusing the Prime Minister's request to call for an election; he cannot unilaterally dissolve Parliament) and to choose a Prime Minister after an election — something that is usually a mere formality because we have never had a minority government.

Much has been made of the fact that the Constitution makes frequent references to the Prime Minister "advising" the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. The issue with this is that you cannot use a dictionary to define words in the Constitution when the Constitution itself has defined them for you. If the Constitution defines "Cabinet" to mean "the three dozen most stupid men and women in the land", then that is what it means.

The Constitution says: "the Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or of a Minister acting under the general authority of the Cabinet". It provides for exceptions, but these are only limited to those I have already mentioned.

Some have theorised that this funny terminology originated from Malay courtesy — that is not the case. Our government follows the form of a Westminster Parliamentary democracy. The term "advice" is used by virtually all Westminster Parliamentary democracies around the world, including the United Kingdom.

The fundamental flaws with our system of governance, I think, are those which keep us in a state of emergency even today — which deny us access to information about the state of our country, and those seeking our votes to administer it. The flaw is not that the King has too little power; it is that the people don't have enough authority.

Implemented properly, the Westminster system, which relegates the monarch to a symbolic but nevertheless important role, does not allow tyrants and dictators to flourish. The last time a Britich monarch acted unconstitutionally in present day terms was almost three centuries ago. Since then, Kings and Queens have indeed taken action in the political sphere; Queen Victoria in particular was instrumental in selecting Prime Ministers.

Britain, however, has never been in a situation so dire that the head of state has had to depose a Prime Minister or otherwise act out of his or her authority. Neither has it been the case in Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, India and most other Westminster Parliamentary democracies you can name. India had a couple of problems with a tyrannical Prime Minister, and why was this? Because of emergency rule, which Indira Gandhi used to prolong her time in power, muzzle her opponents and almost bring democracy to its knees.

Australia is notable for a time when its Governor-General actually acted (in Australia's case, constitutionally) in deposing the Prime Minister. The situation was resolved, however, by an election — not by a unilateral decision on the part of the Governor-General.

The Malaysian Constitution does not provide for the King to dismiss the government and call an election, unless the Prime Minister actually requests it, or Parliament itself votes the Prime Minister out. There is certainly no provision for unilaterally appointing a replacement Prime Minister that does not command the confidence of the Dewan Rakyat.

It is foolish and unwise to disregard over a millenium's worth of experience with the Westminster system and undermine the rule of law by allowing the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to unconstitutionally dismiss the government. The history of Great Britain and other Westminster Parliamentary democracies holds many lessons for us; a monarch that disregards Parliament is dangerous, regardless of his or her intentions. Parliament reflects our will as a people; the onus is on us, not on our King, to effect change. The onus is on us to vote Barisan Nasional out.


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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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