Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Why UMNO Was Right and the Terengganu Sultan Wrong

Written by johnleemk on 1:52:24 pm Mar 27, 2008.
Categories: ,

The political situation in Terengganu has provoked a lot of discussion, both online and in the mainstream media, ever since news began brewing that the Sultan intended to appoint a candidate not favourable to UMNO as the new Menteri Besar. I originally thought this would blow over, but it only seems to have become even more heated. Things seem to be cooling down now, but I think it is worth having another look at the situation. This, after all, partially inspired my discussion of how there is no permanent force for good or evil in politics — in this case, it is quite possible that both parties are in the right, or that both are in the wrong. (A good example of this being the issue of Syariah and civil law, where a neat legal catch-22 means you are completely justified in saying that Syariah courts should take precedence in dealing with issues of converting out of Islam, and also in saying the exact opposite.)

Nevertheless, we seem to have an innate need to place one side in the right and one side in the wrong. In this case, there are two areas to consider — the moral aspect, and the legal aspect of the Sultan's decision. Is he morally justified in going against the expressed wishes of the party with a majority in the state assembly? Does the law allow him to do this?

Let us deal with the question of morality first — a question I don't quite think I can answer. I can, however, try to summarise the arguments for and against both sides. The incumbent Menteri Besar, Idris Jusoh has failed to retain his post. The Sultan's supporters claim (variously) that he was upset with how Idris handled several peaceful demonstrations over the past year, that Idris was too arrogant in dealing with the Sultan, or that Idris was corrupt. These claims probably hold some water, but to top them off, the Sultan's supporters insist that the moral thing to do is to support the ruler's decision over that of our elected representatives, arguing that the Prime Minister and President of UMNO has no mandate (or at least moral mandate) to overrule the decision.

On the other hand, Idris's backers argue that the Sultan is simply frustrated that Idris would block some shady (potentially corrupt) logging operations that he has an interest in. They further cite the fact that (at least until very recently) a majority of the state assemblymen supported Idris, and that the party of these assemblymen likewise endorsed Idris for MB. Constitutionally, they argue, the Sultan is in the wrong.

I am in not much of a position to judge the moral arguments here. Taking both sides at face value, this means that both men are in the wrong — the Sultan and Idris. Idris shouldn't incite violence against peaceful citizens; the Sultan shouldn't be involved in illegal logging operations. (I stress that I am not accusing anyone, merely discussing what I think is a likely scenario — I have no proof of anything, and these are all based on public statements which have been made in one press outlet or another.) If anything, maybe all three men — Idris, the Sultan, and the new MB Ahmad Said, have less than fully desirable characters (the video gets interesting about 2 minutes in):

But where we can really have a useful discussion is the legal and constitutional aspects of this case. Like pretty much all the countries following the Westminster system around the world, Terengganu requires the Sultan to appoint an MB who he believes can command the confidence of a majority of the state assembly.

It quite logically follows from this that the Sultan initially erred in appointing Ahmad Said. Maybe one could believe that Ahmad would gain the support of the state assemblymen, but once it became clear that they would oppose his appointment, the Sultan's judgement was wrong.

Now, the Constitution allows the Sultan to be wrong; it lets the Sultan use his judgement, and since he is fallible, he's going to get it wrong eventually. There are no serious constitutional problems per se; unlike UMNO's claims that the Sultan acted unconstitutionally, maybe the Sultan just thought he could sway the state assemblymen into supporting his appointee. And if the state assemblymen didn't like the new MB, they could just pass a vote of no confidence, and the Sultan would be forced to either appoint a new MB or call for new elections.

Ultimately the Sultan would have no constitutional way of fighting the will of the people; we could theoretically continue having elections for the next five years. In reality, of course, the government would never get anything done, and we'd be just wasting our lives having elections, with the Sultan fighting the elected representatives of the people, until either the Sultan backed down or the people voted in a new party.

It is quite reasonable to think that if the Sultan doesn't back down, the people will tire of all this and vote in a new government favourable to him. A bad government is preferable to anarchy in most cases (some really bad regimes such as the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia excepted). The problem here, of course, is that the Sultan will have subverted the will of the people.

That is why the Sultan is not supposed to do this sort of thing — rejecting the obvious choice. If there are practical alternatives to the most favoured candidate — if it appears the government is split, as was the case in Perak, for example — then that is precisely where the Sultan's discretion comes in. Otherwise, although he has not acted quite counter to the letter of the Constitution, he has definitely perverted its spirit.

We can chant "Daulat Tuanku" all we like, but if we really like our rulers giving us orders so much, why did we bother fighting off colonial rule in the first place? The rulers are not above the law, and they are certainly not above their people. They serve us; we do not serve them. The Constitution has given them a role to play in our democracy, and when they insist on going beyond this role without duly amending the laws of the land, they are perverting the foundations we built our country upon. No ruler has the unilateral right to reject the will of the people and appoint someone opposed by a majority of the legislature to head the government of his people.

Fortunately for all of us, the not-quite-constitutional crisis scenario I outlined above, where the ruler and representatives fight each other indefinitely, has not come to pass. UMNO backed down (even though they have the right to fight on). We got lucky — we easily could have found ourselves in an ugly situation where the fight between the democratically elected government of Terengganu and the Sultan dragged on for months. But in spite of our luck, we absolutely cannot tolerate monarchs who think they have the right to willy-nilly intervene in political affairs.

The only time when this can even be acceptable is when a true crisis looms — when the unexpected happens. Perak was a fine illustration — no party had a real majority, and this is precisely where the ruler's discretion comes in. If the Terengganu MB was enslaving his own people, setting up his own inhumane North Koreanish regime in the state with nobody to stop him, then yes, the Sultan almost unquestionably should intervene. That all the ruler's supporters have to offer up in this case are weak excuses such as arrogance towards the ruler and involvement in violently breaking up a couple of peaceful protests (which, though immoral in my opinion, is completely legal and within the government's right) only indicates to me that the Sultan had no good reason to refuse the explicit choice of a majority of the elected state assembly.

Of course, there is more than democracy at stake. There is the question of national unity. One of the whole reasons we separate out the roles of head of state and head of government is that we do not want political partisanship to let anyone question another's loyalty to the country, symbolised by our rulers. In a presidential system, questioning the political decisions of the president is sometimes itself criticised for exhibiting disloyalty to the head of state. Here, on the other hand, criticism of the government is actually supposed to be welcomed as a sign of loyalty — we do not have just a government and an opposition, mind you, but His Majesty's Government and His Majesty's Loyal Opposition. The King symbolises the people of the nation; he is the symbol of our sovereignty. To sully this by involving himself in party politics when there is no good reason to do so is to rob him, and us, of a non-partisan head of state.

The kind of head of state we need is one who will not dirty his hands and divide the country along political lines. What we need is one who will unite the country, acting as a focal point for our loyalties. I am not a republican; I am proud to be a pragmatic monarchist. But I cannot and will not stand for fetishising the monarchy as the solution to our political problems; I cannot and will not let our monarchy ride roughshod over the governments that its own people have voted in.

Less than a year ago, I warned aganist precisely this when people were egging royalty on to take a more political role in public life. If you want a monarch to make the final call and overrule the wishes of the government his people elected, fine. But you cannot do that while also claiming to support democracy. The people of Terengganu elected an UMNO government; for the ruler to refuse UMNO the right to choose its own leader, when there was no reason to do so, goes against the very principles enshrined in our proclamation of independence and our Constitution.

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