A Speech from the Throne is a Message from the Government
The speech from the throne seems to be a perennial cause for conflict in the Malaysian Parliament. The recent debate over the motion of thanks to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong for his speech opening Parliament has been no exception. But one most curious aspect of the speech from the throne largely goes unnoticed: it is not the King who prepares it, but the Prime Minister.
Under the Westminster system, the constitutional head of state is primarily symbolic. Our Constitution does not grant the monarch discretion to act independently except in a handful of cases. The Prime Minister is the main mover in affairs of state; his word, not the King's, is generally final. As our first Agong famously said: "Alas I can't sack him [Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first Prime Minister]; he is elected by the people, and as Prime Minister of the country he can sack me!"
For this reason, by convention in the Westminster system, the head of state's speech at the opening of Parliament is always prepared by the government, because the speech outlines the government's legislative agenda for that session of Parliament. When the King "takes note" of something or "cautions against" something, or "hopes for" something, he really means the government "takes note", "cautions against" and "hopes for. It is the government's agenda, not his own, which is being presented.
In spite of this, it is extremely often that whenever opposition MPs criticise the government's agenda, the government MPs accuse them of disrespecting the royalty. It happened at the opening of Parliament last year; it happened again this year, most notably when Deputy Speaker Ronald Kiandee refused to allow debate on Lim Kit Siang's motion to amend the motion of thanks to the Agong because it did not pertain to actually thanking the monarch. Lim quite correctly pointed out that the purpose of debating the motion of thanks is to debate the government's agenda, so MPs can tell the government what they think of it, rather than simply to thank the King — otherwise there would be no debate and everyone would just vote to pass the motion of thanks.
Perennially, opposition MPs are forced to point this fact out. Memorably, Liew Chin Tong, the MP for Bukit Bendera, wrote in to Malaysiakini to set the facts straight in much the same manner as I have done here. But in spite of this, the ignorance persists, year in and year out.
It is not even confined to Parliament; recently, reports indicated that several members of the Selangor state assembly, from both the Pakatan Rakyat government and Barisan Nasional opposition benches, were speaking of the Sultan's speech as if he himself drafted it. It did not occur to anyone that his remarks on things like the crime rate and social welfare were not really his, but the state government's. The Sultan's speech indicated where the state government's priorities lie.
You might wonder what the big fuss is all about. The reason is simple: there is all the difference in the world between criticising the monarch who symbolises the sovereignty of our nation — an institution which will always be around — and criticising the government, which changes at the whim of the electorate. In a constitutional monarchy, we draw a distinction between the head of state and the head of government. When we blur the lines, when we refuse to tolerate criticism of the government because we believe it is tantamount to criticising the state, then we are doing ourselves and our institutions a grave disservice.
MPs must not only be free to debate the monarch's address opening a legislative meeting; they must be expected to do so. We must know how our elected representatives view the legislative agenda of the government, so we can give them feedback on what we want implemented, on what we want to see. When we cloak ourselves in the false garb of protecting the name of the monarchy, we in reality demean it by dragging it down to the level of partisan politics. The monarch is nothing but the messenger bearing the government's message. Our criticism is not of the messenger, but of the message he brings.