Malaysia, A Constitutional Monarchy
The Malay rulers have been in the news as of late for many reasons. They have stepped up their vocal involvement in civil society, without entering the political fray directly, and for that I applaud them.
I am of the firm belief that although we are a monarchy, as a constitutional monarchy, the supreme power in the country is not the monarch, but the constitution which binds him and all of us.
It has been disappointing to see many unjustly fetishising the monarchs. They are far from the be-all and end-all solution to the country's problems.
Their role is to advocate certain things in civil society; to bring pertinent matters to the political government's attention, to the people's attention. This is a role they have been recently playing well to the hilt, such as with the Sultan of Selangor's call for greater national unity and the Conference of Rulers' decision to ask the Prime Minister to reconsider some of his judicial appointments.
They do not have a political role to play; the Federal Constitution wisely limits the role of the monarch politically to deciding when elections are to be held, and to picking the Prime Minister. In all other aspects, Article 150 forces him to defer to the Prime Minister's judgement (some have attempted to argue otherwise, flying in the face of logic and jurisprudence).
Recently, the de facto Law Minister Nazri Aziz responded to a question in Parliament about the role of the Conference of Rulers in judicial appointments. He pointed out that they had the right to discuss the matter with the Prime Minister, and perhaps even ask him if he might mind changing his decision, but not to reject his decision if he was adamant about it. In this, he is borne out by Article 150.
I have disagreed with many things Nazri has said in the past. But I think it is difficult for me to agree with him more on the subject of the rulers' role in politics — they are not elected, and as such have no mandate to intervene politically, except as the Constitution permits.
Unfortunately, many people have decided that if Nazri says it, it has to be wrong, and now are on the all-out attack. Opposition supporters on the internet are already criticising him and calling for an unconstitutional expansion of the monarchy's role in Malaysian politics.
Why is this necessary? Are we so eager to get rid of our elected government that we must install an unelected power behind-the-scenes, decided on the basis of not even merit or seniority, but simply heredity? (The elective monarchies of Perak and Negeri Sembilan of course being excepted — the present election of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, however, is a farce, and should be given teeth.)
If we don't like what our elected government is up to, we have the luxury of going to the ballot box to overturn it. If not enough Malaysians do this, then they deserve whatever they get, whether good or bad. Why jump from the frying pan into the fire and decide to install an unelected and unaccountable government in the form of hereditary monarchs?
I was aghast at people adding yellow stripes to the Jalur Gemilang during our national day celebrations. Why are we saying that we owe two loyalties — to the country and to the rulers? The rulers are the embodiment of the country; they are the one and the same. (As one French monarch reputedly said, "I am the state.") By proclaiming our loyalty to our country, we proclaim our loyalty to the monarch who symbolises it — and vice-versa.
Some people jumped on Nazri for supposedly disrespecting the monarchs. This is exactly why we should avoid fetishing and politicising the role of our constitutional rulers — because there is a tendency to assume criticism of a political decision is a criticism of the person!
We have the right to criticise the decisions our government makes, and yes, even the decisions our rulers make. What we do not have is the right to disclaim loyalty to our rulers, because that is tantamount to disclaiming loyalty to our country. Nazri did not act out of disloyalty; he acted out of upholding the Constitution, which is far more important than the rulers, who needless to say are themselves bound by the Constitution.
We must not allow our constitutional rulers to enter the political fray. They must be above politics, for they embody the nation, and not one political party or one social movement. We are not a simple absolutist monarchy; we are a constitutional monarchy. Our ultimate respect is due not to the rulers, but the document which governs all of us, including them — the constitution.