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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Courage To Be Diffferent

M. Bakri Musa

The Sultan of Trengganu’s decision not to bestow royal honors on the occasion of his birthday is worthy of praise. I also applaud his celebrating it in a low-key manner. With the nation facing trying economic times, this message of prudence needs to be conveyed from the highest levels of our leadership. Further, the Sultan’s gesture while seemingly symbolic portends far more significant changes.

I am surprised that this is not more recognized and lauded by our intellectuals and pundits. Perhaps they too are eagerly waiting for their own little title and accompanying tinplate.

The Sultan in his capacity as King is also imparting his important message to the Prime Minister. Abdullah, his humble beginnings in the village and his very public displays of piety notwithstanding, has shown a detestable fondness for things luxurious since becoming Prime Minister. Witness his RM 250 million corporate jet! Prudent spending is not his strength.

For a culture that does not normally recognize birthdays, Malaysians have taken up this Western cultural artifact with gusto. This is especially so with the royalty. The investiture ceremonies associated with such birthdays would stretch for days, with the Prime Minister and other top officials having to be in attendance at all times, thus distracting them from their regular work. Not that they are any good or effective when they are in their offices!

Apart from the King, Malaysia has nine sultans as well as four sultan wannabes in the person of state governors. With 14 head-of-state birthdays to celebrate and heaps of honorifics to bestow, there is a glut of these titles.

It is not so much that I detest these ostentatious celebrations rather that I resent the wasting of precious taxpayers’ money. I could not care less if those sultans and governors were to throw private parties at their own expense.


Whom We Honor

We can tell much about a culture by whom it honors. Consider the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. Its recent honorees include not only prominent statesmen and distinguished scientists but also such varied talents as the Black neurosurgeon Ben Carson, singer Aretha Franklin, boxer Muhammad Ali, and banker Alan Greenspan.

For contrast, examine the recipients of Malaysia’s highest royal honor, the “Tun.” Perusing the list for the past decade or two, all the recipients were either retired civil servants or “has been” politicians. Some awards seem automatic, as for example, for the sitting Chief Justice. They all would get one, even those who would later bring disgrace to their office. I am astounded to discover that there are more than just a few of those renegade characters so honored!

The message is clear. To the mindset of our leaders, the only way to serve the nation is through the government, or at least by belonging to the right political party. Such a myopic view of the world!

One is readily inspired when reading the citations of those honored with the Medal of Freedom. Unlike the Medal of Freedom, there is no citation to go with awarding the Tun. One has to guess their achievements. “Googling” their names would be an equally fruitless exercise.

Musa Hitam and Lim Keng Yeik are recent recipients of the Tun. Yet what are their contributions to the nation? Yes they were former cabinet ministers, but what exactly did they achieve? As for former Chief Justice Ahmad Feiruz, another recent honoree, what were his landmark decisions? The nation should honor their contributions, not their positions.

I can recollect only a few honorees whose contributions were truly significant and thus deserve honoring. Our first Chief Justice, Tun Suffian Hashim was one, as well as the first Governor of Bank Negara Tun Ismail Ali. Both rightly belong in the same league as the late Tun Razak.

I once suggested to a graduate student looking for a topic for her dissertation to go over the list of our royal honorees to discern the pattern. Who do we honor as Tan Sri and Datuk? This would have been a doable project a decade ago. Alas today, with the avalanche of names, you would need superior computer and statistical skills to do a credible analysis.

It reflects the degradation of our culture that there is now a widely acknowledged “under the table” price for these titles. Consequently, today you are as likely to find such honorees on the criminal roster as on the palace invitation list.


Truly Modern Monarch?

Sultan Mirzan may be our youngest King but he has already shown his innovative streak early and quietly. Soon after his installation he directed that all palace functions must end early so as not to interfere with the following working day. How sensible! That royal mandate must have been a severe shock to those ministers and senior civil servants who would find any excuse not to be punctual at their offices.

During the massive Bersih rally in 2007, the King demonstrated his political subtlety and acumen by being conveniently out of the palace and yet opening its gate to the rally organizers. That was a direct public slap to Abdullah who had earlier declared “saya pantang di cabar!” (Do not challenge me!)

On a more substantive level, following the recent March election, Sultan Mirzan as the Sultan of Trengganu taught Prime Minister Abdullah a much needed lesson on the real meaning of royal “advice and consent” on appointing the state’s Chief Minister. As Abdullah was (still is) a slow learner, Sultan Mirzan had to deliver his message in no uncertain terms. It took some time and much public humiliation, but Abdullah did finally learn his lesson.

Sultan Mirzan through his actions and Raja Nazrin with his speeches represent the new generation of royals who are more attuned to the nuances of the delicate checks and balances provided for in our constitution. Such a function, which has been severely lacking, is necessary for an effective government. These royals are not at all shy in exercising their long-neglected oversight role.

The framers of our constitution in their wisdom had provided for, in addition to a bicameral Parliament, another entity, the King and his Council of Rulers, which in effect is the Third House of Parliament. While it cannot initiate legislations nonetheless it has the power to review laws passed by Parliament. At least that was the situation until Mahathir amended the constitution.

Additionally, the consent of this Third Parliament is needed in making senior appointments. In matters pertaining to Islam, this Council rules supreme. This fact was brought to the fore during the recent imbroglio over the transfer of senior religious officials in Perak.

I hope these tentative ventures towards a more activist role for the King and his Council of Rulers would expand, with the King taking his “advice and consent” role more positively a la the United States Senate. While I do not expect open hearings I do hope the Council would carefully vet in private candidates for senior appointments and not merely rubberstamp the nominees of the Prime Minister.

This would restrain the current unchecked powers of the executive and correct the current imbalance that has tilted for so long towards it. At least that is one side benefit albeit unintended to Abdullah’s weak leadership. It allows the King and his brother rulers to re-exert their constitutional power. That can only be good for the nation.

Sultan Mirzan’s cancellation of the royal investiture on the occasion of his birthday should be viewed in this light. I hope he would venture beyond and usher our Third House of Parliament to its original proper oversight role. If he were to do that, then he and his fellow sultans would have justified the high cost of maintaining them, quite apart from earning the gratitude of their subjects. Besides, that is a far more crucial role than passing out fancy sashes and tin plates on their birthdays.

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