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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, February 15, 2009

Sultans Must Read Their Subjects Well

The current tussle between the Sultan of Perak and his Pakatan Chief Minister is not the first, nor will it be the last, such crises in the country.

Contrary to the assertions of constitutional scholars and legal practitioners, this is not a legal issue. Its solution does not lie with the court system. Nor does it require of us to return to the old feudal ways of blind loyalty to the sultan, as some traditionalists would wish.

I am not surprised that Sultan Raja Azlan, a former chief justice, would view this as a legal matter. However, the reputation and salvation of Raja Azlan specifically, and that of the institution of sultans generally, would require of him to look beyond the law for a solution. Anything less and he would risk our country degenerating into another Thailand, cursed with endless constitutional and political crises. Coming as it is during these trying economic times, it would also be a major distraction, one we could do without.

The continued relevance and indeed survival of our sultans depend on their ability to read the rakyats’ mood correctly, not on some cultural traditions, court precedents, or political expedience.

Lessons From The Past

Past experiences have shown that it was rare for the sultans to emerge from these political crises with their reputations enhanced, or the institution of royalty strengthened. Even when the sultans emerged as heroes, they exposed their blemishes. Raja Azlan needs to be extra diligent to make this episode the exception. Thus far it has not been promising.

Consider the Malayan Union fiasco in 1946. The sultans meekly agreed to the British “suggestion” of turning the country into a dominion. Whether it was British perfidy or the sultans’ stupidity, the result was the same. The price tag too was modest: piddling pensions and perfunctory visits to Buckingham Palace for the sultans. As a sweetener, just in case, they were awarded the knighthood of some medieval English order.

Fortunately their subjects, then almost exclusively Malays, were not as meek, or easily hoodwinked and cheaply bought. Under the leadership of the late Datuk Onn, the Malay masses, on the pretext of paying homage, descended upon the palace in Kota Baru where the rulers had gathered. They effectively prevented the sultans from leaving the premise to ratify the agreement with the new British governor, effectively scuttling the treaty. Thus ended the brief and naked British power grab.

It was also a devastatingly effective demonstration of the halus (refined) ways of our culture. Fortunately the sultans correctly read the subtle message from their rakyats. Good thing too, for had it not been for those village peasants intervening, our sultans would today be reduced to the status of the Sultan of Sulu. Today’s highflying sultans must be reminded of this – and often – lest they forget, as they are wont to.

Less than a decade later with the Federation of Malaya replacing the Malayan Union, and with the sultans securely ensconced in their palaces, this delicate balance between the ruler and the ruled would once again be tested, this time in the negotiations for independence. It turned out that our sultans were less than enthusiastic with the idea, at least initially. Not an unreasonable posture, considering the fate of their brother hereditary rulers in independent India and Indonesia.

Fortunately the sultans again correctly read the rakyats’ mood. After all, the pro-independence Alliance coalition scored a near total victory in the 1955 general elections. Despite that, those rulers did not give in easily. They demanded – and received – assurances that their royal status would be enhanced. Indeed the Reid Commission tasked with drafting a constitution for the new nation codified the role of the sultans beyond their being mere feudal heads of their respective states.

The new constitution provided for a new national body, The Council of Rulers, headed by a “King” to be chosen from among his brother rulers. Unlike real kings however, the new Agong would, apart from being “elected,” have a limited tenure of only five years – unheard of for any royalty anywhere. Further, this Council would have veto authority on legislations passed by the bicameral (House and Senate) Parliament.

Functionally this Council of Rulers would thus be a Third House of Parliament, a miniature House of Lords but with an exclusive membership of only nine sultans. This enhanced status of the sultans also satisfied the Malay masses, feeding their vanity patriotism of Ketuanan Melayu.

With their now elevated status and considerably more generous civil allowances, our royal families soon acquired regal tastes beyond what they could have imagined in their kampong days. Now they compare themselves not to the Sultan of Sulu but the Queen of England and oil-rich Middle Eastern potentates. Actually, closer to the Arab potentates! Our sultans lack the social finesse and regal restraint of Windsor Castle but have all the excesses and vulgarities of the House of Saud.

Time has a way of eroding the wisdom acquired from earlier experiences. Royal excesses soon knew no bounds; it would only be a matter of time when the sultans would clash with the elected leaders. By mid 1980s the sultans would face an adversary in the person of Prime Minister Mahathir, a leader whose heritage and upbringing would put him not in the least in awe of things royal.

On taking on the sultans, Mahathir precipitated a severe constitutional crisis. He prevailed but the price was high. Mahathir had to unleash his hound dogs in the mainstream media to uncover every royal transgression, venal and minor, real and imagined, in order to discredit the sultans. It was not pretty.

While Mahathir effectively clipped the wings of these highflying sultans, they could still fly high and far. Barred from meddling in political matters, they found a lucrative niche in commerce. With that they could acquire the latest luxury jets to fly to their favorite distant casinos.

Political Tsunami Impacted the Sultans

Things would have remained the same, with the royals indulging their newfound wealth, had it not been for the political tsunami that swept Malaysia in the March 2008 election. Sensing a leadership vacuum with the Barisan coalition now crippled, the sultans began flexing their muscles. Pakatan leaders, uncertain of their new role, did not quite know how to handle these newly assertive sultans. By default and fearful of appearing to challenge the Malay sultans, Pakatan state leaders readily gave way to the sultans in Perak, Kedah and Selangor.

Even in states where Barisan did not lose, as in Trengganu, the sultan there was not shy in asserting himself. In no uncertain terms and without any hint of subtlety the Sultan of Trengganu rebuffed the UMNO leadership and succeeded in having an individual more to his liking to be the new chief minister. Prime Minister Abdullah was impotent; his candidate was summarily rejected by the sultan.

Not to be outdone, a few months later the Sultan of Perak intervened in the micro management of the state over the transfer of a junior functionary in the religious department, on the pretext that matters pertaining to Islam are the exclusive preserve of the sultan. His claim was not challenged.

Nature abhors a vacuum; a weakened Barisan and as yet uncertain Pakatan Rakyat created this opportunity for the sultans to reassert themselves.

What surprised me is that this power grab is being led by a sultan who is generally acknowledged as the most enlightened of the lot, having served as the nation’s chief justice and who has as his crown prince an intellect schooled in the finest universities of the West. That they chose to revert to their feudal past given the slightest chance was a great disappointment.

This power struggle between the sultans and the political elite, and among the political leaders, would not interest me except that it deeply polarizes Malaysians. That this polarization transcends race is no consolation.

After over half a century of dominant one-party rule, the country unsurprisingly has difficulty adjusting to the possibility of a minority or even change in government. This adjustment is most difficult on current leaders. Things would have been difficult even if the sultans were to play their constitutionally assigned role of honest brokers, but with their trying to reassert themselves, it makes for a combustible combination.

The other consequence to this power struggle is that the institution of sultan will never again be the same. The oxymoronic expression of ousted Perak Mentri Besar Nizar Jamaluddin, “Patek menyembah memohon derhaka!” (roughly translated, “Pardon me for my peasant insurrection!”) will now be part of our lexicon. More significantly, his Jebat-like stance has all the makings of a modern day Malay heroism. This powerful imagery is now indelibly etched in our Malay psyche.

It is not the sight of citizens giving the Perak crown prince the middle finger that stunned me rather that this was done so openly, spontaneously, and in-your-face style. The sultan’s website (put up initially to demonstrate a royal family very much in tune with its Internet savvy citizens) had to be deactivated as it was quickly filled with shocking insults. Even former Prime Minister Mahathir felt compelled to condemn those attacks.

It matters not; the genie is now out of the bottle. The sultans are now no longer what they once were. I do not lament this; I just hope that the sultans recognize this sea change in their subjects.

Nor do I miss the days of a strong and dominant government. That would be good only if the leaders were fair, honest and competent. Saddam Hussein’s government was strong and dominant; look at the devastations it created.

Canada has a tradition for minority governments, and its citizens are not at all ill served by that. Indeed there is considerable merit in having a divided or minority government. That would be the most effective system of checks and balances.

With a deeply polarized citizenry, the days of a supra majority government are gone. It is for this reason we must have an institution like the sultan that can act as an honest broker so as to maintain political neutrality and stability. Now that too is gone. That is what disappoints me most with this latest political crisis in Perak.

If a sultan as enlightened as Raja Azlan could not disentangle himself from this political morass, we have little hope that the other sultans would be any better.

There is a silver lining to all this. Thanks to Nizar’s Jebat-like stance of “Patek menyembah mohon derhaka!” Malaysia will never degenerate into an absolute monarchy. That indeed is a blessing!


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