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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Sultans' Daulat is a Myth

The Sultans’ Daulat Is A Myth
M. Bakri Musa
(First of Three Parts)

Book Review:  Ampun Tuanku. A Brief Guide to Constitutional Government.  Zaid Ibrahim. ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2012.  ISBN 9 789675 266263 256 pp, RM

As a youngster in 1960 I had secured for myself a commanding view high atop a coconut tree to watch the funeral procession of the first King, Tuanku Abdul Rahman.  My smug demonstration of my perched position drew the attention of the village elders below. They were none too pleased and immediately ordered me down.  “Sultans have daulat,” they admonished, “you cannot be above them.”  Apparently even dead sultans maintained their daulat.  I did not dare challenge my elders as to what would happen once the king was buried; then we all would be above him.

            To put things in perspective, this attribution of special or divine powers to rulers is not unique to Malay culture.  The ancient Chinese Emperors too had their Tianming, Mandate from Heaven.  That however, was not enough to protect them.

            Even though it has deep roots in Malay society, this daulat thing is a myth.  The Japanese, despite their own “Sun Goddess” tradition, had no difficulty disabusing Malay rajas and their subjects of this myth.  The surprise was not how quickly the sultans lost their power and prestige, or how quickly they adapted to their new plebian status during the Japanese Occupation, rather how quickly the Malay masses accepted this new reality of their rajas being ordinary mortals sans daulat.

            Only days before the Japanese landed, any Malay peasant who perchance made eye contact with his sultan, may Allah have mercy on him for the sultan certainly would not.  When the Japanese took over, those rajas had to scramble with the other villagers for what few fish there were in the river and what scarce mushrooms they could scrape in the jungle.  Nobody was bothered with or took heed of the daulat thing.  So much for it being deeply entrenched in our culture!

            To pursue my point, had the Malayan Union succeeded, our sultans today would have been all tanjak (ceremonial weapon) and desta (headgear); they would have as much status and power as the Sultan of Sulu.  Across the Strait of Malacca, hitherto Malay sultans are now reduced to ordinary citizens.  They and their society are none the worse for that.

            Today’s slightly better educated Malay sultans and crown princes (there are no crown princesses, let it be noted) would like us to believe in yet another myth, this time based not on our culture but constitution.  They believe that it provides them with that extra “something” beyond their being mere constitutional head.

            This new myth, like all good fiction, has just a tinge of reality to it.  The Reid Commission had envisaged the Conference of Rulers to be the third House of Parliament, after the elected House of Representatives and the appointed Senate.  It would be a greatly reduced House of Lords as it were, to provide much-needed “final thought” to new legislations.

            That assumption had considerable merit, at least in theory.  As membership is hereditary, those rulers would be spared from having to pander to the masses as those elected Members of Parliament, or please their political patrons as with the senators.  Additionally, this third house would be non-partisan.

            An expression of this “Third House of Parliament” function is that all senior governmental including ministerial appointments have to be ratified by the Conference of Rulers.  However, unlike the transparent deliberations of the “advice and consent” function of the United States Senates where senior appointees are subjected to open confirmation hearings, the proceedings of the Conference are secret.  We know only those who have been accepted, not those rejected or why.

            Zaid Ibrahim’s Ampun Tuanku. A Brief Guide to Constitutional Government addresses what should be in his view the proper role of sultans in the Malaysian brand of constitutional monarchy, specifically whether they have this “something extra” beyond what is explicitly stated in the constitution.  As a lawyer Zaid is uniquely qualified to write on the matter.  He is no ordinary lawyer, having once headed the country’s largest legal firm and served as the nation’s de facto Law Minister.

            The title notwithstanding, this highly readable book is more persuasive than descriptive; more political science treatise, less legal brief.  The expository flow is smooth, logical and highly convincing.  It is refreshingly free of legal jargon or references to court cases that typically pollute commentaries by lawyers.  To Zaid, the constitution does indeed grant Malay sultans that something extra, but not in their capacity as the titular head of the government, rather as their being head of Islam and defender of the faith.

            Zaid explores the many wonderful opportunities possible as a consequence of this second function without having to invoke additional “special powers.”  I will pursue his novel ideas and wonderful suggestions later.  At 40 pages, his chapter on this issue (“The Rulers and Islamization”) is the longest, and deserves careful reading especially by the royal class.  He puts forth many innovative ideas that if pursued would benefit not only Malays but also all Malaysians.

            With active and enlightened engagement by the rulers and Agong, Islam would emancipate Malays just as it did the ancient Bedouins, and in the process enhance race relations.  That would be a pleasant if somewhat radical departure from the current environment where Islam not only deeply polarizes Malays but also sows much interfaith and interracial distrust.

            In all other aspects the sultans and Agong are bound by what is explicitly stated in the constitution.  Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, Zaid stresses, and our sultans and Agong must abide by the wishes of the rakyat as expressed through their elected representatives in the executive branch.  If citizens have made their wishes clear through an election that they would prefer a certain party and individuals to lead them or certain legislations enacted, the sultan must abide by that decision regardless of where his personal sympathy lies.

            In short, there are no penumbras of rights and privileges emanating from those hallowed clauses of our constitution.  The matter is clear:  Sultans are bound by the law.  Sultans cannot claim a penumbra of power based on daulat or divine mandate, as the Sultan as well as the Raja Muda of Perak tried to argue recently.  Daulat is fiction.

            This principle is central and must be defended against any incursion or erosion.  Zaid is rightly distressed, for example, when the Sultan of Trengganu (who was also the Agong at the time) prevailed in making his choice of Ahmad Said as Chief Minister when the citizens had explicitly elected the state UMNO leader Idris Jusoh.  This erosion was possible only because of the weak leadership of then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi.  Similar incursion occurred in Perak, this time on a much more blatant and ugly level.

            The situation in Perak is particularly instructive.  Before becoming sultan, Raja Azlan Shah once served as the country’s Chief Justice.  As Zaid reminds us in his book, in that capacity Raja Azlan clearly articulated that the powers of the Agong are well circumscribed by the constitution.  As sultan however, he claimed his “special powers.”  That was his justification for imposing his solution on the state’s political crisis during the post-2008 election crisis to favor the Barisan coalition.

            Such palace incursions and our acquiescence undermine the very principle of our democracy.  On a more practical level, if that proves to be the new norm, our chief and prime ministers would then be beholden to their Sultans and Agong, not the rakyat.  Our ministers (menteris) would then revert to their role in feudal Malay society, as hired hands of the palace and not the people’s chief executive.

            In a democracy, daulat (sovereignty) resides with the people, not the rajas.  Our constitution is clear on that point, as Zaid repeatedly reminds us.  We must constantly defend this principle lest it be eroded.

Next:  Part Two:       Origin of the Daulat Myth

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Najib Razak as Property Developer and Investmment Banker

Najib Razak as Property Developer and Investment Banker
M. Bakri Musa

With great fanfare, Prime Minister Najib Razak recently announced the mega property development, The Tun Razak Exchange (TRX).  The project would symbolize the nation’s aspiration to be “the leading global centre for international finance, trade and services.”

            Najib wants that to be his legacy.  Even if successful (and a very big if), it would simply be a physical monument, in the same manner that Petronas Towers is to Mahathir.  The only thing Malaysian or Malay about that much-hyped tower is the land on which it is sited.  Everything else – from the design, engineering and construction – was done by foreigners.  The only work done by a Malaysian (or Malay) was the ribbon cutting at the glittering opening ceremony.

            The legacy of Tun Razak the father is his imaginative rural development schemes, like the massive FELDA program that benefited millions of poor landless rural dwellers.  The beneficiaries, let it be explicitly stated in case this fact is missed, are mostly if not exclusively Malays.

            For Najib the son however, if TRX were to be successful, it would benefit leading global companies with their highly skilled and generously paid workers.  Those “knowledge workers” will most likely be expatriates, and if Malaysians, only those highly educated and proficient in the language of international finance – English.  Again, let it be said in case this fact too is missed, they will be mostly non-Malays.

            What an irony for a former UMNO Youth leader who once threatened to “bathe the keris with Chinese blood!”  Quite a transformation!
            Veering off the race angle, it will take more than grandiose skyscrapers to be a leading financial center and to attract global companies.  I would have much greater confidence in TRX’s success if the government were to simultaneously announce a comparable mega program to upgrade our universities (especially their economics and statistics departments as well as our business schools) so the nation would have the necessary brains to go with the brawns.  Thus far only one of the nation’s business schools (UPM) has international accreditation.

            This mega billion TRX, as with the recent Initial Public Offering of the massive FELDA Global Ventures (FGV), is orchestrated by the Prime Minister’s Department.  Najib Razak is now more property developer and investment banker when he should be the leader of all Malaysians and the nation’s chief executive.  There is no shortage of critical problems facing Malaysia.  If he needs any reminding, there are our crippling corruption, rotten education system, and our deeply polarized citizenry.  There are many others.

            Property development and investment banking are highly lucrative pursuits; I have no problem with either.  If Najib wishes to pursue both or either, he should join his brother in the private sector and quit being Prime Minister.  The awesome responsibilities of that high office are very different and much broader, not least of which is to help those who need it most, like those poor landless villagers, not global corporations or the highly educated.  They can take care of themselves, thank you very much.

The Cart Before the Bullock

On launching TRX Najib declared, “The Government will go out of its way to ensure that the exchange is a success and, as a first step, I can announce to you today that we will begin a comprehensive review of business regulations.”

            “Our logic behind this review is simple,” he continued, “anything that contributes to future progress stays, anything that is outdated goes.”

            Well and good!  I wish he had done that first.  That would also be less expensive.  Businesses and investors are less attracted by fancy buildings, high rents and generous incentives, more with ease of starting a venture, availability of talents, and most of all the prospects of healthy profits.  Have them and businesses as well as investors from all over will pour in.  They will then build their own mega headquarters.

            Of course the grueling work of modernizing the nation’s business regulations and enhancing the investment climate or modernizing our schools and universities, is not as sexy or attracts media attention as much as unveiling glossy models of skyscrapers.  In the long run however, the former would prove more effective and enduring.

            Singapore did not become a major financial center because of its gleaming skyscrapers.  Those were the result of the republic becoming a successful financial center.

            I would also have a much greater confidence of TRX’s success if at its launching Najib were to announce securing a major anchor tenant or two (other than a GLC of course), even if only with a letter of intent with oodles of wiggle clauses.

            My worst fear is this.  TRX may well prove successful, with all the major financial houses having their regional or even global headquarters there.  However, the only Malays you would see at the upper and middle echelon would the “non-executive” chairmen, directors of “government relations,” and public relations directors.  There will be other Malays of course, as security guards.  The highly-paid “knowledge workers” would be mostly non-Malays, thanks to our rotten national schools and public universities.  Even the janitorial jobs would be taken by the Benglas!  That would be Najib’s legacy as property developer.

            Yes, that would be an improvement over the Petronas Towers project, but by not much.

            Consider Najib the investment banker.  His latest IPO, FGV, is by all measures wildly successful.  It was the largest globally after Facebook, and unlike it, FGV’s stocks soared.

            For a dose of reality however, visit the typical FELDA plantation and settlement.  The standard of living and lifestyle of those settlers are no better from that of their parents and grandparents.  Their roads are still unpaved and they still lack electricity and potable water.  On the plantations, those palm nuts, the ultimate source of FGV riches, are still harvested in the same manual and inefficient method as they were half a century ago, with the nuts carried over the workers’ shoulders.  There are no trucks with hydraulic lifts to help the workers harvest the nuts, no conveyor belts to load those nuts onto the trucks.

            Equity markets and stock exchanges are alien to these settlers.  Their more immediate problem is to feed and clothe their families.  To them, TRX would prove to be nothing more than those expensive boondoggle tricks that Najib continues to perpetrate on his people, especially Malays.  Yet we continue to be mesmerized by and pin our hopes on him and his grandiose projects.  When will we wake up?