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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, November 29, 2020

Sultans As Barnacles On Malay Socitey

 Race, Religion, And Royalty:  The Barnacles On Malay Society



Introduction:  Sultans As Barnacles


(Last of Four Parts)


Conflicts between Malay sultans and their subjects have long been a constant feature in Malay society, as attested both in our history as well as literature and folklores.


Recalling examples from my memory, the sultans–all of them–were against Malaysia’s independence! Seeing what had happened to their kin in India and Indonesia, the position of Malay sultans was understandable though still not pardonable.


A decade earlier in 1946, the sultans ceded the nation’s sovereignty to the British, in effect turning Malaysia into a permanent British Dominion. Only a massive and peaceful rally by the rakyat (citizens, exclusively Malays then) made the British see the folly of their decision. They withdrew that Malayan Union Treaty despite the sultans having signed it.


More recent were isolated incidents of frustrated citizens acting out their anger over egregious conducts of various individual sultans. There was the celebrated case of one Private Adam who went amok with an M-16 rifle in hand, rampaging through the streets of Kuala Lumpur in protest of the killing of his brother by a member of the royalty who would later become King of Malaysia.


With the help of skillful lawyers and slick public relations, that account is today relegated to being just an urban legend. Private Adam was found not guilty on account of temporary insanity. As per the official narrative, he never had a brother and that he had a “troubled childhood,” hence the amok.


What is not in doubt is that the royal person involved (he went by the name of Mahmud then), was convicted of manslaughter in a case involving yet another victim. Only a pardon by his father, then Sultan of Johore, saved Mahmud. He, or Iskandar going by his later official name, was the only King in Malaysia and the world to have been convicted of killing someone.


Being born and bred near the royal town of Sri Menanti, I too have seen far too many examples of royal excesses. They were not enough for me to revolt or run amok. Instead I chose to get out of their way whenever possible.


To take a broader perspective, the Malays in the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as in Southern Thailand, have been without their sultans for generations. In Brunei they are still very much enamored with their erratic and medieval-minded sultan. Within Malaysia, Malays in East Malaysia as well as in Malacca and Penang have long ago been spared the burden of having sultans.


For most Malays, as well as for most of Malay history, not having sultans was the norm.


The concept of sultan in Malay society too needs critical examination. The current Sultan of Johore in one of his many moments of grandeur recently decreed that henceforth he should be addressed with the more exalted title of “His Majesty,” and not the hitherto traditional “His Highness.”


The British used that decorative appellation “His Highness” on Malay sultans for the specific purpose of disabusing them from having pretensions of being comparable to or on par with Her Majesty, the Queen of England. During the Japanese Occupation, the sultans dared not fantasize themselves being on par with The Emperor of The Sun, not even its bonsai version.


For Malay sultans today to equate or fancy themselves as being on par with the great kings and emperors would involve considerable “concept stretching,” to quote anthropologist Clifford Geerth. Their delusions of grandeur notwithstanding, Malay sultans are more African tribal chiefs than the Queen of England.


As is apparent, the performances of Malay sultans in history have not been praiseworthy despite their being regarded as Allah’s representatives on earth. That too–being head of Islam–was recent, springing from the colonialists’ decision to leave matters pertaining to Malay culture and faith to the sultans.


Culture encompasses a wide scope, leaving the colonials to tolerate the sultans’ abhorrent medieval habits as having multiple wives and concubines as well as slavery, however much those practices assaulted British sensitivity.


The portrayals of sultans in Malay literature and folklores too are far from flattering, in fact downright unsavory and disgusting. In canonic Hikayat Hang Tuah, the sultan commanded his chief knight to kidnap a maiden. The sultan was the law; no one dared contradict him. Everything on the land belonged to him, from the most beautiful village virgins to prized water buffalo bulls. Those evil medieval traits persist today, only the items coveted have changed to palatial palaces and prized timber concessions.


Malaysia today has a constitutional monarch, modelled after the British. That was achieved with no help from the sultans. They would rather remain absolute monarchs, hence their opposition to independence.


The sultans agreed to independence only after they were given heaps of special privileges. They were essentially bought or bribed. No wonder their later aberrant behaviors and egregious greed, which led the Washington Post to characterize Malay sultans as the “Monarchs of Mayhem.”


It took the murder of a hockey coach and a soldier running amok in the streets of Kuala Lumpur for a constitutional amendment in 1993, stripping those sultans of their immunity for their personal behaviors.


Nonetheless those aberrant behaviors continue. Today we have the King marrying a sultry Russian beauty queen, a wedding that lasted but a few months, with the headlines carrying lurid details contesting whose baby it was that was born very much shy of nine months following their wedding.


The fate and future of Malay sultans rest less with what is enshrined in the constitution, rather on their individual and collective behavior and conduct. Given a few more bad apples and it would not surprise me that they would soon be reduced to the status of the Sultan of Sulu.


Today’s Malaysians, more so Malays, are becoming less and less enamored with their sultans and are willing to voice that, often in very harsh language, when those sultans act inappropriately. That is a good development.


There is yet another aspect to my proposition that the institution of the sultans being a huge barnacle on Malay society. Malay leaders at all levels including the sultans are urging Malays to dispense with their special privileges crutch, to be not dependent on government and risk being reduced to being wards of the state.


That advice rings hollow. How could ordinary Malays be persuaded to give up their cherished special privileges when their leaders, especially the sultans, squat at the very top of the bountiful special privileges heap?


Returning to my opening proposition, Malaysia today faces a unique and dangerous challenge where forces aligned to race, religion, and royalty are coalescing to threaten the very future of Malays, and thus Malaysia. This threat is compounded by the fact that Malaysians, Malays and non-Malays alike, are blissfully unaware of this new emerging danger.


This volume, which contains my commentaries on race, religion, and royalty written during the past decade, is my effort to sensitize Malaysians to this clear and present danger.


So as not to leave on such a pessimistic note, I end the book with my observations on Anwar Ibrahim and the many bright new young stars he has attracted to his Parti Keadilan (Justice Party). I pray and hope that they would get to lead Malaysia, and soon. That would make my earlier pessimistic observations irrelevant and be of only historical interest.


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