(Pic by hinks / sxc.hu) POLICE reports, bullets in the mail, angry protests and police interrogations. These are threats that have been expressed and carried out against individuals who have commented and criticised the monarchical heads in Malaysia. The monarchy appears to have garnered more media attention as newsmakers and opinion leaders in the last two years.
As the Head of the Federation and an institution of the Malays, discussing the royalty is largely a taboo for the general populace. Not unlike Thailand’s lese-majeste law, the Sedition Act, which was introduced in a period of high ethnic tension, protects Malaysian royalty under very broad provisions against defamation. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy where the rulers of nine states rotate on a five-year basis as Head of the Federation — the Yang diPertuan Agong — and perform legislative, executive and judiciary functions. At the state level, the sultans are guardians of Islam, and Malay language and customs.
The spotlight is now on the northern state of Perak. Its head of state, Sultan Azlan Shah, made a crucial decision to allow the Barisan Nasional (BN) to regain control despite losing the 2008 state election. The decision was made after several state assemblypersons from the elected state government coalition, the Pakatan Rakyat (PR), declared their independence from the PR and support for the BN. However, a public poll by the Merdeka Opinion Research Centre found that 74% of the people in Perak wanted a by-election to sort out the changes in state representation.
Karpal Singh, DAP chairperson — where the DAP is one of the partners in the PR — said that he would be filing a suit against the Perak sultan’s decision in a special court. Last year, Karpal also questioned the jurisdiction of the Perak royalty when it reinstalled the head of the state Islamic council, against a transfer ordered by the state government. In both cases, Karpal’s statements attracted death threats and a slew of police reports against him by individuals and members of political parties. In the latest controversy, Karpal received two bullets enclosed in a mailed envelope, spelling threats to him and his family members.
Umno’s shifting agenda
Also targeted in this episode were two bloggers: Ahiruddin Attan aka Rocky Bru, also president of the National Alliance of Bloggers, and Jed Yoong, a former writer for the DAP’s party organ, the Rocket. Ahiruddin was questioned by police on 24 Feb over comments left on his blog about the role of the monarchy by known and anonymous commentators. A day before that, the police interrogated Jed Yoong over her fiery critique of the monarch in a posting on 12 Feb. Yoong’s remarks drew the ire of the “Umno Virtual Club” (Kelab Maya Umno), which lodged the police report.
Mobilised by Umno, the dominant partner in the BN, public demonstrations in support of the monarchy were organised in Selangor, Malacca and Perak. The Umno-owned national daily, Utusan Malaysia, branded Karpal and former embattled Perak Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin as treasonous and seditious.
Umno’s agenda must be treated with scepticism, especially against the backdrop of the constitutional amendments in 1983 when the BN sought to curtail the powers of the Malay rulers. At that time, Umno led a public campaign against the royalty, which included public protests, suggestive movies on state-owned television networks, and exposés of royal excesses. The amendment was successful and royal assent of legislation is now a matter of protocol. A decade later, the BN government again amended the Federal Constitution to establish a special court to prosecute members of the royalty charged with criminal acts in their personal capacity.
The media’s role
(Pic by deFig / sxc.hu) These contradictions are not highlighted at all in the mainstream media, bringing into question the familiar spectre of political control in the newsroom. It is very clear that public discourse on the issue of the jurisdiction and powers of the royalty is tightly controlled. Umno-linked groups, media, and individuals have the monopoly of setting and swaying the national agenda.
The lack of critical journalism on constitutional and legal provisions means that those who choose to express their disagreements are seen as unpatriotic or worse, deserve to have their citizenship withdrawn. It is time for the public to be more mature in assessing information and their rights. It is also long overdue for the media to play its role to provide adequate and fair space for debate. Certainly, we do not want a situation where the mere mention of the royalty will draw the kinds of reactions we see in neighbouring Thailand.
Yip Wai Fong
Centre for Independent Journalism