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For the love of the sultan

Sultan Azlan Shah (Source:
AS in most other monarchies, Malaysians have been taught to love king and country. But rarely have we asked or been told why. This appeared to be okay until innocence was lost. For some of us, this occurred during the recent Perak crisis; for others, it could have occurred earlier. While innocence lost cannot be regained, it can be replaced with enlightened reconciliation and reasoned affection.

Enlightened reconciliation and reasoned affection — this is what is most urgently needed in Perak. This is especially true after a recent Merdeka Centre poll revealed that 74% of 507 Perak voters feel “the state assembly should be dissolved to pave the way for elections.”

Like the democratically elected Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, they have begged to differ with the sultan. In polite court address, they too have “menyembah mohon derhaka”.

Deputy Umno youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin and his supporters have suggested banishment for people who “defy” the monarch. Well, then, Perak’s neighbouring states — Kedah, Penang, Kelantan, Selangor, and Barisan Nasional (BN)-ruled Pahang — should be prepared to accept 882,953 political refugees, or 74% of Perak’s total electorate in the last elections. Ipoh would be a ghost town.

Dignified and efficient

Now is the time for Malaysians to truly understand why we should love the constitutional monarchy as we know it from its British or European origins.

King Louis XIV (Public domain)
In a typical absolute monarchy, the hereditary ruler enjoys absolute power and is unconstrained by a constitution or other institutions. Its extreme form was succinctly expressed by France’s King Louis XIV: “L’etat c’est moi” (“I am the state”). An absolute king is not only the personal embodiment of the state, but also effectively the head of government.

Historically, the democratisation of absolute monarchies took two different paths. In the US, after the war for independence (1775-1783), the king was replaced with a president, who is effectively an elected monarch. The US president is both the head of state and chief executive, whose power is checked only by Congress and the judiciary.

With the most profound change in the method of selection — from “genetic lottery” in royal succession to popular mandate via democratic elections — the presidential republic was born. 

Britain’s gradual transformation — beginning with the Magna Carta in 1215, ending with the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1689 — kept the hereditary monarchy. It merely changed from absolute to constitutional.

“Constitutional” does not merely refer to having a written constitution, like Malaysia, or a set of constitutional conventions and precedents, like the UK. The UK’s constitutional monarchy has the monarch as the state’s figurehead.

In other words, the head of state (the constitutional monarch) and the head of government (the prime minister) became separated in the UK. The prime minister, indirectly elected and checkable via no-confidence votes in Parliament, has exercised the real power in government.

Compare the constitutional British monarchy with the absolute Bruneian sultanate. Currently, the sultan is also the prime minister, defence minister and finance minister.

Walter Bagehot (Public domain)
What is the rationale of having a constitutional, passive monarch? Cynics in Britain will say the changing of the guard in Buckingham Palace and all the pomp and ceremony of Queen Elizabeth II are good for tourism. It is worth spending taxpayers’ money on the royals.

In 1867, the constitutional authority Walter Bagehot argued that a constitution should have two parts. The first part, what he called “the dignified”, is meant “to excite and preserve the reverence of the population”. The second part, or “the efficient”, is meant to “employ that homage in the work of government”.

In other words, the head of state must be above partisan politics because his or her main function is to unite citizens of different political persuasions.

Political parties may be at each other’s throats. Ultimately, however, one party or coalition will form His or Her Majesty’s Government while the other serves as His or Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

In this sense, “menyembah mohon derhaka” — a loyal plea for the ruler’s permission to oppose him or her — displays the true spirit of the Westminster constitutional monarchy.

Lovable rulers

In contrast, when the head of state is both symbolic and powerful, his or her function of dignity will be affected by the function of efficiency, positively or negatively.

Hence, with a popular president like Barack Obama, the esteem for the US presidency increases. However, with a polarising president like George W Bush, half of the population might have felt ashamed to be identified with the country.

Mr President (© art_es_anna / Flickr)
Bagehot’s insights were apparently shared by many European states — even when they decided to throw out their monarchies, they opted to have ceremonial presidents instead of executive presidents.

US-style presidentialism is mostly found in Latin America today. Few examples throughout the world can be considered successful. The bigger part of the democratic or democratising world chooses to become either parliamentary republics or constitutional monarchies.

If there must be one person whom everyone can look up and plead allegiance to, he or she must not be partial. The need to seek popular mandate in this sense has paradoxically become a disadvantage, making a dependence on the “genetic lottery” more sensible.

I would argue that this is the best defence for the constitutional monarchy. A head of state must be loved by all, for being loved by all is his or her main function. A hereditary head of state fits best — although inherited leadership flouts democratic ideals — because he or she is free from electoral pressures and can therefore be dignified.

But dignity of the palace, the very rationale of constitutional monarchy, could be at risk in Perak and perhaps the entire country.

This is the best time for true loyalists to offer their services to the throne. Restore that dignity so that the monarch remains loved by all.

If the majority of Perak subjects want fresh elections, then the only way to mend the fence is to call for fresh elections.

The Pakatan Rakyat is doing the rightful thing in their defence of the constitutional monarchy by asking the court to confirm the legality of their government. However, a favourable outcome for the constitutional monarchy might be a double-edged sword. People might ask why the Perak Sultan seemed to deviate from what he said in 2004, that a ruler’s role was “purely formal” — Bagehot says “dignified” — upon request to dissolve the legislature.

To prevent embarrassment to the palace, the best solution is for the BN-installed Menteri Besar Datuk Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir to request for dissolution of the assembly. That would make the Pakatan Rakyat’s constitutional suit academic.

The opinion poll result is a call of duty. If Zambry is a loyalist, now is the time for him to act accordingly. If the people want him, he may return as the 14th menteri besar after fresh elections. If they do not, why should he insist on staying and tarnishing the reputation of the 481-year sultanate?

While others may argue if Nizar is Hang Jebat or Tun Perak, this is a good chance for Zambry to play Hang Tuah.

For the love of the sultan, Zambry could ask urgently for the state assembly to be dissolved.

An anak Perak, Wong Chin Huat believes that good sense among the public must prevail to restore the dignity of constitutional monarchy, democracy and political stability in Perak and Malaysia. Tolerating political falsehood is as dangerous as taking fake medicine. A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, he is based in Monash University Sunway Campus.

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13 Responses to “For the love of the sultan”

  1. Theva says:

    Just a thought, isn’t the sample size of 507 too small to be making generalizations on the total population of voters in Perak?

  2. elizabethwong says:

    If only Najib would allow Zambry to heed your call.

    To do so, they not only save the monarchy from embarrassment, but also may help to regain support of some quarters in Perak. Still, since 8 March 2008, the BN had repeatedly done the very things that alienate the people from them. I had often wondered why. They don’t play smart, as in the case of Permatang Pauh. A sure-lose seat. If only they played the gentlemanly role and not contest and do a spin on it, they can save some face and walk dignified.

    Before March 2008, I was politically neutral though I voted opposition for check and balance every time. After March 2008, the BN’s lack of enlightenment, with absolute no remorse, and their “change” for worse just make me so angry. The things that the leaders say, just make me fume, because they often just talk, and take us rakyat for fools to believe them. The leaders just plain don’t respect the poeple, I think.

    I often wondered, such a powerful political alliance with access to the best brains and all the money needed to achieve anything, why all the fumbling after March 2008 still.

    Well, my conclusion is, BN is not able to help themselves. They have been blinded so much so that, as they walk nearer and never towards self destruction, they are still not aware.

    Don’t think I am talking mumbo jumbo. Just read the account about the pharaoh and Moses. Don’t you wonder, why did the pharaoh have to give in to Moses’s request only after 10 plagues? And even then, they go back on their words, and thereby being punished even further by the almighty?

    March 2008, in my mind, is not a man-made event. It is the culmination of the years of tyranny, wickedness and corruption. Because the people cried out to God for mercy, it has happened. Now God is saying to the tyrants of this country, “Let my people go!”

  3. Maozi says:

    True, if Zambry is rational, he now should call for dissolution of the state assembly, and by that shows that he is a politician of dignity and courage. If he really moves into the MB’s residence, he is really going to put himself in a shameful position, as Nizar has said, “Kalau dia tak malu.”

    However, I can bet my head that Zambry is not going to dissolve the assembly, even if he wishes to. Someone else has to be consulted, and that someone is definitely not going to be the Sultan of Perak.

  4. nightcaller says:

    MB Zambry will not seek audience with the sultan to dissolve the Perak state assembly for the best kept “public secret” i.e. BN will lose big if Perak goes for elections.

  5. felix says:

    The Malay rulers should understand that the rakyat is not at fault in the first place. It was the fault of BN and the sultan’s decision that started all this farce. Please remember that the Sultan of Perak was the most loved monarch of all and the rakyat was shocked and angry that the sultan had betrayed their love and trust. They just cannot accept that the sultan being learned could make such an unconstitutional blunder. They plead and plead for a reversal of his decision but the sultan was adamant and refuse to even give a statement for his rationale. What more with the rakyat so pleased with the PR govt. And do not approve BN at all.

  6. K Das says:

    The Sultan of Perak should have been more discerning and given much more weight to the mood and sentiments of Perak people. He was simply outwitted by Umno and now put in a quandary. All the king’s men cannot put humpty dumpty together. But your suggestion mercifully can.

    Zambry should call for dissolution of the State Assembly for fresh elections to take place. Concurrently PR and its affiliate parties and their agents should drop all legal moves to challenge the constitutional validity of the outgoing government or the decision of Perak Sultan. Zambry himself will earn goodwill and respect and his stock will rise considerably among some segments within Umno, giving him the political space to work with some good souls in the party like Tengku Razaleigh, Tengku Rithaudeen and one or two moderate cabinet ministers who may be holding their tongue for the time being for the right moment to come.

    Let us all restore the prestige of His Royal Highness. Another request for consideration. PR should not field a candidate against Zambry (provided he does not make provocative statements) should he decide to contest in the election. Should the people decide to chose BN over PR by any chance, this will enable him to return as the MB.

  7. sing says:

    A very good article – full of sanity in the midst of confusion and potential anarchy.

    But Zambry is a loyalist to Umno, and Umno has never been royalist.

    History has shown that Umno is anti-monarchist.

    Let Umno prove that I am wrong.

  8. Sunny says:

    I find your comment “To prevent embarrassment to the palace, the best solution is for the BN-installed Menteri Besar Datuk Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir to request for dissolution of the assembly. That would make the Pakatan Rakyat’s constitutional suit academic,” totally irresponsible! If Dr Zambry calls for the dissolution, isn’t he defying His Highness? When the learned sultan, who is a former Supreme Court Lord President, after studying the law carefully, decided not dissolve the assembly and appoint Dr Zambry menteri besar, How can you ask him to dissolve the assembly? It is totally irresponsible of you to ask the MB to defy the sultan. That is my humble opinion. You should ask Pakatan to respect the sultan and follow the law and not play-play around just to satisfy their lust (loss) of power.

  9. Socratestes says:

    Chin Huat, It behoves Najib and Umno, if they really loved the sultan, to insist that the ruler not get involved in politics. Wherever it has happened, not only Malaysia, no good has come of it. Then again, I am told that the palace was not so innocent in determining the outcomes. If this is the case then he has got his just desserts.

  10. Pratamad says:

    Thank you for a very enlightened piece. Those loyalists who have the chance to read this, hopefully are open enough to be enlightened. However, I truly doubt Zambry, after fighting so hard within Umno to be the MB of BN, would be “foolish” enough to call for dissolution.

    On the other hand, while the loyalists can and should advise the palace based on the people’s sentiment, ultimately only the sultan is responsible to uphold his own dignity as the constitutional monarch, and I am sure His Royal Highness knows full well that, “Raja adil raja disembah, raja zalim raja disanggah.”

  11. chinhuat says:

    A reply to Sunny: democracy is not static, so different decisions need to be “updated” to the change of events. HRH might think that the decision not to dissolve the assembly was one in the best interest of all and agreeable to by most, but the poll shows that three-quarters of the voters think otherwise.

    To insist on this situation means that the dignity of the palace will be constantly eroded. But by the logic of constitutional monarchy, HRH cannot dissolve the assembly as he wishes, he can only consent to a request.

    Hence, if Zambry truly loves the palace, it’s his duty to request for the dissolution of assembly in this new scenario. If HRH believes that his original decision is still valid, he can reject it again.

    As the words of wisdom quoted by HRH himself, “government by law not by man”.The law here is constitutional monarchy, not even the monarch.

    A true loyalist should be loyal enough to do whatever is best to defend the dignity of the institution. Going to court is what Pakatan Rakyat should be and is doing. Zambry’s job is to ask for dissolution. Period.

  12. Ellesse A says:

    I think this is an utterly desperate spin which I have enough of. Anywhere in a respected country where the majority has clearly lost support the head should morally and ethically tender his resignation. What more if the law says “he shall resign”. If he does not doesn’t the law deem the position vacated? The answer to this is simple.

    Assuming there is a vote of no confidence in the assembly and the MB does not resign, shouldn’t the law deem the position vacated in giving effect to “shall resign”? It must necessarily mean so. So the Sultan of Perak did not err. Next issue is must it be decided by the assembly? Here Nizar played fully loathsome politics. Any right-minded person would know Nizar lost his majority but unashamedly he wanted to cling to power. He did not want to call for a vote in the assembly because he would lose.

    So the next best thing is to ask for dissolution. If you are the sultan one important feature of democracy is that would you dissolve every time when some Aduns decided not to support the majority? There’s the same precedent in a country governed by minority or evenly-equaled government. Answer is no. So long they can govern and form a new coalition many countries did not go for dissolution. Otherwise it will be elections every year.

    This is a preposterous position, what more we’re having economic problems. The fact that two resigned is still disputed as they are politically engineered. So on balance of things sultan again has not erred. And to top this all it is his full discretion whether to dissolve and this is not justiciable. (See case law on exercise of discretion.) Thus any case against the sultan is frivolous and too many becomes contemptuous. How would you feel if someone takes a frivolous case against you for publicity or politics’ sake? Contemptuous. How would you feel if people spin an unbalanced and incorrect statement jeopardizing your reputation? In this case it’s the monarchy institution we respect? We respect it not because of any British historical precedent. It’s because since long ago and since young we have a value: “kesetiaan kepada raja”. A customary value we’ve held dearly.

    When sultan the has decided, and what more reasonably, you should follow and not play politics. Asking “kami pohon derhaka” for your own benefit is utterly despicable.

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