Categorised | Columns

Perak must not fail

Corrected 1.40pm, 7 Feb 2009


Signboard maker in Ipoh (© Alex Moi / flickr)

A FAILED state is a state losing its ability to govern and exercise authority. Text-book examples include Sudan, Somalia, Zimbabwe, Iraq and Afghanistan, countries that we would never compare Malaysia to.

The Fund for Peace, a US think tank, listed 12 indicators of state vulnerability.

Unfortunately, one of the state-vulnerability indicators, “criminalisation and/or delegitimisation of the state”, is now emerging in the state of Perak. The resistance by certain elites to political representation, accountability and transparency, has led to widespread loss of popular confidence in the state’s institutions and processes.

If police violence and political persecution are inflicted there on citizens defending democracy, then another indicator of state failure, “widespread violation of human rights”, sets in.

Technically, Perak will never be a failed state because it is part of the federation of Malaysia and not a sovereign state. However, that is no comfort so long as there is a part of the Malaysian federal state that has failed.

This situation should not have happened in the first place. This year is not only the silver jubilee of Sultan Azlan Shah’s reign, but also the golden jubilee of elected state government in Malaysia’s second-oldest sultanate.

Regime change


Datuk Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir,
from BN, is the new Perak MB
(source: psuk-majlis.perak.gov.my)

As of 3.30pm on 6 Feb 2009, Perak now technically has two menteris besar — one democratically-elected, the other installed by the Barisan Nasional (BN) after claiming victory by defections.

An important principle to understand during such a political confrontation is that while it was the Sultan’s prerogative to dissolve the legislature, this prerogative does not mean that the decision lies in his hands alone. 

The royal prerogative is supposed to be a part of the larger constitutional check-and-balance mechanism between the executive and legislative in parliamentary democracies. The legislature, namely opposition members and government backbenchers, may bring down the government through no-confidence votes. In return, the government may seek dissolution of the legislature so that both sides face the judgment of voters.

The royal consent, or presidential/gubernatorial consent in republics, is merely supposed to prevent the chief executive from abusing this position. In other words, the discretion need not be exercised by the head of state — in Perak’s case, the Sultan —  when there is no abuse by the head of the government — the menteri besar.


Istana Iskandariah in Kuala Kangsar (© Pedro Plassen Lopes / flickr)

And who could be more authoritative in this matter than the former Lord President-turned-Ruler, Sultan Azlan Shah?

In his 2004 book Constitutional Monarchy, Rule of Law and Good Governance, the learned Sultan expressed his view categorically:

“Under normal circumstances, it is taken for granted that the Yang diPertuan Agong would not withhold his consent to a request for the dissolution of Parliament. His role is purely formal.” (Emphasis mine).

Power to hire, not fire

Another principle to understand during the current public confusion is this: a menteri besar can only be removed by a vote of no-confidence in the assembly. The Ruler has only the power to hire but not to fire.

Not unlike what Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has done in Perak in 2009, Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman orchestrated a revolt of Sarawak lawmakers against the outspoken Iban Chief Minister Datuk Stephen Kalong Ningkan in 1966.


Tunku Abdul Rahman
(public domain / wikipedia)

When the Sarawak state governor showed him a top-secret letter of no-confidence issued by 21 out of 42 legislators and asked Ningkan to resign, the chief minister refused. Ningkan said the letters were not tantamount to a vote of no-confidence in the state legislative assembly.

He was sacked by the governor but eventually reinstated by the Borneo High Court, which saw the necessity of a formal vote of no confidence.

In his judgement, Harley A-G OCJ ruled that the governor can only dismiss the chief minister when both these conditions are satisfied:

“(a) The chief minister has lost the confidence of the House, and

“(b) The chief minister has refused to resign and failed to advise a dissolution.”

The principles about a no-confidence vote and royal consent are very much the core of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. Violating them is not merely changing the government of the day, it is changing the very political system we are in.

It then becomes regime change, not a mere government change.

Abusing Nizar for sticking to his guns will not do, for this is the exact circumstance the mechanism of dissolution is designed for.

And if the political system is changed via extra-constitutional means, it is effectively a coup against the current constitutional setting.

Crisis-turned-coup

Flowing from the principles discussed above, these are the facts:

  1. Until and unless Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin is removed by a no-confidence vote or resigns of his own accord, he is the rightful and only menteri besar of Perak Darul Ridzuan. His executive council the only rightful government as per Article 16 of the State Constitution of Perak. This point has been categorically stated by the highly respected prince Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.
  2. Any act to vacate the office of menteri besar and the executive council, and any advice to that effect is extra-constitutional.
  3. Even if sworn in, the new menteri besar and the new executive council are illegitimate.

All actions by all the actors have now become constitutionally significant, either for or against the highest law of the state.

Nizar and his executive council’s attempt to carry out their business as usual is therefore the most patriotic and loyalist act in defending the state constitution, and by extension, parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy.

The Parliamentary Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim is right that this is not a collision against the palace.


Nizar is being loyal to the rule of law
(© hussein / wikipedia)

On the contrary, Nizar will go down in history as a defender of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy in the 481-year-old Sultanate of Perak, politically one of the most developed states since the 1950s. He is being loyal to the political system, to the rule of law.

The subjects of Perak and citizens of Malaysia who choose to stand by the loyal menteri besar are similarly upholding rule of law and the political system.

In 1984, the year that Sultan Azlan Shah succeeded the Perak throne, he aptly defined the rule of law when delivering the 11th Tunku Abdul Rahman lecture in November:

    The rule of law means literally what it says: The rule of the law.

    “Taken in its broadest sense this means that people should obey the law and be ruled by it.

    “But in political and legal theory it has come to be read in a narrow sense, that the government shall be ruled by law and be subject to it.

    “The ideal of the Rule of Law in this sense is often expressed by the phrase ‘government by law and not by man’.”

The Sultan’s refusal to dissolve the state legislative assembly upon request by the menteri besar was controversial. When the Sultan instructed the menteri besar to resign, the controversy became a constitutional crisis. But when the Sultan swore in the BN-installed menteri besar, he effectively conjured a new government to parallel the existing, democratically-elected one. This effectively turned the crisis into a “coup”.

Pushing the constitutional crisis into a constitutional coup is disastrous both politically and economically.

(corrected) The last of such coups happened in Sabah in April 1985, half a year after Sultan Azlan Shah’s speech. At that time, Datuk Seri Joseph Pairin Kitingan’s Parti Bersatu Sabah won a slim majority. But in a dramatic development following the counting of votes, a delegation headed by Tun Mustapha Harun of the United Sabah National Organisation went to governor Tun Mohamed Adnan’s official residence in the early hours of 22 April and got Adnan to swear Mustapha in as chief minister. Later the same morning, Adnan revoked the appointment and then swore in Pairin as chief minister due to huge public pressure.

The only democratic way out of this mess now is for the Pakatan Rakyat to challenge the legality of the BN government in court. The courts are the last resort to save democracy in Perak.

Ipoh, the next Bangkok

A growing crisis will not only reduce stable Perak in 2009 to a chaotic Sabah of 1985, but may also push Malaysia to become another Thailand.


The Government House in Bangkok during the siege by anti-government demonstrantors , August 2008
(© Craig Martell / flickr)

Constitutional crisis is costly. These are Thailand’s estimated and expected losses from its 2008 crisis: a damage of USD8 billion in the entire economy in 2008; a 9% drop in tourist arrivals from 2008 to 2009; and possibly one million job cuts in the tourism industry in 2009.

A fresh poll will channel political passions into positive competition. So, why must we risk Ipoh becoming a Little Bangkok? Some may prefer a BN state government, but why at all costs? Why not just call for snap elections?

It’s time for Sultan Azlan Shah’s good sense from 1984 to prevail: “Government by law, not by man.”


An anak Perak, Wong Chin Huat feels like a man in exile as his home state is threatened by kleptocracy and betrayal of the highest order. He will wear a black ribbon in protest and mourning, and urges fellow Malaysians to do the same. He is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade.

See also:

Snap poll best bet

Nik Aziz says to respect Sultan’s decision

Bar Council urges respect for Sultan’s decision

Not in constitution, but sultan can dismiss MB 

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22 Responses to “Perak must not fail”

  1. elizabethwong says:

    Democracy is worth fighting for … we have to stand our ground and uphold our basic human right, the right to choose. We will use the due process and pray for God’s deliverance. I agree with your call to show our displeasure by wearing a black arm band.

  2. Capz says:

    I disagree, it is time that Malaysians stop being so politically naive as to accept the monarchy as a check and balance on our democracy. They were never elected nor is there any kind of qualification to become a king other than to be born into it. To make things worst kings are not even accountable of their decisions, if they make bad decisions they can still stay as a king. The only exception is if they commit criminal activities. If people still believe that they’re a check and balance on the government then who is checking and balancing the kings?

    Therefore it shouldn’t be far fetched to say that the kings should never be involved in politics to begin with. However the PR made huge blunders after the general election when they started politicising the kings and their rights and when BN was trying to get their choice of MBs elected in a few states and the kings were rejecting them. Rather than supporting democracy, PR reinforced the so called “rights” of the king.

    In my opinion, when the monarchy has more power or rights than it should it will cause great instability. Look at Thailand, it is because the monarchy has a hand in politics that there are so much political problems.

    That is not a route we would like to go down where monarchies start to take sides and exert power as they wish. It would do us well to just stick to our constitution.

  3. Maozi says:

    We are with you Chin Huat.

    I’ll find a black band too.

    Pray for the best for Perak, and Malaysia.

  4. Andrew I says:

    Come now, it’s very unlikely that Ipoh could become the next Bangkok.

    It isn’t anywhere near, how do our newsreaders pronounce it, Thighland.

    Sorry, a little comic relief.

  5. justine says:

    Speech about good governance of the people and for the people were spoken by HRH the Sultan of Perak during his Silver Jubliee celebrations.

    But alas, it was just academic only. When the moment came to walk the talk, it was not to be.

    History will judge this moment as one of the most critical episodes of the Sultan’s rule which will leave a blemish in Perak’s political history.

  6. Kip says:

    Do what is right. We will support both morally and physically. Democracy must be upheld. Don’t let the country go to the dogs.

  7. Fair says:

    Well argued and well written article.

    Indeed 5th February 2009 is a dark and sad day for Malaysia in general and Perak in particular.

  8. jeagerlange says:

    “On the contrary, Nizar will go down in history as a defender of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy in the 481-year-old Sultanate of Perak, politically one of the most developed states since the 1950s. He is being loyal to the political system, to the rule of law.”

    Very well said. Everyone including the palace and the court of justice must play its role effectively to uphold the constitution and the democratic principles it is supposed to defend for its own survival. Fairness and justice must always prevail and must be seen to be so. Talk the talk and walk the talk. Words alone without corresponding actions are dead!

  9. PM says:

    The Sultan has failed democracy. He has also shown his true colour – it is certainly not one of democracy, morality, reasonableness and fairness. His error of judgment, by counting the numbers and not looking at the bigger picture, will bring him scorn and disrespect when he was once held in the highest regard by his rakyat.

  10. sonyliew says:

    You are right, the Ruler has only the power to hire, not fire. To fire, you need a vote of no confidence of at least two-thirds of the state assembly. And I doubt that it would have been a success since BN would need to buy nine more PR Aduns. And they have not gone through all these to gain power. The world DEMOCRACY is missing from their dictionaries?

  11. chinhuat says:

    Thanks for wearing black bands, Maozi and fellow Malaysians.

    To Capz, I agree that the best lesson from the betrayal of the highest order in Perak is that we must not count on unelected institutions (except the judiciary) like the monarchy to play the pivotal role to defend democracy.

    Too many Malaysians were happy when the Rulers pulled Umno’s leg in Terengganu and Perlis. If a new PR government were formed in Negeri Sembilan through defection with royal blessings, perhaps many might not protest either.

    (This column has always argued for fresh elections when a government is toppled. http://thenutgraph.com/lets-have-fresh-elections)

    We must learn that double standards are a double-edged sword that will eventually hurt us. As Khay Peng aptly argued, the Perak fiasco is perhaps the kick-in-the-butt that Anwar and PR needed.

    Having said that, we can’t do away the role of monarchy in politics as long as we remain a constitutional monarchy. In other words, if the monarchy is a given, all we can and must do is to ensure it being constitutional than arbitrary or absolute.

    In fact, as long as we stick to a parliamentary system (instead of presidentialism), there will always be a check-and-balance relationship between the head of state and the head of government.

    In most parliamentary republics, presidents can press the brakes on request for parliamentary dissolution. So, we can’t just take away the royal consent.

    The way forward is perhaps to take a cue from Negeri Sembilan’s former regent, Tengku Naquiyuddin. (http://www.thenutgraph.com/reinstate-immunity-malay-rulers-tunku-naquiyuddin)

    He argued that immunity “needed to be reclaimed and reinstated for the constitutional monarchy to be restored its full sovereignty to play a more fitting and effective role in the 21st century as the guardian of the Federal Constitution.”

    If vulnerable Rulers cannot play the role of constitution guardians effectively, the solution is perhaps not to provide immunity to protect them from the consequences of their private activities, but to restrict the range of their private activities.

    After all, if elected parliamentarians (and by derivation, ministers) are not allowed to hold an office of profit (Article 48, Federal Constitution), shouldn’t the more important and unelected institution of monarchy stay out of business interests too?

    If one needs to choose between inheriting the throne (restricted to the first few positions in the line of succession) and pursuing business interests, then reigning can be a call of duty and potentially a truly valuable national service justified over great financial remuneration.

    Being a monarch will then be like holding the office of president in parliamentary republics, which should yield genuine respect and privilege amongst the citizenry.

  12. mohdamim says:

    I’ll find a black band too.

  13. LSW says:

    Please look into the provisions in the Federal Constitution and the Perak State Constitution. There you will see the slight difference between the two provisions. Majority of Members of the Parliament vs Majority of State Assembly.

  14. John316 says:

    Perhaps the sultan is a bit rusty in his knowledge of the law these days. It is very clear that he cannot sack the MB. All those fancy speeches by Raja Nazrin are just fancy speeches, nothing else. The real test is whether one can practise what one says. Now I don’t even bother to read his speeches in the newspaper. What a lot of verbal diarrhea.

  15. Mr Smith says:

    I love you, Wong. A wonderful write up. Please circulate this article to the whole country. You are also a defender of democracy. Thank you for this article. I call on MCA and Gerakan to defend democracy. Don’t destroy what we have built.

  16. gitf701 says:

    Your article is so so good. I’ve sent it to my company director who is from Batu Gajah.
    It took 14 days to get Nizar sworn.
    It took only 1 day to get Zambry sworn.
    Think about fairness….
    I am now convinced my MB is Nizar..no doubts about it.

  17. telanbara says:

    With the situation as it is today, with regards to the Perak fiasco, can the court be just and wise in their decision? If they are not, where can you go for redress?

  18. Antares says:

    Excellent analysis with head & heart in perfect alignment, Chin Huat. Bravo & thank you!

  19. Daniel C says:

    No money was offered but maybe bodies were? So blackmail maybe? Could someone have been caught on camera again in some hanky panky? Weren’t some Perak politicians caught with prostitutes or GROs or something a while back? Sigh. The oldest profession and the simplest trick in the book combined. Sure boleh.

    Well, if the corruption of individuals were not involved, I can certainly see national governments all over the world making good use of the economic situation to regain authoritarian power. “Terror” was loosing its manipulative effects, so now the “panic” about the economy is the best way to get the masses in check I guess.

    Nation-states and monarchies are such overly artificial and complex constructions that they will eventually, fail. All civilisations FAIL.

    Instead of banking our hopes on politicians and aristocrats, maybe we should concentrate our fight for human rights in the arts, language, culture and technology instead. The Romans with all their military might and political savvy cowed to the Greek arts and philosophy. Similarly, the Mongols and the Manchus did some assimilating too when they banged into China. People take a week off to celebrate their traditional holidays but only a day for the country.

    The Nut Graph should fund more cultural papers instead of bombarding over a dozen political articles on the same event. Be true to your tag line and pay attention into making intelligent sense of politics AND pop culture.

  20. Mitra Themis says:

    Chin Huat,

    In an ideal world, the Perak state assembly would have been dissolved to make way for snap polls. But that not being the case, the rakyat can only watch from the sidelines as this power play plays out to its grim end.

    I feel like we are slipping into a state of hopelessness that preceded the 2008 elections. Then, the whole country got a bounce but what goes up must come down and now we are going way down.

  21. KPrk says:

    Chin Huat, it’s my first day at work after the break and I’m wearing black. It’s a sad day, for my fellow Perakians.

    I am not in the position to comment on the constitution nor the crossover but I feel that if the rakyat wants a fresh election, the rakyat should get a fresh election.

  22. bongkersz says:

    It was Tun Abdul Razak behind the removal of Stephen Kalong Ningkan, not Tunku Abdul Rahman. Please get that right.


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