A QUOTE by the Perak sultan, cited by many political commentators and legal minds to illustrate the ruler’s contradiction in his decision not to dissolve the state assembly, may have been taken out of context.
“Under normal circumstances, it is taken for granted that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong would not withhold his consent to a request for dissolution of Parliament. His role under such a situation is purely formal,” wrote Sultan Azlan Shah in an essay titled The Role of Constitutional Rulers.
The essay is included in Constitutional Monarchy, Rule of Law and Good Governance, a collection of writings by the Perak ruler and former Lord President of the Federal Court, published by Thomson Sweet & Maxwell Asia in 2004.
In a blog post titled Najib should stop illegal and unconstitutional power grab in Perak, DAP national advisor Lim Kit Siang cited Sultan Azlan’s statement in his argument that Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s bid to take over the Perak government was unconstitutional.
The Perak crisis saw the Barisan Nasional (BN) wresting state assembly control from the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) after two assemblypersons left Parti Keadilan Rakyat and one left the DAP to become independents who are “BN-friendly”.
Malaysiakini‘s K Kabilan also quoted the sultan’s words, saying that “with the political power play coming into the picture, it will not be a surprise if the sultan decides to act against his own writing in acceding to Najib’s request rather than dissolving the state assembly.”
Wong Chin Huat, writing for The Nut Graph, styled the sultan’s words as “authoritative” in proving that “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.”
However, a close reading of Sultan Azlan’s essay reveals that his meaning may have been misconstrued. The ruler’s oft-quoted comment on the formal role of the Agong in giving his consent to a request for dissolution of Parliament was referring specifically to normal circumstances.
The current Perak crisis is far from normal.
In a section titled Dissolution of Parliament, Sultan Azlan wrote that “there had not been any occasion when the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in his discretion has withheld his consent to a request by the prime minister to dissolve Parliament.
“This is because no prime minister has ceased to command a majority in the Dewan Rakyat,” he wrote.
The sultan cited the 1982 general election, which was held one year before it was due. He noted that public speculation centred on then Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was expected to pick a date favourable to the BN.
“There was no evidence, at least in the press, that anybody ever thought of the possibility that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong might withhold his consent,” Sultan Azlan wrote.
He said this clearly showed that “under normal circumstances … [the Yang di-Pertuan Agong's] role … is purely formal”.
With this in mind, a reader may conclude that the current Perak crisis cannot be categorised as part of the “normal circumstances” that Sultan Azlan alluded to.
In his essay, the sultan also discussed the 1977 Kelantan constitutional crisis, which saw the Kelantan regent withholding assent to dissolve the state assembly, as per the request of then Menteri Besar Datuk Mohamed Nasir.
Amid in-fighting in PAS, Mohamed Nasir had ignored the party’s efforts to remove him for allegedly defying party instructions. This led to demonstrations, which involved violence.
The federal government declared a state of emergency in the state, and only when this was lifted did the regent consent to dissolve the state assembly for fresh elections.
“In this incident, it appears that the federal government had some influence over the state ruler in the exercise of his discretion with regard to the dissolution of the state legislative assembly,” Sultan Azlan wrote.
However, the former Lord President was silent as to the propriety of this perceived interference.
See also: Not treasonous to question Sultan