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Reinterpreting “raja”

IN the wee hours of 9 March 2008, I waited until 3am before leaving my office, just to confirm that Perak had really got rid of its old regime. I also wanted to make sure that Malaysians would wake up embracing a new Malaysia where, joining Kelantan, four states would have gone through the political metamorphosis they had been longing for.

8 March did not only put an end to the old regime. It also signified the beginning of the end of an old political model while a new model was still being developed. To the 13 May generation, this was especially meaningful because of what they have been haunted with post-1969.

This time, bloody incidents á la 13 May did not take place. What a wonderful new Malaysia! It was as if the federal government had changed hands, although in effect it did not.

Today, one year after 8 March 2008, the same hope many of us felt has turned into mixed feelings in the midst of the political crisis in Perak.

Ruling options

Given the stalemate in Perak, many would say that the best option to uphold the country’s constitutional monarchy is for all parties to keep the rulers above the political fray. In this regard, what Perak Regent Raja Dr Nazrin Shah said prior to the Perak crisis is in line with public opinion:

“The ruler, as the head of state and country, needs to be neutral, nonpartisan and free of having personal interests to ensure justice for the people,” he said in a speech. This speech was significant in that he gave it during the Silver Jubilee celebration of Sultan Azlan Shah’s reign as the 34th Sultan of Perak, 3 Feb 2009.


(Raja Nazrin image © Ar Hilmy; source: Flickr)

Nevertheless, a significant series of events took place afterwards, involving the Perak palace, which was met with much public outcry. Today, it is to the interest of the Barisan Nasional (BN) regime that they continue manipulating the resultant public criticisms of the Perak sultan’s decision.

For example, they have held rallies to frame the Perak constitutional crisis as a belligerent show of disrespect by the Pakatan Rakyat (PR) to an institution respected by Malay Malaysians. At the same time, the old regime chooses to ignore that this country’s rulers represent an institution that takes care of not only Malay Malaysians but all Malaysians.

While this interpretation can be manipulated for political reasons, a progressive appreciation of the rulers’ changing role will only benefit multiethnic Malaysia.

Shifting paradigm

That is why Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s concept of “ketuanan rakyat” should be seen as a systemic thought developed within the framework of the constitutional monarchy. It is rather different from the concept of “ketuanan Melayu” as envisaged by the old regime. The old regime is caught in the static paradigm of kerajaan, which is confined to taking care of only Malay Malaysians.

Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim had this to say when responding to remarks made by BN Pasir Salak MP Tajuddin Abdul Rahman:

“Saya iktiraf raja itu raja Melayu tetapi raja Melayu itu berdaulat atas takhta pelindung rakyat Malaysia semuanya. Ini kita terima dan iktiraf baik dalam BN dan juga PR walaupun dalam kempen Umno tidak disebut begitu.”


(Anwar image courtesy of Merdeka Review)

Anwar said this during a debate on the motion of thanks on the royal address on 19 Feb 2009 in Parliament. His words are worth quoting in their original form to show how important it is to put into perspective our discussions on the role of the rulers.

What is needed in a process of building a new Malaysia is not only regime change but also a paradigm shift. Without new governing discourses and practices, what has been called the “post-8 March phenomenon” will merely be “happenings after 8 March”, without any significant change.

“Post-8 March” is not about working towards a change of federal government without preparing to get rid of the old paradigm. Rather, it is about leaving the old regime behind along with its old paradigm.

This is not about promoting a new Malaysia without a federal or state opposition. There is simply an ongoing need to deconstruct and reinterpret certain concepts that have been taken for granted for ages. The concept of “raja” in “kerajaan” is one of them. Be it the Perak political crisis or other post-8 March developments, what is needed is a shift in the concept of “kerajaan” from “raja for all Malay Malaysians” to “raja for all Malaysians”. I’m hoping Raja Nazrin will agree.


Ooi Heng is a political observer and follows parliamentary proceedings closely.

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One Response to “Reinterpreting “raja””

  1. ms maniam says:

    Why is Raja Nazrin so quiet about the Perak crisis? Cakap kena serupa bikin.


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