WHAT are Malaysians to make of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR)’s proposal to “return the immunity of the rulers” which it plans to implement if it comes to federal power?
Firstly, the party seems to have picked a good time to raise this, given that the royalty is more popular with the masses now than before, even among non-Malays.
Public perception over the past few years has been that some sultans are a voice of reason and restraint, and understandably so. Just when racist polemics seem to be getting out of hand, some of the royalty have called for an end to excessive politicking, asserted that Malaysia belongs to all Malaysians, and promoted diversity.
The rulers have also demonstrated they have their own minds. After the 8 March elections, they have broken deadlocks and gone against the executive in the appointments of the menteri besar of Perak and Terengganu.
And when the recent fatwa declaring yoga as haram frustrated and confused Muslim practitioners, the Sultan of Selangor told the National Fatwa Council to refer future edicts that affect the public to the Conference of Malay Rulers first. Raja Muda of Perak, Raja Dr Nazrin Shah concurred.
Then on 26 Nov, the Regent of Negeri Sembilan, Tunku Naquiyuddin Tuanku Ja’afar, said royal immunity should be reinstated. He claimed this would enable the rulers to exercise their duties to the people, and to be on par with other constitutional monarchs who enjoyed immunity from prosecution.
It was three days after that that PKR president Datin Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail called for a return of royal immunity. “We are ready to return the immunity of the rulers based on a constitutional monarchy,” she said in her presidential speech.
That was all she said then but in her press conference later, she and vice-president Dr Syed Husin Ali clarified that PKR would not reinstate the rulers’ absolute immunity from criminal and civil prosecution.
Since Wan Azizah’s statement, PKR has found the need to provide lengthy explanations about what the party is pushing for. This is not least because people still remember the allegations of royal excesses from abusing royal privileges, to not repaying debts and customs taxes, to demands for timber concessions.
Indeed, it was the public outrage at the assault of a hockey coach by the Sultan of Johor that led to the 1993 constitutional amendment that stripped the rulers of immunity from prosecution for actions committed in their personal capacity.
PKR vice-president R Sivarasa has explained the party’s stand, which is that reforming the constitution so that Malaysia is a “true” constitutional monarchy is but one part of all reforms needed to provide checks and balances to the executive.
But consider the backdrop to PKR’s proposal.
What’s in it for PKR
In the run-up to the much-touted 16 Sept federal government takeover, Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was to have sought an audience with the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong after premier Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi rejected Anwar’s call for a discussion on a peaceful transition of power. That audience never happened. It was with this in mind that the MCA issued a press statement calling the PKR proposal “a political ploy”.
Bear in mind also that PKR has been accused of selling out Malay Malaysians with its inclusive politics of needs-based, instead of race-based, policies. Against Umno’s branding as guardian of Malay Malaysians, it’s easy to conclude that PKR’s call for royal immunity is a two-prong populist approach — to win over the royals on one hand, and the rakyat on the other.
It also bears remembering that Anwar was party to the 1993 amendments, which his party now wants reversed, when he was a cabinet minister. How can he explain his change of heart now? And if Pakatan Rakyat comes to power, might he find it better to maintain the status quo so that uncooperative monarchs cannot interfere with government?
Relying on monarchs
Sivarasa explains that these proposals are meant to return a check-and-balance role to the monarchy. But PKR’s call for the Agong to have the power to reject bills at least once is largely symbolic. Shouldn’t a robust democracy, if that is what PKR is aiming for, be dependent on democratic systems such as a strong and accountable legislature rather than an individual of royal lineage?
As it is though, Pakatan Rakyat has been reluctant to form a shadow cabinet, or to even name its shadow committees for each ministry, to at least demonstrate that it can function as a robust opposition in Parliament.
Sivarasa also argues that taking away power from the attorney-general (AG) to initiate prosecution against the Agong, and placing it with the Special Court, will also reduce power concentrated in the executive. But this begs a question. Has that executive power been abused? Is there a problem that needs fixing when since 1993, only one ruler has been tried by the Special Court and no Agong has yet been charged?
The idea to let the Conference of Rulers first remove the Agong of his official position as the nation’s sovereign before facing charges also has no checks and balances in itself. What if the rulers chose not to, to protect a peer, or to save themselves from a similar situation in the future? What would compel the Conference of Rulers to make the right decision? While the AG’s chambers is a public office, the Conference of Rulers isn’t.
Or what if the Agong is removed and later found innocent by the special court, would the Agong have been removed at the cost of unnecessary public vilification, hence undermining the monarchy?
Nobody would disagree that the over-concentration of power in the executive needs to be overturned. The question is, will restoring the powers and position of the monarchs be the best way to achieve it?
See also: PKR’s plan for the monarch