Construction site for the new Istana Negara (© Rachel Leow)
IF you drive down Jalan Duta in Kuala Lumpur today, along the road that runs from the Sri Hartamas housing estate to the foot of the majestic Masjid Kuala Lumpur, most of the journey will be flanked on your right by a large temporary wall. That wall girds the borders of the new Istana Negara construction site, slated for completion in 2009 or 2010.
This new Istana will house each of our nine Malaysian sultans during their five-year stints as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. Something about the interminable length of the drive past that long white wall made me ask myself: Why do we need a new Istana? Let alone one that sits on 96.52 hectares of land, and, in these severe financial times, one that is reportedly costing the rakyat RM1.1 billion?
The current Istana Negara along Jalan Syed Putra (public domain / Wiki Commons)
To give you some idea of what 96.52 hectares of land is, here are some real-world expressions of the size of the new palace. One Jalan Duta Royal Istana is equivalent to 2.3 MidValley Cities, 4.9 KLCC parks, 209 Khir Toyo mansions, and 3,472 average semi-D houses (at 3,000 sq ft each). Our present Istana Negara, on Jalan Istana, is a historic building dating back to 1928, and it sits on 11 hectares of land. Our new Istana therefore represents a nine-fold increase in the amount of land that has been set aside for our Malaysian royalty.
Let’s not forget, we live in a constitutional monarchy. That means that our monarchs are accountable to us. Accountability is what I want to talk about in this article, and I want to do this by taking a short detour to modern day Britain.
Criticising the monarchy
The Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Mizan
Zainal Abidin (© Presiden Republik
Indonesia / Wiki Commons)
Some time ago, I was struck by an article in the Guardian that reported on a series of parliamentary discussions over the state of the British royal family’s finances. The royal family, uniquely among all British public sector institutions, was deemed exempt from all public spending cuts necessitated by the financial crisis. In fact, they even appeared to be seeking a raise on their yearly allowance, which at present stands at around £7.9 million per annum. Despite their present £21 million surplus in royal reserves, Buckingham Palace officials claimed, in an annual report on royal finances in June, that without a raise, they would be £40 million in the red by 2019.
To put the debate in context, it is worth noting that there have been a recent slew of drastic cuts in public spending in the UK. This includes a one-year pay freeze for five million public sector workers, and a withdrawing of middle-class tax benefits. In view of all this, the royal exemption has been perceived by many Members of Parliament (MPs) as gratuitous mollycoddling. As Liberal Democrat MP Norman Baker said, “When we are looking at potentially painful cuts in public services, the royal family should not be feather-bedded in this way. I am talking about the taxpayer paying for Prince Andrew’s flights to take part in golf matches.”
Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom
(public domain / Wiki Commons)There are two points I wish to make about this Guardian article. Firstly, I was struck by the liveliness of the comments section, expressing an extraordinary range of opinions on the British monarchy. These range from the critical to the defensive; from the reasoned to the illogical; from the constructive to the banal. “Welfare bums,” one commentator wrote, “they should get a real job.” Another declared: “The Queen, defender of the Faith — worth every penny!” Yet another scoffed: “Parasites at worst, anachronisms at best.” One voice among the yowling anti-royals said staunchly: “I support the royal family one hundred percent. Firstly, they do bring in money via tourists… But more importantly, they support many charities and sports organisations [and they] represent our country’s heritage and tradition, and an age lost in the last fifty or so years. I would be deeply saddened to see that gone.”
For better or worse, I ask you: Where in Malaysia can we have such an open, fearless debate on our monarchical institutions? In the UK, open public debate has not resulted in anarchy and the monarchy’s dissolution. Rather, it has resulted in a monarchy that has incentive to remain relevant to the people over whom it constitutionally governs, and also continues to be, on the whole, well loved by the majority of British.
That begs the question: Are our royals afraid of what the people think of them that they need to be protected from public opinion?
Side view of Istana Melawati, another royal residence for the Yang di-Pertuan Agong,
in Putrajaya (© Gryffindor / Wiki Commons)
My second point concerns the relative transparency of the state of British royal finances. It is possible for any British citizen to access information about royal expenditure. It is possible, in other words, for the public to have some sense of how much of their tax dollars are being used to finance the royal family, and indeed, for some people to complain about it. Accountability is at the heart of all attacks and defences of the British monarchy. Its naysayers claim there is not enough of it; its defenders retort that they are more financially accountable than many heads of states would be in a republic. Royal accountants state, a bit defensively, that the British monarchy supposedly cost each British taxpayer only 69p in the 2008 to 2009 fiscal year.
In Malaysia, I, for one, have no idea how much the rakyat spends on our constitutional monarchs. And I am quite sure that there have been no studies or inquiry commissions into this. Unfortunately, in Malaysia, asking for monarchical accountability of their expenses will probably be construed as derhaka, or hasutan against our royal institution.
There are not even, so far as I am aware, any polls of enquiry regarding the general popularity of the various monarchs and their families, let alone published accounts of royal expenditure.
Under the Ninth Malaysia Plan, all royal projects are obliged to be conducted by open tender, but as PAS’s Mahfuz Omar has pointed out, Projek Istana Negara was not, and the project’s costs have suffered as a result. Initially slated to cost around RM400 million, our new Istana Negara is about to cost the nation RM1.1 billion instead.
Are the royal families not, according to the precepts of constitutional monarchy, legally bound to the Malaysian constitution, and thus at least financially accountable to the people? Should we, the people, not have some say in how we ourselves are financing our Supreme Heads of State?
Rachel Leow is a PhD student in history at Cambridge University. She would like the lines between sedition and responsible citizenship to remain reasonable. Some of her writings can be found at http://www.idlethink.com/
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