Brave New World (The Star)
14 July 2011
The monarchy is held in very high regard among many Malaysians. If we are to ensure that this high regard continues, then the royals must play their role as determined by the Constitution.
NOW that the Bersih march is over, I would like to raise an issue that appears to have been overlooked. Just before the march was due to happen, the King intervened and said he would prefer it if a street demonstration did not occur. At the same time, he acknowledged the peoples’ right to express their legitimate expectations.
It all looks and sounds very reasonable and laudable. Indeed, I reckon most people would say that it is. However, I would like to raise a small warning flag if I may.
Our country is a constitutional monarchy. This means that the powers of the King is determined by the Constitution. His Majesty’s powers are limited. His only true power is to select the Prime Minister and to decide whether to dissolve Parliament or not.
In the past, the King was much more powerful but his immunity from prosecution and power to veto legislation was taken away by a constitutional amendment under the Barisan Nasional government led by Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
There is, however, one power that the Constitution never provided for, and that is for the King to be involved in politics and governance.
His Majesty is meant to be above the petty politics of the day. In this way, he is above partisanship and also beyond reproach. Thus this seperation of royalty from politics is, in my view, a manner of protecting the institution.
What the King did when he made his statement about the Bersih march arguably borders on involvement in governance. It is of course his Majesty’s right to say what he wishes, but there is always a risk that his statement may have serious implications on public life.
As it is, both sides in the Bersih debate have claimed that the King supports them.
The Government said Bersih defied the King by taking to the streets. Bersih said they were merely following his Majesty’s request by wanting to have the rally in Merdeka Stadium, and it was the closing of the stadium that forced them onto the street.
Already, we can see here how all parties have dragged his Majesty into the fray. If the dignity of the monarchy is of concern, then this should not occur at all.
However, I am also worried that the royal statement may start a precedent where the King gets involved in public matters.
The danger here is that there is no constitutional provision empowering him to do so. And if he does so, he is beyond reproach due to laws such as the Sedition Act. That means that if the King gets involved, the people can’t criticise his involvement or his statement.
In a democracy, it is surely wrong that a hereditary — not an elected — leader can have such influence. This is not only because we the people can’t criticise him but we also have no avenue to show our displeasure via the ballot box.
Many people often point to Thailand where the king has a lot of influence in public life and is still largely beloved. All this is well and good as long as the Thai king is as respected and popular as the one they have now.
What if he is replaced by someone who is not held in such high regard? Such a situation, where a monarch who gets involved in public life and yet has all sorts of laws preventing the citizenry from publically opposing him, would lead to a system of governance that would be an uncomfortable mix between a constitutional monarchy and an absolute monarchy.
As I write this, I am aware that there are many out there who will be jumping up and down claiming I am being derhaka. This is another danger of the King making public pronouncements about issues on governance.
Even if the government of the day does not take action against those who criticise His Majesty, there will be plenty of little royalists who would love to take matters into their own hands, regardless of the resonableness of the complaint or the unreasonableness of the royal statements.
I come from Penang, which means I do not have an instinctive attachment to royalty, having never had a “sultan of my own”. Yet I realise that the monarchy is held in very high regard among many Malaysians.
If we are to ensure that this high regard continues, then the royals must play their role as determined by the Constitution. Only in this way can we make sure they remain untouched by the dirt of politics and the tenuous democracy we have is not watered down further by putting royal involvement in the mix.