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The monarchy and the people

Free Malaysia Today logo Free Malaysia Today 12/6/2018 FMT
Mesyuarat Lembaga Pengampunan tangguh Rabu, kata Istana Negara © Free Malaysia Today Mesyuarat Lembaga Pengampunan tangguh Rabu, kata Istana Negara

By Dennis Ignatius

The issue of our constitutional monarchy is once again in the headlines. Always a sensitive subject, it has led to police investigations, allegations of stirring up anti-monarchical sentiment and even accusations of wanting to abolish the monarchy.

Malaysia is not Thailand where all criticism of the monarch is forbidden but neither are we like Britain where everyone is free to say what they want about the monarchy.

In the new Malaysia, there is a need to find the right balance between respectful discussions on the monarchy within the context of our constitution and offensive rhetoric that diminishes our royal institutions.

Context

The current controversy regarding our royal institutions is not taking place in a vacuum; there is a context. In the run-up to the elections, some royals were thought to have crossed the line by inveighing against Dr Mahathir, the then leader of the opposition. Reaction was spontaneous and immediate. The rakyat felt that it was unconstitutional for royals to express a political preference, particularly with elections looming. In any case, Dr Mahathir was their champion against a corrupt and abusive government and they were loathe to see anyone undermine him.

As well, the withdrawal of royal awards to Dr Mahathir did not sit well with the people. Of course, the rulers have the absolute right to both confer and withdraw state awards, but when it is done close to the elections, it sends a political message that cannot be ignored.

Perhaps no other issue created as much dismay and angst as the events surrounding the appointment of the prime minister following the elections. The post-election joy that everyone felt was marred by the way Dr Mahathir was treated as he waited hours on end to be confirmed as prime minister. It was humiliating to see him, tired and weary after a gruelling campaign, being kept waiting for hours on end to be formally appointed. The nation felt his humiliation and took it very personally.

It may well be that the Agong was only doing his job in ensuring that proper procedures were followed before making the formal appointment; if that was the case, officials at Istana Negara did a very poor job of communicating it to the people. They owe His Majesty an apology for the misunderstanding that was created.

The same can be said of the appointment of the Attorney-General. The Constitution is very clear that the Agong acts on the advice of the prime minister in such matters. Again, the impression that was created was that the prime minister’s appointments were being unconstitutionally thwarted.

Clearly, going forward, officials at Istana Negara should be more proactive and do a better job in explaining such matters to avoid misunderstanding. Officials need to understand that in the new Malaysia, there is a premium on transparency and openness.

The other issue concerns the growing involvement of the royals in business. As Dr Mahathir himself said recently, royal involvement in business creates all sorts of problems and puts ordinary companies at a disadvantage. The non-involvement of rulers in business is standard practice in other constitutional monarchies.

Royal expenditures have also come under scrutiny of late. In the UK, the Queen’s civil list expenditure has been published since 2002 as part of an effort to demonstrate that the monarchy is publicly accountable. There is no reason why it shouldn’t be done here as well. In the interests of accountability and transparency, all public expenditures should be debated in parliament and made public. It is not sedition but good governance.

Bound together by the constitution

Despite these issues, it should be clear to all and sundry that the citizens of Malaysia are, by and large, supportive of the monarchy and certainly do not want to see it abolished or undermined. It is, after all, an integral part of our history, culture and political and religious makeup. Our constitution, in fact, intrinsically binds both monarch and citizens together in common purpose for the sake of our nation.

Examining the role of the monarchy within the context of our constitution should not, therefore, be viewed with alarm.

Malaysians want to see all our national institutions including the monarchy honoured, respected and functioning well. Each has an important role to play in safeguarding our constitutional rights and ensuring that our nation remains free and democratic. In fact, the reason why we ended up in such a mess in the first place was because many of our national institutions failed to live up to their constitutional obligations.

In this sense, GE14 was about restoring constitutional balance and order, not diminishing or destroying cherished national institutions. The sooner we work together to strengthen all national institutions the better off our nation will be.

Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.

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