It is not easy to explain to friends from abroad on how our constitutional monarchy system works. For all the Royal Kings Malaysia is blessed with, their powers are largely discretionary and limited by the Federal Constitution.
If you are not a Malaysian and are reading this – you are right; why bother having so many Kings when their roles are borderline ceremonial?
Try pinning this confusion to a coffee talk of a historian, political scientist and a constitutional lawyer; and by the end of it, they may all have different perspectives on what this means. But they might probably agree with each other that our Kings’ political clout are not necessarily any lesser than our elected officials’.
It is often presumed that our monarchs must remain apolitical as part of the constitutional concession of remaining relevant in our post-Independence, democratic structure. Rarely that we hear them candidly commenting on public matters, and official addresses are often narrated passively, and spoken in retrospect within their constitutional restraints.
Recent advent of social media, however, means that the “class gap” between the monarchs and the large population is narrowing.
We not only became more accustomed in reading and listening to their thoughts, but also in being able to directly respond to them. Disagreements can now be expressed in video bursts on Snap, or in short ranting posts via Twitter, Facebook – and not even the monarchs can escape the brunt of public opinions.
Filling the Political Vacuum?
Our access in expressing opinions – coupled with the desensitization of social class on social media – have incidentally created a new dimension of political discussions in our public sphere. Be it if you are a politician, a university student, or an unemployed citizen; your opinion is as equal as a monarch’s.
In our growingly divisive and volatile political landscape, slowly the monarch’s apolitical status quo began to find space in between our polarized society. As our mainstream and alternative media veer towards one-sidedness and religious conservatism, the monarch’s candid comments began to gain authority along the lines of tolerance, moderation, and good governance.
Unlike during the 93’ constitutional saga where the people were generally supportive of the then Prime Minister to abolish our monarchs’ legal immunity, the current monarch’s constructive and more directed feedbacks for national interests (over personal or exclusively the monarch’s) has created a common link between the two social classes.
Bearing in mind of our monarch’s special standing in our political landscape, our media found themselves in an odd position of not being able to manipulate and twist the monarch’s views to fit their own political preferences.
While a politician’s view can still be laughed off as a result of political partisanship (no matter how rational their views can be), it is no mean feat when a conservative launderette owner backtracked his Muslim-only customer policy and later on apologized to the Sultan of Johor – only after the Sultan lambasted the launderette owner’s dubious idea as similar to what a Taliban regime would have done.
One wonders if the owner would even consider apologizing had it been Nurul Izzah or Khairy Jamaluddin speaking along the same line, instead of the pompous Sultan.
I don’t think the launderette owner would even apologize to the offended non-Muslims in Muar – his own neighborhood – for his discriminatory action if not for his respect to the Sultan.
This is despite the fact that the Sultan is powerless to stop the owner from carrying on with his Muslim-only customer policy.
How Long Can We Expect to Be Safe Than Sorry?
I’m sure that I’m not the only one who is disillusioned by the sorry state of our national affairs.
Like many others, it is quite a breather when there’s a third-force that can re-calibrate our country onto the right direction. If values of moderation and tolerance are repeated often enough, the connectedness of our younger demographics to social media can potentially phase our daily discussions into more progressive values.
While it is great to see the monarchs speaking some sense as of now, a greater concern is if these positive vibes can be sustained. It needs no reminder that our monarchy’s set-up is hereditary, in addition to lacking minimal check-and-balance mechanism to offset incompetency and irrationality.
For example, a politician who advocates a Saudi-styled Hudud can still be outvoted during the General Election, and the tide and wave of politics will then determine his political relevancy over time.
But suppose if the character in case is a Sultan or a Royal Prince, how should we confront such conflicting value in a fair and justifiable manner?
Hiding behind the Royal Curtain
Past events have shown how the monarchs’ political clout can be leveraged, when necessary, to exert their thought preference. In flexing this delicate influence, it is not easy to trace the flow of the Royal’s orders as they could be disguised as a “state” action – especially in matters concerning religion.
Lest we forget that our constitutional law expert, Prof. Aziz Bari, had to resign from his post after commenting that it was “unusual and inconsistent” for the Selangor’s Sultan to come out in defence of the state’s religious department (JAIS) for raiding a church on alleged proselytization of Muslims. The honest academician was also bombarded with criticisms for having ‘insulted’ the monarchy by mainstream media.
There are scores of other reports involving alleged insults against the monarch (against the late Sultan of Kedah, against Sultan of Johor and the Royal Prince of Johor, among others).
Notice that the details of the ‘insults’ have never been revealed and reflected upon for public discussions for the sake of sensitivity. This is a worrying trend as it could be perceived as a preferential bias by the authorities in protecting the interests of the monarchs. Although the comments made by the detained suspects could potentially be offensive by nature, it is only fair if both the monarchs and the public are treated equally when it comes to matters of public sensitivity.
Different Degree of Reception
By theory, there shouldn’t be any distinctions between the accountability of opinions expressed by different social classes. Nonetheless, the reality is not as clear as the black and white. For example, what is deemed as politically correct and acceptable during a race-based party’s convention can at the same time be described as racist and discriminatory in other circumstances.
But as I have argued earlier, at least we still have the choice to exercise our voting rights in charting our own political landscape.
However, there is a lot of convincing needed for us to be certain if the monarchs and the people can be on the same page to agree to disagree.
If a Sabah secessionist group’s volunteers can be charged in court for questioning the position of the state in the Federation, is it not fair to expect for a Royal Prince’s claim of an ‘independent Johor’ to be treated by the same rigor of prosecution?
There is no denial that our laws are adequate to deal with civil and criminal wrongs. But a bigger concern is if we can be assured of not falling victims to procedural abuses where our monarchs are subjected to a different treatment for action – which would have otherwise been an offence under the law.