The Sultans’ ‘daulat’ is a myth (Part 1) — M. Bakri Musa

Part 2 below.

August 28, 2012
AUG 28 — As a youngster in 1960 I had secured for myself a commanding view high atop a coconut tree to watch the funeral procession of the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Abdul Rahman. My smug demonstration of my perched position drew the attention of the village elders below. They were none too pleased and immediately ordered me down. “Sultans have daulat,” they admonished, “you cannot be above them.” Apparently even dead Sultans maintained their daulat. I did not dare challenge my elders as to what would happen once the king was buried; then we all would be above him.

To put things in perspective, this attribution of special or divine powers to Rulers is not unique to Malay culture. The ancient Chinese emperors too had their Tianming, Mandate from Heaven. That however, was not enough to protect them.

Even though it has deep roots in Malay society, this daulat thing is a myth. The Japanese, despite their own “Sun Goddess” tradition, had no difficulty disabusing the Malay Rajas and their subjects of this myth. The surprise was not how quickly the Sultans lost their power and prestige, or how quickly they adapted to their new plebian status during the Japanese Occupation, rather how quickly the Malay masses accepted this new reality of their Rajas being ordinary mortals sans daulat.

Only days before the Japanese landed, any Malay peasant who perchance made eye contact with his Sultan, may Allah have mercy on him for the Sultan certainly would not. When the Japanese took over, those Rajas had to scramble with the other villagers for what few fish there were in the river and what scarce mushrooms they could scrape in the jungle. Nobody was bothered with or took heed of the daulat thing. So much for it being deeply entrenched in our culture!

To pursue my point, had the Malayan Union succeeded, our Sultans today would have been all tanjak (ceremonial weapon) and desta (headgear); they would have as much status and power as the Sultan of Sulu. Across the Straits of Malacca, hitherto Malay Sultans are now reduced to ordinary citizens. They and their society are none the worse for that.

Today’s slightly better-educated Malay Sultans and crown princes (there are no crown princesses, let it be noted) would like us to believe in yet another myth, this time based not on our culture but constitution. They believe that it provides them with that extra “something” beyond their being mere constitutional head.

This new myth, like all good fiction, has just a tinge of reality to it. The Reid Commission had envisaged the Conference of Rulers to be the third House of Parliament, after the elected House of Representatives and the appointed Senate. It would be a greatly reduced House of Lords as it were, to provide much-needed “final thought” to new legislations.

That assumption had considerable merit, at least in theory. As membership is hereditary, those Rulers would be spared from having to pander to the masses as those elected members of Parliament, or please their political patrons as with the senators. Additionally, this third House would be non-partisan.

An expression of this “Third House of Parliament” function is that all senior governmental including ministerial appointments have to be ratified by the Conference of Rulers. However, unlike the transparent deliberations of the “advice and consent” function of the United States Senate where senior appointees are subjected to open confirmation hearings, the proceedings of the Conference are secret. We know only those who have been accepted, not those rejected or why.

Zaid Ibrahim’s “Ampun Tuanku. A Brief Guide to Constitutional Government” addresses what should be in his view the proper role of Sultans in the Malaysian brand of constitutional monarchy, specifically whether they have this “something extra” beyond what is explicitly stated in the constitution. As a lawyer, Zaid is uniquely qualified to write on the matter. He is no ordinary lawyer, having once headed the country’s largest legal firm and served as the nation’s de facto law minister.

The title notwithstanding, this highly readable book is more persuasive than descriptive; more political science treatise, less legal brief. The expository flow is smooth, logical and highly convincing. It is refreshingly free of legal jargon or references to court cases that typically pollute commentaries by lawyers. To Zaid, the constitution does indeed grant Malay Sultans that something extra, but not in their capacity as the titular head of the government, rather as their being head of Islam and defender of the faith.

Zaid explores the many wonderful opportunities possible as a consequence of this second function without having to invoke additional “special powers”. I will pursue his novel ideas and wonderful suggestions later. At 40 pages, his chapter on this issue (“The Rulers and Islamisation”) is the longest, and deserves careful reading especially by the royal class. He puts forth many innovative ideas that if pursued would benefit not only Malays but also all Malaysians.

With active and enlightened engagement by the Rulers and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Islam would emancipate Malays just as it did the ancient Bedouins, and in the process enhance race relations. That would be a pleasant if somewhat radical departure from the current environment where Islam not only deeply polarises Malays but also sows much interfaith and interracial distrust.

In all other aspects the Sultans and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong are bound by what is explicitly stated in the constitution. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, Zaid stresses, and our Sultans and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong must abide by the wishes of the rakyat as expressed through their elected representatives in the executive branch. If citizens have made their wishes clear through an election that they would prefer a certain party and individuals to lead them or certain legislations enacted, the Sultan must abide by that decision regardless of where his personal sympathy lies.

In short, there are no penumbras of rights and privileges emanating from those hallowed clauses of our constitution. The matter is clear: Sultans are bound by the law. Sultans cannot claim a penumbra of power based on daulat or divine mandate, as the Sultan as well as the Raja Muda of Perak tried to argue recently. Daulat is fiction.

This principle is central and must be defended against any incursion or erosion. Zaid is rightly distressed, for example, when the Sultan of Terengganu (who was also the Yang di-Pertuan Agong at the time) prevailed in making his choice of Ahmad Said as mentri besar when the citizens had explicitly elected the state Umno leader Idris Jusoh. This erosion was possible only because of the weak leadership of then Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. A similar incursion occurred in Perak, this time on a much more blatant and ugly level.

The situation in Perak is particularly instructive. Before becoming Sultan, Raja Azlan Shah once served as the country’s Chief Justice. As Zaid reminds us in his book, in that capacity Raja Azlan clearly articulated that the powers of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong are well circumscribed by the constitution. As Sultan, however, he claimed his “special powers”. That was his justification for imposing his solution on the state’s political crisis during the post-2008 election crisis to favour the Barisan Nasional coalition.

Such palace incursions and our acquiescence undermine the very principle of our democracy. On a more practical level, if that proves to be the new norm, our chief ministers and prime ministers would then be beholden to their Sultans and Yang di-Pertuan Agong, not the rakyat. Our ministers (mentris) would then revert to their role in feudal Malay society, as hired hands of the palace and not the people’s chief executive.

In a democracy, daulat (sovereignty) resides with the people, not the rajas. Our constitution is clear on that point, as Zaid repeatedly reminds us. We must constantly defend this principle lest it be eroded.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.


Sultans’ Daulat Is A Myth – Part Two

Book Review: Zaid Ibrahim’s Ampun Tuanku

M. Bakri Musa

Second of Three Parts: The Origin of the Daulat Myth

[In the first part I discussed the sultans’ rationale for seeking extra constitutional powers based on their claim of daulat. This claim of divine dispensation is a myth. In this section I discussed the current political dynamics that led to the sultans wanting to reassert their special status.]

Zaid begins his book by briefly tracing the history of Malay sultans. Unlike the Japanese Imperial family that stretches as far back as 600 BC, or the British to the 11th Century or even earlier, Malay sultans are of recent vintage. The Raja of Perlis was established only in 1834, while that of Johor only slightly older (1819).

In modeling the Malaysian constitutional monarchy along the British one, the Reid Commission assumed that Malay sultans were like English kings. That was the first major blunder. To Zaid, it also underscores the pitfall of trying to adopt wholesale foreign concepts or models, not just in law but also much of everything else.

Those English monarchs have had centuries of working with a democratically elected government. Earlier, a few of them have had to pay dearly for their errors.

Consequently today their system works smoothly. Not so with Malay sultans. Up until British rule, Malay sultans were literally Gods; those sultans could actually take your life. Displease the sultan or prevent him from grabbing whatever you own including your daughter or priced kerbau (water buffalo), and you risked being beheaded, banished, or enslaved (kerah). Those sultans were not above the law as there were no laws then; they were the laws.

Malays like me have a lot to be thankful to those colonials for ending those odious royal traits of our culture. No, that is not an expression of my being mentally colonized, rather one of deep gratitude.

Malaysia has a disproportionate number of monarchs, 9 out of the nearly 40 worldwide, as Zaid and others have noted. The error in that frequently cited observation is the assumption that our sultans are comparable to those other kings and queens; they are not. There is little in common between Malay sultans and the British Queen or Japanese Emperor. Instead, Malay sultans have more in common with the tribal warlords of Africa and Papua New Guinea, from their insular worldview to their fanciful costumes. The Papuan tribal chiefs have their elaborate colorful headgear, as well as their prominent penile sheaths which they proudly display; ours have their equally ostentatious desta and tanjak.

Like those tribal chieftains, our sultans’ too are afflicted with their feudal habits. Modernity has not erased our sultan’s medieval mentality. When Malaysia became independent, those odious habits began creeping back. Those sultans are not to be blamed entirely, however.

“The Rulers’ unwillingness to remain within their constitutional roles has been further aggravated,” Zaid writes, “by a lack of conviction and courage by the institutions that are supposed to protect and preserve [our] … constitution.” Stated differently, our sultans have many enablers. We allow them to regress. We tolerate them when they flout the rules.

Members of the Malay royal family are perfectly capable of behaving themselves and keeping within the rules if they were to be told in no uncertain terms that their tantrums would not be tolerated. Consider their behaviors during colonial and Japanese times. It was the sultans who sembah (genuflected to) the colonial and Japanese officers. Today when these Malay princes and princesses are down in Singapore for example, they obey even the basic traffic rules. Those rajas would not dare pull their silly stunts down there; they would be immediately punished. Likewise, if one of our sultans were to skip on his Vegas casino gambling debts, our ambassador would have to quickly bail him out of the county jail.

Just as a child whose earlier tantrums had not been corrected would grow up to be an intolerable brat, likewise when our sultans strayed earlier on and there was no one to restrain them, that only encouraged them to go beyond. A few decades later their excesses would trigger the constitutional crises of the 1980s and 1990s that led to the amendments ending respectively the rulers’ power to veto legislations and stripping them of legal immunity in their personal conduct.

Both were possible because of the strong executive leadership of Prime Minister Mahathir. Today with a government with a less-than-robust mandate and a leader with a banana stem spine, the sultans are emboldened to re-exert themselves; hence the insistence of their daulat or special status.

With that, their old brute feudal traits began to re-surface. Consider the ugly spectacle a few years back in Singapore involving the Kelantan Royal family. They tried to essentially kidnap the estranged Indonesian wife of one of the princes. Had that incident happened in Malaysia, rest assured that a “helpful” minister or religious leader would have “counseled” the poor young girl to return to her obnoxious husband.

In Singapore where everyone is equal under the law, that prince would not dare claim his special status. More importantly, no one would grant him such. Consequently that poor Indonesian bride of the prince was able to escape from her palace prison.

On a much more grotesque scale, there was the case involving a Brunei prince and his British lawyers. As the dispute fell under American jurisdiction, we get to see in open court the peccadilloes of that prince. Not pretty, in fact hideous. You can assume that his counterparts in Malaysia are no different, only that their ugly acts are willfully concealed.

As a consequence of the constitutional amendment of the 1990s, the late Yang di Pertuan Negri Sembilan was successfully sued for his unpaid debts. In the past, his creditors would not have even dared challenge him. To the royal class, those peasants should be grateful that their “tributes” were accepted.

While the royal tribunal is an advancement, its learning or even deterrent value was minimal or non-existent as the proceedings are secret. Had they been open, the lavish lifestyles and obscene unpaid bills of our sultans would be exposed. They could not then readily claim their daulat under such ugly circumstances.

Zaid advocates that those royal tribunal proceedings be open to the public, as with any court hearing; I agree. Such exposures would also help humanize our sultans, showing to the public that they are susceptible to the usual human foibles and weaknesses. Deadbeats, even royal ones, do not have daulat!

Next: Last of Three Parts: Opportunities for Sultans as Head of Islam