Regality in Royalties, one and none

By SHAMSUL AKMAR / pic by MUHD AMIN NAHARUL

THERE is something in the air or rather in cyberspace — one of anticipation, at times of trepidation. It is getting lots of hits, page views and extensively shared.

For those who still can’t figure it out, it is the story about the abdication of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and his replacement.

The grounds given for the anticipated abdication is because the brother Rulers felt the King, who had been widely speculated to have married a foreigner recently had not observed the Royal tenets, hence making his position as the Agong untenable.

The Agong, who is the Sultan of Kelantan, is to have returned to active duties after a two-month break, supposedly taken to undergo treatment.

During that period, the Sultan of Perak had been the acting Agong.

Adding colour to the already fascinating story is who is going to replace the Agong if he abdicates. Next in line, in the rotation system used to appoint one of the nine Malay monarchs to the King’s throne, is the Sultan of Pahang.

However, the Pahang monarch has been ill and as such would not be able to take up the position.

Again, next in the rotation is the Sultan of Johor and his ascension is viewed with mixed opinions, which mainly arose from the fact that his relationship with Prime Minister (PM) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad had been perceived to be strained.

In fact, the Johor royalties had, on several occasions, made nasty comments towards Dr Mahathir, before and after he became the PM the second time around after the May 9, 2018, general election.

One of the grounds for the hostility towards Dr Mahathir stemmed from the 1993 constitutional amendments which removed the immunity of the Malay Rulers after an incident involving the late Sultan of Johor (the father of the current Sultan and the grandfather of the current Tengku Mahkota Johor) who had then beaten up hockey coach Douglas Gomez in 1992.

The incident sparked a rare public spat between the government (Dr Mahathir was then the PM) and the Malay Rulers.

It was almost like opening a can of worms. What was taboo and swept under the carpet for years on end — the excesses, abuses and criminalities inflicted by some of the Rulers on their subjects — came out in the open.

While Malaysia does not outrightly have lese majeste laws, the Rulers were immune from prosecution until the 1992 incident, which led to their immunity being removed.

The move to remove the immunity received overwhelming support in and outside the Parliament, but prior to that, there were attempts to derail it.

Umno’s opponent then, Semangat 46 under the leadership of Kelantan prince Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah was almost a Royalist party, but did not make many inroads during the next immediate election despite contesting in majority Malay seats.

Whether it reflected the disaffection of the Malays towards the Rulers is anybody’s guess, but championing their cause against a popularly-elected government proved unpopular.

In fact, the doyen of Malaysian journalism, the late Tan Sri A Samad Ismail in an interview with a leading English publication in 1995, when reflecting on the 1993 crisis, said what had made the removal of the immunity possible was because Dr Mahathir became the articulator of the Malay middle class, then already a burgeoning force.

Those who lived through that period would probably agree that the amendments actually ensured the relevance of the Rulers institution in a society which had started to frown upon unfettered feudal obeisance, especially when it gave rise to abuse and utter disregard for the basic dignity of their subjects.

It defined constitutional monarchy better and the subjects, instead of fearing their Rulers, extended their respect where due. In short, it impressed upon the Royalties that regality is expected of them.

It gave meaning to the Malay adage — “Raja adil Raja disembah, Raja zalim Raja disanggah” (loosely translated to mean a just ruler is to be regarded, while a cruel one is to be opposed).

Of course there were contrarians to the opinion, especially the Malay Royalists who felt that the removal of the immunity made the Rulers impotent in their role to defend the Malay rights and privileges as provided for in the Constitution. But that is water under the bridge. The nation and the Malays had moved on and so did the Malay Rulers. Incidences of Royalties misbehaving crop up every now and then, but they are rare and not a norm as prior to 1993.

In many ways than not, expectations of the Rulers too grew over time, so much so when Dr Mahathir inspired the million-signatures Deklarasi Rakyat (People’s Declaration) campaign demanding the removal of Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Razak in 2015/2016, the end game was to take it to the Council of Rulers to support the campaign and pressure Najib out of office.

While some of the Rulers were sympathetic, others chose to side with Najib which led to Dr Mahathir forming a political party. The rest is, of course, history.


Shamsul Akmar is the editor at The Malaysian Reserve.