Rakyat Itu Raja!

By Farish A. Noor

It has, for reasons best known to some, become rather trendy to talk about the restoration of power to the King these days. Looking around the troubled landscape of Malaysia at the moment one does understand how and why the frustration of many could have led them to the conclusion that some higher form of intervention is badly needed at the moment. After all, four years on after the victory of the BN parties at the last polls it would appear as if none of the reform measures promised by the current administration have borne fruit: None of the major corruption cases have been resolved in court; reported incidents of abuse by the police have only increased; there is still talk of racial and religious communitarianism in our midst and the fanciful ego-trips of some politicians have compelled them to reach for the keris again and again in public.

By all accounts, it would appear as if the country has regressed over the years and we seem even closer towards sliding into the deeper morass of religious and racial sectarian politics. As if the divide-and-rule rhetoric of the race-based BN parties was not enough, now we are told that there will be a Muslim workers movement to rival the MTUC, which can only serve to divide the workers of Malaysia along religious sectarian lines even further. This can only add to the weakening of the workers movement in Malaysia, to the benefit of the established powers-that-be whose own divisive sectarian politics have brought us to where we are today.

So indeed, some kind of intervention is timely and badly needed, but from where, and who should be the actors and agents of change here?

One can point to legal and constitutional guidelines about the powers and responsibilities of the rulers of Malaysia. One can also highlight the fact that the Agong is technically the head of state and head of the armed forces. But to fall back on such a position in times of crisis would be akin to handing the country over to the UN when Malaysia’s problems are really its own doing, and those who are really responsible for turning things around happen to be us, the Malaysians themselves.

Our concern over the recent appeals for some form of royal intervention stems from an informed cynicism about the role of the royalty worldwide, and the knowledge that the differences in the respective subject-positions assumed by royals and citizens are bound to differ. It is true that there can be times when instrumental coalitions can be formed for the sake of a singular political goal; but how long can such coalitions be maintained when the class differentials and interests of the two groups can only collide in the long run?

As a counter-factual example to illustrate this point, it would pay to take a short trip back to the history of our neighbouring country, Thailand.

Some of us may recall that Thailand experienced its first democratic revolution in 1973, when the student forces of the country, working with the urban workers movement and middle-class, toppled the colonels’ regime that had been installed and backed by the United States of America. (Thailand was at the time a front-line state in the war against Communism, and thus a key strategic ally to the USA. It was during this time that US intervention in Thailand was at its peak, which led to a corresponding increase of student activism directed against the military government and its American backers.)

The King of Thailand played a crucial role in the 1973 revolution: Just when the conservative elements of the Thai elite and army were about to crush the student movement, the King opened the gates of his palace and allowed the students to seek refuge there. Protected by the King, the student revolution managed to gain strength and finally led to the election of democratic leaders like Seni Pramoj and Kukrit Pramoj. For a period of three years Thailand experimented with its democratic reform process which led to serious attempts to control the army and police as well as a public anti-corruption campaign.

However, by 1976 it became clear that the democratic revolution was not about to stop with the reform of the army and police, and would ultimately lead to the democratic reform of the whole political and economic system. It was then that the Thai business and political elite turned tails, and began to work with the more conservative elements of the Buddhist sangha. The King of Thailand was in turn persuaded to abandon the student movement, as he was warned that most of the democratic activists and reformers were Left-leaning unionists and communist sympathisers who would ultimately reduce the powers of the King as well.

Thus in 1976 the King turned a blind eye when a vicious and barbaric counter-coup was launched by the army, police, Buddhist conservatives and right-wing middle-class; leading to the storming of the campuses of Chulalongkorn and Thammasat universities and the massacre of students there. There were even reports of student leaders being executed and having their heads chopped off and mounted on the gates of the universities by right-wing thugs. Where was the benevolent King of Thailand then, whom many had applauded as the hero and saviour of democracy in 1973?

If there is a lesson to be found in all this, it is that a democratic reform process can only begin from below, and never above. Kings and Monarchs do not good democrats make, for they are the first who need to be taught the value of citizenship and civic responsibility. Furthermore any democratic reform must take into account the will of the demos- the people themselves- and give voice to the masses and not the elite.

And so it is with this painful lesson in mind that we take the recent calls for royal intervention with a bucketful of salt. Facing a government as inept, incompetent and clueless as we have at the moment is a task in itself; but it need not be made even more difficult by replacing one regime with another. In the end, the only maxim we ought to adhere to today is the clarion call of the 1940s, when Malaysians cried out: Raja itu Rakyat, Rakyat itu Raja! (The King is a citizen, And the citizens are King!)

(Dr. Farish A Noor is a political scientist and historian at the Zentrum Moderner Orient and guest Professor at Sunan Kalijaga Islamic University, Jogjakarta. He is also one of the founders of the research site www.othermalaysia.org.)

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Saturday, 22 September 2007 - 9:22 am

    I don’t always agree with Dr. Noor but its times like these that his clear thinking impress me and yet dissapoint me that Malays and Islamist don’t appreciate it. He is someone bumis and Malaysian in general can be proud of.

    He is so right in our penchant and lack of tradition of not being reliant on authorities to fix our own problems and issues. Yes we have authoritarian and unfair rules but how did we get there in the first place?

    This is something in particular the Malays have to answer for. The tendencies is leading us to modern elected Sultanate not a democratic and more liberal ones.

    Let me say one final thing: While its conservative policies that accumulate wealth and bring order, its really liberal ones that creat them in the first place to make it possible. That is the fundamental soundness of democracy and freedom.

  2. #2 by shortie kiasu on Saturday, 22 September 2007 - 2:06 pm

    “Kings and Monarchs do not good democrats make, for they are the first who need to be taught the value of citizenship and civic responsibility.” That is utterly right. And it would be going back in time if anyone ever attempts to reinstate monarchy rule in the country. That is going to the dirt.

    If people wants changes, they should be bold enough to go to the ballot boxes in the coming general election to make their decision through their votes. Citizen is the king, and that is most ept statement.

  3. #3 by limkamput on Saturday, 22 September 2007 - 5:09 pm

    Hello Bigjoe, I think you need to learn the difference among “its”, “it’s” and “it is” before you start writing here. It is a torture to read your posting.

  4. #4 by undergrad2 on Saturday, 22 September 2007 - 9:35 pm

    “Thus in 1976 the King turned a blind eye when a vicious and barbaric counter-coup was launched by the army…” Farish Noor

    What do you expect? The King was blind in one eye.

  5. #5 by UFOne on Saturday, 22 September 2007 - 10:28 pm

    When one is elected to power, one forgets that one is actually chosen by someone or someones. In the case of politics, it is the citizens or the rakyat who chose the person to lead them. That is why Aquino coined the word ” people’s power “. Malaysians, you are the ones who are sitting on top of the politicians and not the politicians sitting on top of you. Traditions teaches us to be fearful of the powerful ones. But critical thinking teaches us that there is nothing to be feared. The traditional heirachy of thoughts is the king or the politicians are on top and the citizens below. The hidden true heirachy is that the government is below the citizens and the citizens are below the real God. And if there is such a thing as an organization chart for the nation it should be the real God on the top, the arrow pointing downwards to the citizens and another arrow pointing downwards to the elected politicians. We cannot see it now but if you can believe it, then believe that there is a war fighting between the good and the bad. Physically, there is a group of people belong to the good. And another group of people belonging to the bad. The majority of the Malaysians belong to the good. It is proven because there is a good track record of peace. Therefore they have to steer the whole government machinery onto the path of good. What sort of country do Malaysians want ? Do they want genuine fairness, integrity, transparency, honesty to be in action rather than just being preached ? And if you cannot believe that there is God, then believe that you are supposed to be making sure your politicians are doing what you want them to do.

  6. #6 by Justicewanted on Saturday, 22 September 2007 - 10:47 pm

    Raja itu Rakyat, Rakyat itu Raja!

    In Bolehland UMNO is Maharaja.

  7. #7 by Jeffrey on Sunday, 23 September 2007 - 8:13 am

    Petitioners for the Yang di Pertuan Agong/Rulers’ intervention is a result of their desperation that other avenues to effect change via the constitutional and legal process, eg. the ballot box, though theoretically available, are, however, in practical terms, effectively shut, with those ensconced in their political positions having absolute control over these constitutional processes manipulated in their own favour.

    The petition list all the well known abuses and excesses of the ruling parties and their stakeholders. No reasonable dismisses the list as not true or of grave relevance or urgency for address.

    But strictly, as a matter of logic and law, the argument that the King/Rulers have within our system of constitutional monarchy, residual or ultimate powers to depose elected government officials guilty of misfeasance and ‘misgovernance’ just does not hold water.

    For example when YB Kit wants action to be taken on the parties implicated by Anwar’s video clip, he wrote to the Prime Minister and not the King/Rulers.

    Kit is following the correct procedure. Article 125(3) of our constitution dealing with removal or suspension of judges for misconduct specifically prescribes that it is the Prime Minister who must petition to and request the Agong for setting up of the tribunal for enquiry and recommendation for removal of a judge.
    Relating to other aspects of appointment of key positions and dissolution of parliament, the Constitution is also replete with provisions that the Yang di Pertuan Agong/Rulers shall act including exercise discretion upon advice of the Prime Minister or the government of the day.

    The word “advice” here is just polite expression which out of respect for the reigning (as distinct from ruling) King/Rulers is preferred over the other word “instruction”.

    The rationale is simple : in a constitutional monarchy (as opposed to an absolute monarchy) ultimate power vests with Rakyat, which is supposedly exercised via their elected representatives amongst whom the chief spokesman commanding the majority thereof is the Prime Minister. He calls the shots. If there are loopholes whereby the constitutional processes are fine only in theory but in practice may be hijacked by ruling politicians, then it is incumbent upon the Rakyat to address these loopholes by way of plugging them through the political processes.

    Yes, these political processes may include, besides voting in ballot boxes, peaceful protests, criticisms of the government in the public discourse arena and even petitioning the rulers to delay their official appointment of unsuitable judges and rendering their advice to the Prime Minister why they are unsuitable – but this is altogether different from petitioning the Yang di Pertuan Agong/Rulers to sack the Prime Minister/government of the day on the basis of the abuses.

    The Yang di Pertuan Agong/Rulers have no such legitimate powers under the Constitution no matter how ingenuous one plays with semantics and interpret the constitution suggesting there is such a discretionary power.

    Out of respect, the Yang di Pertuan Agong/Rulers have at best the moral suasion power over the elected government and its officials.

    To delay by way of check and balance what the government advises, yes the rulers have – to veto, and in that sense the ultimate power and say “ no” to thje government, the Rulers do not have under our system of Constitutional Monarchy based on parliamentary democracy and sovereignty of the rakyat.

    I think people like RPK and PKR who are petitioning the Yang di Pertuan Agong/Rulers are relying on adat and traditional feudal allegiance to the Sultans/rulers over the logic of the Constitution.

    This is where the problem lies. One cannot cite and say that we respect and uphold the sanctity of the Constitution when it suits our ends to use its provisions to oppose government’s acts or omissions in deviation from the constitution, on one hand, and yet on the other hand, when the constitutional provisions cannot be relied upon to bring results, choose to bypass the very same constitution and go straight to the Yang di Pertuan Agong/Rulers to overrule the elected government of the day.

    It is like saying when tossing the coin, heads I win but if its tails you lose!

    In that sense, Dr Farish is right that “if there is a lesson to be found in all this, it is that a democratic reform process can only begin from below, and never above” which in logic and law means go through and abide by the basic law of the Constitution, no matter how difficult.

    In another sense of historical experience of nations (as distinct from law or logic) Farish is also right that “Kings and Monarchs do not good democrats make, for they are the first who need to be taught the value of citizenship and civic responsibility. Furthermore any democratic reform must take into account the will of the demos- the people themselves- and give voice to the masses and not the elite” – in short, as farish said, the “class differentials and interests” of the two groups – the Monarchs and the Rakyat – are different and “can only collide in the long run”!

    For this, Farish has cited the case of the Thai situation and how the King there vacillated his position in relation to the democratic reforms fought for by the University students.

    Thailand’s constitution as like that of Japan’s, is like ours based on constitutional monarchy. But the system of Monarch in Thailand and in Japan are not like the rotating system as ours and certainly their societies are racially, culturally and in religious terms more homogenous and different from the diversity of ours, thereby putting a limit to any attempt at comparison of what a Monarch could do by way of moral suasion outside the parameters of the Constitution……………

  8. #8 by limkamput on Sunday, 23 September 2007 - 10:46 am

    While appealing to the royalty for their intervention, perhaps it is also opportune to inform them that it is for their own long term relevance and survival in this country. The royalty must serve a purpose that is transcendent, enduring and able to command the love and affection of the rakyat. If some members of the royalty have shown enlightenment and interest to bring about change in recent time, they deserve our support. People like Dr Farish and Jeffrey may just want to show their intellectual prowess. Who does not know change and democracy should preferably start from below. But is this happening, and if not, what alternatives do we have? Dr. Farish can quote Thailand. Let me quote you Thailand’s neighbor’s, Myanmar. Please tell me for how long the people of that country have been suffering and waiting to bring about change. Are they not still waiting to begin the process of change from below? In political changes, please don’t talk too much about the ideal. Instead, we should concentrate more on possibilities. Even democratic movements and changes that start from below and that have the support of the masses could eventually falter. The process never ends. We need not be too idealistic. Dr. Farish is creating a discourse for the sake of creating one.

  9. #9 by Jeffrey on Sunday, 23 September 2007 - 12:55 pm

    “…//..some members of the royalty have shown enlightenment and interest to bring about change in recent time//..” – Limkamput.

    Yes especially DYTM Raja Dr Nazrin Shah – he has taken opportunities in various forums to inspire Malaysians not to just accept corruption and lack of governance on the part of political leadership unchallenged in order for us to exercise of our votes wisely in accordance with the constitutional process.

    This should not however be taken to mean that he is supportive of attempts to deviate from or subvert the spirit and letter of the Federal Constitution.

    And what do those who petition the Yang DiPertuan Agong/Rulers really driving at?

    Take the cue from what our dear brave and courageous “legal eagle” (Raja Petra Kamarudin) said in his article “Yes we are embroiled in a Constitutional Crisis”Link : http://malaysia-today.net/blog2006/corridors.php?itemid=8377

    In relation to our constitution, RPK said. ‘Now, while 40a (1) says “the Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall act in accordance with the advice of the Cabinet or of a Minister acting under the general authority of the Cabinet”, it also says “except as otherwise provided by this Constitution”. So this means The Agong can act WITHOUT the advice of the Prime Minister wherever the Constitution allows him to do so.” “Article 40a (2) in fact allows The Agong to “act in his discretion in the appointment of a Prime Minister”. This therefore makes it perfectly legal for The Agong to use his discretion in appointing the Prime Minister of Malaysia. Discretion here would mean that The Agong can do what he feels is right and if he feels that Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah should be the Prime Minister then Tengku Razaleigh it is’.

    I beg to differ. It implies that the Agong could just at his sole discretion change the PM (since discretion at appointment implies discretion at dismissal). This goes against the grain and logic of what constitutional monarchy means. It goes against the grain and logic of what parliamentary democracy based on elected representatives is supposed to stand for.

    Get serious, this has nothing to do with anyone trying to “show their intellectual prowess”.

    This is a very serious matter – with a smack of sedition – because if one reads between the lines, what the petitioner (to Yang DiPertuan Agong/Rulers) is obliquely insinuating is a possible coup of sorts – not the military kind – but based on an ingenuous constitutional interpretation of the Yang DiPertuan Agong’s inherent discretion to dismiss a constitutionally elected head of state (the Prime Minister) – in respect to whom it must be commented in passing that there is not an iota of evidence at this moment that he has lost commanding the support of the majority of elected representatives in Parliament.

    It is an interpretation which I very much doubt any constitutional lawyer of any credibility, much less our very own legal luminary and constitutional expert, HRH Sultan Raja Azlan Shah, would agree or sympathize with!

  10. #10 by limkamput on Sunday, 23 September 2007 - 3:53 pm

    Dear Jeffrey, shackled within the present legal and constitutional framework is restricting us to possibilities again! May be some of you ought to read this simple book (a parable actually), “Our Iceberg is Melting” by John Kotter. Talking in circle is leading us to nowhere, seriously.

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