The Courage To Be Different

by M. Bakri Musa

The Sultan of Trengganu’s decision not to bestow royal honors on the occasion of his birthday is worthy of praise. I also applaud his celebrating it in a low-key manner. With the nation facing trying economic times, this message of prudence needs to be conveyed from the highest levels of our leadership. Further, the Sultan’s gesture while seemingly symbolic portends far more significant changes.

I am surprised that this is not more recognized and lauded by our intellectuals and pundits. Perhaps they too are eagerly waiting for their own little title and accompanying tinplate.

The Sultan in his capacity as King is also imparting his important message to the Prime Minister. Abdullah, his humble beginnings in the village and his very public displays of piety notwithstanding, has shown a detestable fondness for things luxurious since becoming Prime Minister. Witness his RM 250 million corporate jet! Prudent spending is not his strength.

For a culture that does not normally recognize birthdays, Malaysians have taken up this Western cultural artifact with gusto. This is especially so with the royalty. The investiture ceremonies associated with such birthdays would stretch for days, with the Prime Minister and other top officials having to be in attendance at all times, thus distracting them from their regular work. Not that they are any good or effective when they are in their offices!

Apart from the King, Malaysia has nine sultans as well as four sultan wannabes in the person of state governors. With 14 head-of-state birthdays to celebrate and heaps of honorifics to bestow, there is a glut of these titles.

It is not so much that I detest these ostentatious celebrations rather that I resent the wasting of precious taxpayers’ money. I could not care less if those sultans and governors were to throw private parties at their own expense.

Whom We Honor

We can tell much about a culture by whom it honors. Consider the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor. Its recent honorees include not only prominent statesmen and distinguished scientists but also such varied talents as the Black neurosurgeon Ben Carson, singer Aretha Franklin, boxer Muhammad Ali, and banker Alan Greenspan.

For contrast, examine the recipients of Malaysia’s highest royal honor, the “Tun.” Perusing the list for the past decade or two, all the recipients were either retired civil servants or “has been” politicians. Some awards seem automatic, as for example, for the sitting Chief Justice. They all would get one, even those who would later bring disgrace to their office. I am astounded to discover that there are more than just a few of those renegade characters so honored!

The message is clear. To the mindset of our leaders, the only way to serve the nation is through the government, or at least by belonging to the right political party. Such a myopic view of the world!

One is readily inspired when reading the citations of those honored with the Medal of Freedom. Unlike the Medal of Freedom, there is no citation to go with awarding the Tun. One has to guess their achievements. “Googling” their names would be an equally fruitless exercise.

Musa Hitam and Lim Keng Yeik are recent recipients of the Tun. Yet what are their contributions to the nation? Yes they were former cabinet ministers, but what exactly did they achieve? As for former Chief Justice Ahmad Feiruz, another recent honoree, what were his landmark decisions? The nation should honor their contributions, not their positions.

I can recollect only a few honorees whose contributions were truly significant and thus deserve honoring. Our first Chief Justice, Tun Suffian Hashim was one, as well as the first Governor of Bank Negara Tun Ismail Ali. Both rightly belong in the same league as the late Tun Razak.

I once suggested to a graduate student looking for a topic for her dissertation to go over the list of our royal honorees to discern the pattern. Who do we honor as Tan Sri and Datuk? This would have been a doable project a decade ago. Alas today, with the avalanche of names, you would need superior computer and statistical skills to do a credible analysis.

It reflects the degradation of our culture that there is now a widely acknowledged “under the table” price for these titles. Consequently, today you are as likely to find such honorees on the criminal roster as on the palace invitation list.

Truly Modern Monarch?

Sultan Mirzan may be our youngest King but he has already shown his innovative streak early and quietly. Soon after his installation he directed that all palace functions must end early so as not to interfere with the following working day. How sensible! That royal mandate must have been a severe shock to those ministers and senior civil servants who would find any excuse not to be punctual at their offices.

During the massive Bersih rally in 2007, the King demonstrated his political subtlety and acumen by being conveniently out of the palace and yet opening its gate to the rally organizers. That was a direct public slap to Abdullah who had earlier declared “saya pantang di cabar!” (Do not challenge me!)

On a more substantive level, following the recent March election, Sultan Mirzan as the Sultan of Trengganu taught Prime Minister Abdullah a much needed lesson on the real meaning of royal “advice and consent” on appointing the state’s Chief Minister. As Abdullah was (still is) a slow learner, Sultan Mirzan had to deliver his message in no uncertain terms. It took some time and much public humiliation, but Abdullah did finally learn his lesson.

Sultan Mirzan through his actions and Raja Nazrin with his speeches represent the new generation of royals who are more attuned to the nuances of the delicate checks and balances provided for in our constitution. Such a function, which has been severely lacking, is necessary for an effective government. These royals are not at all shy in exercising their long-neglected oversight role.

The framers of our constitution in their wisdom had provided for, in addition to a bicameral Parliament, another entity, the King and his Council of Rulers, which in effect is the Third House of Parliament. While it cannot initiate legislations nonetheless it has the power to review laws passed by Parliament. At least that was the situation until Mahathir amended the constitution.

Additionally, the consent of this Third Parliament is needed in making senior appointments. In matters pertaining to Islam, this Council rules supreme. This fact was brought to the fore during the recent imbroglio over the transfer of senior religious officials in Perak.

I hope these tentative ventures towards a more activist role for the King and his Council of Rulers would expand, with the King taking his “advice and consent” role more positively a la the United States Senate. While I do not expect open hearings I do hope the Council would carefully vet in private candidates for senior appointments and not merely rubberstamp the nominees of the Prime Minister.

This would restrain the current unchecked powers of the executive and correct the current imbalance that has tilted for so long towards it. At least that is one side benefit albeit unintended to Abdullah’s weak leadership. It allows the King and his brother rulers to re-exert their constitutional power. That can only be good for the nation.

Sultan Mirzan’s cancellation of the royal investiture on the occasion of his birthday should be viewed in this light. I hope he would venture beyond and usher our Third House of Parliament to its original proper oversight role. If he were to do that, then he and his fellow sultans would have justified the high cost of maintaining them, quite apart from earning the gratitude of their subjects. Besides, that is a far more crucial role than passing out fancy sashes and tin plates on their birthdays.


  1. #1 by yhsiew on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 11:44 am

    The Sultan of Trengganu’s decision to celebrate his birthday in a low-key manner is commendable and laudable. In these trying economic times, it is wise to cuttting down spending and conserve cash for other more urgent needs.

  2. #2 by Steven on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 11:52 am

    Well said…Mr Lim. All kudos to you for the enlightenment. Speaking of these titles, I know of a fellow who was just selling used cars but yet was bestowed with a datukship!!! Oh…don’t you like these fellows with titles…when you are addressing them, you have to address them by their titles instead of their names so much so that every other person you meet, you have to call him datuk. And you should see that smart-alec look they have on their faces when you address them by their titles. To me, this country may have already attained 50 years of independence and advanced in many man-made ways, however, the mentality of most is still very much inward and inept. Some of the royalties are definitely much more sensible and articulate to see through all these.

  3. #3 by dawsheng on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 12:08 pm

    Since we are talking about the courage to be different, I must applaud PAS’s recent calling to dissolve both UMNO and PAS to set up the mother of all Ketuanan Melayu and Islam party. I see.

    Say, when Malaysia went bankrupt one day, can we just take the courage to change our country’s name? That would settled the all the problems, no?

  4. #4 by Bigjoe on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 12:12 pm

    One of the most comforting thing about the Malaysian monarchy is a few of the younger ones, better educated, are attempting to set new standards. Perak Regent is one other person. The Selangor Sultan ideas although not completely progressive is another.

    One can only hope that the next generation of Sultans will point the way for our politicians to follow…

  5. #5 by wanderer on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 12:24 pm

    The King is leading by example, not much can be said of his Umno state councillors. Always pleasing to see a fine example shown….
    perhaps, Pm should take stock of his non-achievements!

  6. #6 by k1980 on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 12:30 pm

    With the nation facing trying economic times, this message of prudence needs to be conveyed from the highest levels of our leadership. But why are Trengganu’s MB and ADUNs not heeding HRH’s call?

  7. #7 by Mr Smith on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 12:46 pm

    Yes, they have been flexing their muscles but to what extend and how far, we will have to wait and see.
    When the King rightly rejected the extension of the former Chief Justice service, I wonder why he agreed to the extension of the IGP’s.
    Both are scums!

  8. #8 by Anba on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 12:55 pm

    Dear Bakri Musa,
    Hi there. I left a question on your previous artice on the book review titled “Beyond the Veneer: Malaysia’s Struggle For Dignity and Direction” by Ioannis Gatsiounis. It looks like a great book but curious whether or not the book is sold in Malaysia. Please reply me when you find the time.

    On the appraisal for the Sultan of Terengganu or Sultan Mizan or Al-Wathiqu Billah Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin Ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Mahmud Al-Muktafi Billah Shah ( you had a spelling error, it’s Mizan and nor Mirzan, as I referenced to Wikipedia ), it’s encouraging to see our King showing or leading by example ( kepimpinan melalui tauladan). Nevertheless, our King’s awareness is such a rare statistics and perhaps an outlier. Finding such a monarch is like finding a needle in a haystack.

    On whether Pak Lah will learn from our manarch is left to be seen. But I have my doubts as the saying goes that it’s easy to wake someone who is sleeping but it is very difficult to wake someone who is pretending to sleep. Our country is slaved by the ketuanan Melayu sentiments theat the Malays rather point their keris to uphold the spineless ketuanan Melayu sentiments. This ketuanan Melayu attitues have made the Malays to become more dependent on the Governments help for many things in life. The Indians and Chinese, instead of receiving privileges as an affirmative policy, only gets discriminated from the reverse affirmative policy governed by UMNO leaders.

    Barisan Nasional have made the Indians and Chinese and other minorities the slaves of the country. Yes, slaves in other countries were chained, but in Malaysia the minorities are slaves without being chained. MIC and MCA must leave Barisan Nasional coalition to set themselves free. The MIC and MCA leaders should not have accepted the NEP that was implemented in 1970. MIC and MCA must have walked out from BN in 1970. Of course all these should have taken place in a non-violent manner.

    The Indians and Chinese need to re-think about being patriotic towards Malaysia. Although it’s my tanah tumpah darah ku, but the policy of the country have made me become very critical of the nonsense portrayed by our politicians. Whats the use of being able to vote when we are discriminated in every other ways. Perhaps it’s better to be an immigrant in another country, although we don’t get to vote, but we are treated with respect and dignity.

    Shame on Malaysia.

    May justice and truth set us free.

    God bless.

  9. #9 by monsterball on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 12:58 pm

    MCA..MIC and Gerakan kept quiet…when Mahathir took out RM1.2 billion our money to save his son…they are as guilty as Mahathir himself.
    By staying in BN..shows all are corrupted..applying “mind my own business” attitude….when the business of stealing Malaysians money means nothing to them….because they also steal.
    All are crooks!!
    Trengganu cars…..small matter…compared to those big fish.
    But for others to understand…here are the figures:…..
    In 2004..actual repair cost should be….10,426.54…..but charged 237,727.73.
    In 2005…actual repair should be 6292.12….but charged 282,380.03.
    In 2006….actual repair should be 33,729.06…but charged 317,079.50
    In 2007…actual should be 10,872.92….but charged 124,400.35.
    I got all these from Star paper.
    Just look at those above figures…….and you can see..the ikan bilis is so daring….what about the big fish??
    Don’t tell me…MIC..MCA..and Gerakan idiots and don’t know all these are happening? Sure they know..but they are afraid of UMNO.
    What about tenders awarded to small bumiputras? They are supposed to mark up 10%…to favour them…getting the tenders against other races.
    We heard so much…a table cost RM120…charged at RM300…or a screw driver set…worth RM25…charged RM500!!
    It will be interesting to see ACA check supplier of computers and laptops..two most demanding items to government Depts. I seem to see small police station..changing computers…every two or three years.

  10. #10 by kosong on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 12:58 pm

    Hello Steven. The writer is M. Bakri Musa and not Uncle Kit.

    And this is an excellent article and an excellent message. Too bad most Malaysians are not like him.

    It seems that this Sultan/King has quite a bit of sense. Too bad he can’t consign that useless and good-for-nothing PM/government to the bin.

  11. #11 by monsterball on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 12:58 pm

    AIYOO! Under moderation again!

  12. #12 by mw88 on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 1:14 pm

    The writer is right – in the midst of politicking, the significance of this gesture has not received the coverage it deserved.

    Almost everyone I know has a horror story of a ‘close encounter with a Datuk’ to tell.

    Sad, isn’t it?

    So yes, I wholeheartedly agree with the writer and thank Sultan Mirzan for His decision… Your Majesty set a great example, let’s hope one day, a New Generation of recepients will appear, a generation where a full citation of their achievements follow the presentation of their awards, bring back the shine and make the titles worth something.

  13. #13 by pkrisnin on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 1:23 pm

    AAB is in a bind now.
    Either he gets PAS support to pass anti-hoping law
    Plan B somehow get the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to give his consent should the government decide to dissolve Parliament and hold fresh elections to prevent opposition from forming the government.

  14. #14 by oknyua on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 1:24 pm

    Dear M Bakri Musa,

    Sir, I don’t agree with this particular point in your article. Probably you can amend it. Here:

    “As Abdullah was (still is) a slow learner, Sultan Mirzan had to deliver his message in no uncertain terms. It took some time and much public humiliation, but Abdullah did finally learn his lesson.”

    He hasn’t learnt anything yet, sir and that is my point of disagreement.

  15. #15 by boh-liao on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 1:30 pm

    Yes, Malaysia is definitely the motherland of titles. While most countries have one head of state to give away titles to individuals each year, Malaysia has 14 heads to give away titles in one year, commonly to people who are linked to the political parties within the BN!

    Of course most business guys love to be datuk or dato’. No wonder a foreign businessman often wonders aloud: almost all businesses in Malaysia are run by members of the same family – all their children are known by the same-sound surname: datuk or dato’.

  16. #16 by milduser on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 2:34 pm

    For the survival of any royalty in a democratic country, it’s always wise for them to stay apolitical. otherwise, sooner or later the people might revolt and change the nation into a republic. Napal is the newest example. our current crop of young sultans are smart. hope they can help the rakyat from the current power hungry and corrupt political masters. future checks and balances may be needed for the survival of the country. justice for all!

  17. #17 by badak on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 3:01 pm

    Same old… Same old. The Palace must remain APOLITICAL.Yet every year only BN leaders and Business men who supports BN are Awarded this royal titles.

  18. #18 by isahbiazhar on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 5:31 pm

    Luckily Sami Velloo was never given aTun.That may be one reason he is holding to his post and threatening the other MIC members.The King should be aware and vet properly before giving the title even if advised by Umno/PM.Terengganu citizens do not need the titles, They need a clean government.Said has promised to cean up and make the state ,corruption free,before the next election.He had acted well on Proton cars and next he should look into the rural and town roads.The contractors had reduced the thickeness and did a shabby job.Civil servants from the highest to the lowest do not deserve any decorations because they have not done a good job.

  19. #19 by lovemalaysiaforever on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 6:18 pm

    The title that Raja Raja given to Najis and his gang simply means nothing to those GOONS……….

  20. #20 by FanOfKit on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 6:40 pm

    Other Rulers should follow suit and not bestow awards at all, especially when the list is prepared by the Federal government goonies.

    Tan Sris & Datukships are a dime a dozen nowadays. Maybe they should come out with more titles like Tan, Tin, (Tun).

  21. #21 by FanOfKit on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 7:05 pm

    Klang/Port Klang is famous especially for 2 of it’s “datuk” sons. One was a former railway gatekeeper turned mega-rich and shamelessly flaunted his wealth by building a palatial home and even defying the Sultan’s command to meet him. The other was former taxi driver turned automobil (AP) & hospital-king whose palatial house is even-equipped with a lift.

    And how can we leave out another famous son-from-nearby-Klang, a school teacher turned politician who loved to go on shopping sprees overseas carrying nothing short of RM3Million cash. Hmmmmmm……… I wonder what these “sons” of Selangor say when they talk to God in their prayers.

  22. #22 by zak_hammaad on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 8:24 pm

    I think MCA are also gaining courage to be different. A day after the conclusion of MCA divisional elections, leaders and aspiring candidates are now busy positioning themselves in strategic pacts to ensure their political survival in the country’s largest Chinese-based political party.

  23. #23 by The Enforcer on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 11:47 pm

    Daulat Tuanku, daulat Tuanku, daulat Tuanku!
    Three cheers for HRH The King ( Sultan Mizan ) for leadership by example.
    Tuanku, wonder whether Tuanku’s action can be seen by the ‘Sleepy PM’ or Tuanku’s words of advice can be heard by ‘Big ears’.
    Am sure the RAKYAT is praying that His Royal Highnesses sees and hears the burden the RAKYAT is going through.
    This beautiful country MALAYSIA and her subjects has been sodomised the last 50 years or so.
    Ampun Tuanku. Beribu ribu Ampun.

  24. #24 by cemerlang on Monday, 28 July 2008 - 11:57 pm

    Each time there is an award giving ceremony, the list of names will be so long. You wonder if all these people make such good contributions to the country. If they do, surely we will not be in such a chaotic situation today. Therefore, it is proof that many people who are awarded for something do not deserve it. People’s eyes are not blind. They will ask the questions. Do they deserve it ? Who is their relative or friend who help them to get this award ? Why is she so lazy and yet can be awarded ? Why is she so morally wrong and yet can be awarded ? What are the privileges given in return for all these awards ? There is no point giving away awards just because it is a routine part of the ceremony and the person giving it does not know who that recipient is. Yes, it takes courage to be different because being courageous has its’ risks. Many people prefer to feel safe rather than feeling like a foreign body.

  25. #25 by whitecoffee on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 10:57 am

    The King may have felt that no one deserves any award this year. Maybe he has seen too many title holders disgracing the nation. Do you know how many Datuks are running around the country right now? How many of them actually live up to their titles? In view of the current situations in Malaysia, the King’s decision is definitely right. Ever thought of doing things differently? Ever thought of value added service? I’m sure all readers are familiar with “Diploma mills”. Awards should only be given to citizens who make sacrifices to the nation.

  26. #26 by whitecoffee on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 10:57 am

    The King may have felt that no one deserves any award this year. Maybe he has seen too many title holders disgracing the nation. Do you know how many Datuks are running around the country right now? How many of them actually live up to their titles? In view of the current situations in Malaysia, the King’s decision is definitely right. Ever thought of doing things differently? Ever thought of value added service? I’m sure all readers are familiar with “Diploma mills”. Awards should only be given to citizens who make sacrifices to the nation.

  27. #27 by choonchoy on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 11:59 am

    Perhaps His Majesty should give a Tunship to Dr Mohamed Osman Abdul Hamid for upholding his principles and integrity.

  28. #28 by i_love_malaysia on Tuesday, 29 July 2008 - 4:58 pm

    The fact is every one of us is contributing to the country whether big or small. Only those who contribute more and have major impact will be awarded!!! Else I will be awarded with at least a Datuk for contributing in writing this blog!!!

  29. #29 by vvick on Wednesday, 30 July 2008 - 8:55 am

    The King rather gives us a Prime Minister with proper brain to care the Rakyat for the moment if the King tend to give out something to the nation presently! We welcome the King at this time of Malaysia’s very bad political game which can be seen by Rakyat as a disaster for living in this land! King have to please Rakyat at this time not the rulling Government anymore!

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