Monarchy at our nation’s foundations

The title of this session — monarchy as the nation’s pasak (a word that literally means “peg” or in architecture “fastener”, but more broadly connotes “foundations”) — reminds me of Istana Lama Seri Menanti, a palace famously constructed without nails. Physics tells us that without them, buildings would collapse. But unlike nails, pegs are made from the same material as the structure, recalling the saying “raja dan rakyat berpisah tiada” (inseparable are the ruler and people). In the past, Rajas reigned and ruled; their executive decisions affected the lives of their rakyat. But the allegedly absolutist nature of this rule is often exaggerated (and it certainly wasn’t “feudal” in the medieval European sense as so many lazily label).

Classical Malay kingdoms had institutions that preempted modern understandings of constitutionalism. The idea of a social contract (referring to an agreement between the ruler and the ruled, and devoid entirely of racial considerations) is hinted at in the 14th century Batu Bersurat Terengganu, but explicitly deployed (via the story of Demar Lebar Daun and Sang Sapurba) as the basis of good government in the Sultanate of Malacca. That sultanate famous for its free trade and prosperity flourished because its laws protected individual property rights and voluntary exchange, while in Negri Sembilan an entire socio-political system derived from adat upheld concepts such as federalism and separation of powers. Of course, today Rajas reign but executive government has been granted to a political system created by our constitution that itself emerged both from centuries of development and our association with the United Kingdom. So in what sense can we say that the monarchy remains our nation’s pasak?

First, it is through history. The sovereignty of the rulers has remained unbroken for centuries (since before 1136 in the case of Kedah) with only minor aberrations such as the Malayan Union episode (whose legal basis is questionable anyway, given that the MacMichael Treaties were signed under duress). Thus while the superstructure may change and evolve, the pasak remains.

Second, it is through the federal and state constitutions, which grant explicit powers to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the Conference of Rulers and the Rulers individually within their respective states. All Malaysians should read the laws and understand these powers, even though in some areas — such as in the appointments of menteris besar or in declaring an emergency — legal scholars can disagree on their extent.

Third, it is through other positions that senior royals hold by convention. These include chancellorships of universities, appointments (often actual in addition to honorary) in the armed forces, and patronages of countless charities and organisations that contribute so much to different sectors of the population: From health services to medical research, poverty eradication to disaster relief, academia to cultural pursuits, and volunteerism to sports (particularly equestrianism, football, golf and squash). In many cases, personal experience or interest vastly augments the work and visibility of such endeavours.

Fourth, it is by looking at the evidence internationally. The marriage of parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy is a proven formula for success, providing greater freedom, prosperity and stability compared to other political systems — especially when weighted by the fact that of the nearly 200 countries in the world, only 44 have monarchs. Six out of the top 10 countries in the Economist Democracy Index 2016; eight out of the top 12 cleanest countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index 2016; and nine out of the top 20 economically free countries in the Index of Economic Freedom 2017 are all constitutional monarchies. And from the Maghreb to the Middle East, it is the monarchies that enable peaceful evolution where the republics convulse violently.

In Malaysia today, we see so many groups pleading or appealing to the Rulers to intervene in parts of national life because they feel no other institution has the capability or independence to do so anymore. That is a damning indictment on those who have distorted and weakened our constitution, particularly the political class which has for decades passed amendment and amendment to centralise and consolidate their own power. If Malaysia wants to join the ranks of those top countries, it is the politicians who most need to abide by the rules of the constitution and of the spirit of democracy, constrained by a public who understand its importance, too. Indeed, in a royal address to the Dewan Rakyat’s first sitting in 1959, the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Abdul Rahman ibni Almarhum Tuanku Muhammad declared that “the Constitution belongs to all of us.”

I am confident that if all Malaysians understand this, then the pasak and the negara together will be a formidable force in the world.

This is a abridged translation of Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin’s speech at the Konvensyen Memperkukuh Pasak Negara.

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