May 27, 2009
Articulations on Perak
by Art Harun
“To adopt a literal approach would vest a certain level of absolute power in the Ruler where such power does not exist in the first place. Can we imagine a situation where the Ruler may decide mid-term to change a Menteri Besar (MB) because he thinks that MB does not command the confidence of the majority anymore?”
The above was part of my comment at Malik Imtiaz’s blog, Disquiet, on his article Crisis In Trengganu? What Crisis? That comment was posted on March 25 last year, when the whole nation was discussing the crisis in Terengganu and Perlis, where the Rulers in both states refused to agree to appoint the candidate nominated by the leadership of the winning party to be the Menteri Besar.
There was a populist school of thought then that the Rulers were well within their power to do so. I took a different stand. I had always thought that the notion of “absolute power” rested in the Rulers is, with respect, misconceived. I ended my comment with a word of caution:
“But let us not allow our emotion to colour our judgement by creating, or allowing to create, a dangerous precedent, a precedent which we all may live to regret later.”
Fair enough, what I said above has now become true. His Royal Highness the Sultan of Perak had decided in mid-term to change the MB because he thinks that the previously appointed MB did not command the confidence of the majority anymore.
Hafarizam Harun’s Article
My learned friend, Hafarizam, is one of the Counsels for the BN in the Perak crisis. After the decision of the Court of Appeal reversing the High Court’s decision on the Nizar vs Zambry case, he publishes his take on the issue on his blog. As he was one of the lead Counsels in the case, and considering the fact that the Prime Minister had openly admitted that the BN had been advised by Lord Lester QC, I would presume that Hafarizam’s position on the issue echoes Lord Lester’s.
Over the weekend, Hafarizam kindly invited me to link his article to my blog and I told him that I would post a reply. And so, here it is.
My Advice to Hafarizam’s Attachment Student
But first, there is some house cleaning to do. In The Tree Injunction – an opposite view from someone, I reproduced verbatim an e-mail which was sent to me from Hafarizam’s office daring me to do the same. In that e-mail, I was labeled a lawyer who:
*one track minded (yes, this is partly true because I am a keen track racer); and,
*lacks judicial appreciation.
I was also asked to read the case of Stephen Kalong Ningkan again. In addition, the writer also said that “it is useless to talk to a lawyer who ‘confused’ others.” The icing on the cake is the accusation that my 22 years of legal practice just consists of “Ali Baba partnership”, whatever that may mean. I am told by Hafarizam that the e-mail and the whole post was written by an attachment student at his firm who assisted Hafarizam in the cases respecting the Perak crisis.
First of all, let me tell him or her that as a lawyer, I could receive as hard a blow as I give. That is the nature of my job. It is within his or her right to disagree with me or my opinion. But the mere fact that you disagree with me on an issue does not mean that I am misguided or that I have confused you or others. It also does not mean I lack judicial appreciation. It is after all a discourse.
Although you are only a student, I have to respect your opinion despite the fact that I have more than 22 years of practice. The number of years in practice does not ipso facto mean that I am correct or more knowledgeable than you.
Secondly, please do not insult my partners by saying I have an “Ali Baba” practice. What do you mean? Does it mean that I maintain a practising certificate and sell it to my non-Malay partners like those so-called UMNO connected cronyMalay businessmen who sell APs or contracts? Or does it mean I get cases and “sub-contract” those cases to my non-Malay partners? For your information, I brief my non-Malay lawyers on technical aspects of legal cases which my firm handles. Your statement as such is an insult not only to my firm but many other firms with non-Malay partners.
Thirdly, please take your time whenever you are free to read the etiquette rules. Yes, there is such a thing. While doing your pupilage later, you even have to attend classes on it. In the legal profession, we do not insult fellow lawyers and we address them as our “learned friends” no matter how strong our disagreements are. As an attachment student, you have a long way to go. I am sure you would do well in the future and I wish you all the best.
Hafarizam’s first point – the practice in “other Commonwealth countries” I am reproducing verbatim the relevant part of what was said by Hafarizam:
“Today’s decision by the Court of Appeal is another high-watermark case on Constitutional law in Malaysia. It not only proves the point that I have been trying to make all along, but has placed Malaysian Constitutional jurisprudence at par with other Commonwealth countries, to wit a few, Australia, Canada and England itself, that the constitutional logic of the Constitution of Perak and the democratic imperative upon which the Constitution of Perak is based on the following thesis…
The powers to grant a dissolution of Dewan Negeri Perak and to appoint the Mentri Besar and State Executive Council members are among the prerogatives of HRH the Sultan of Perak. Consensus amongst parliamentarians and commentators is that there are instances in which the Monarch may refuse to grant a dissolution, especially to a minority government. For example, minority Labour Government of Ramsay McDonald requested for a dissolution, Herbert Asquith (Prime Minister between 1908 and 1916) stated in The Times for 19 December 1923, which was quoted with approval in Marshall, Constitutional Conventions (1986), page 38: “The Crown is not bound to take the advice of a particular minister to put its subjects to tumult and turmoil of a series of general elections so long as it can find other ministers who are prepared to give it a trial. The notion that a Minister – a Minister who cannot command a majority on the House of Commons – is invested with the right to demand a dissolution is as subversive of constitutional usage as it would, in my opinion, be pernicious to the general and paramount interests of the nation at large.”
In Canada, Governor General, Lord Byng, in 1926 refused to grant a dissolution to Prime Minister King after the latter’s government had lost the support of members of other parties who provided its majority. There was no vote of confidence, but Prime Minsiter King imemdiately resigned. Mr Meighen, the opposition leader was invited form a government (see Hogg, Constitutional Law of Canada, 5th ed, at 9-30). Thus, the lauds and cries for ‘Bubar Dewan’ by fellow opposition members of ‘Pakatan Pembangkang’ are not only pernicious but has created deep division amongst the people of Perak. In hindsight, if YB Dato’ Seri Ir Nizar has conceeded defeat on 4th February 2009, the people of Perak would not have to pay the heavy price of confusion, humilation and frustration the culmination of all was the the 7th May 2009 sitting.” [please note that I have re-paragraphed Hafarizam's post for ease of reference in this post.]
It is ironic that Hafarizam had referred to the Ramsay McDonald affair and the “King-Byng” crisis in his post. I say it is ironic because these two instances actually support my postulation that the practice in the Commonwealth is that the Ruler had always dissolved upon being requested and the Ruler had no absolute power to ask the Premier to resign. I, however, admit that in the King-Byng crisis, the Governor General, Lord Byng had refused to dissolve upon King’s request. However, there were extenuating and special circumstances in that case. I will touch on this later in this post.
The Ramsay McDonald Affair
Allow me to first clear a misconception in Hafarizam’s post, where he says:
“….the Monarch may refuse to grant a dissolution, especially to a minority government…”
The Nizar-led Government in Perak is not a “minority Government”. It is a coalition Government. There is an obvious difference there. A minority Government is a Government consisting of a party with the single largest number of seats in the Assembly but that party’s seats are less than the total seats held collectively by other parties in the Assembly. For instance, if DAP has 60 seats, while PKR has 30 seats and the BN has 40 seats, a DAP government would be a minority government because its seats are less than the total seats held by PKR and the BN. However, in Perak, the situation is not such. There, PAS, DAP and PKR formed a coalition and the total number of seats in their coalition was higher than the seats held by the BN. Thus, it is a coalition government.
Secondly, Herbert Asquith could not have made the statement on 19th December 1923 in relation to Ramsay McDonald’s request for a dissolution as quoted by Hafarizam because at that time, Ramsay McDonald wasn’t even the Prime Minister yet! The whole affair must be told in sufficient detail if we were to use this affair as a precedent.
McDonald became Prime Minister in 1924 when he formed a minority Government. As the Conservative had more seats, McDonald’s Labour Party had to rely on the support of the Liberal Party. That made it difficult for McDonald to pass the necessary laws as his position was precarious from the start.
His position became untenable when he rejected the Attorney General’s advice to prosecute John Ross Campbell under the Incitement to Mutiny Act 1797 at the behest of some Labour backbenchers. Arising form that, motions for censure were initiated. McDonald quickly resigned when the motions were amended to be one of no confidence. Had the motion been debated, McDonald would have lost. However, the day after the amendment, he asked for dissolution from the King.
And what did the King do? Even though McDonald’s Government was only 9 months old, the King dissolved the Parliament and called for a fresh election. The Conservatives won in the ensuing election and they formed a Government.
However, McDonald made a comeback in 1929 after the May election of that year. Again, this time, he formed a minority Government as Labour only had 288 seats to the Conservatives’ 260, with 59 to the Liberals. Again, he had to depend on the Liberals who undoubtedly made life very difficult for his Government yet again.
To cut a long story short, his second minority Government did not last as well. During the Great Depression, his Government did not have any solution the economic depression. His own cabinet was even split on the issue of public expenditure. He then submitted his resignation.
The King, however, persuaded him to form a “National Government” (something akin to the much talked about “Unity Government” which was being proposed by PAS recently). Note however that at this time, McDonald did not ask for dissolution. He again resigned. But he accepted The King’s request to form a National Government.
McDonald formed a National Government, which was actually a coalition between all the parties in the Parliament. This was viewed as a betrayal by his own Labour party. He even sacked some of his senior ministers from the Labour Party. Needless to say, in 1931, the Conservatives forced him to agree to a general election.
Now, how does the Ramsay McDonald affair support Hafarizam’s position? If at all, it supports my position that the Ruler (or in the UK the King) would dissolve the Parliament upon being requested. It also supports my contention that the Ruler did not have the power to sack the Premier. Never at any time did the King ask for McDonald’s resignation although it was crystal clear that McDonald did not command the confidence of the majority on both occasions (in 1924 and 1929).
The King-Byng Crisis
This crisis and its aftermath redefined the Canadian Constitutional position respecting the independence of the Governor-General in making decisions on his own (without having to consult the British government). It involved Prime Minister MacKenzie King and the then Governor General, Lord Byng. In September 1925, King requested a dissolution. Byng granted it. During the general election which ensued, Arthur Meighen’s Conservative Party won 115 seats to 100 for King’s Liberals while the Progressive Party had 22 seats.
As the incumbent PM, King did not resign. He went to see Byng after the election and told Byng that he wanted to form a minority Government with the support of the Progressive Party. During that meeting, Byng had actually expressed his thoughts that perhaps King should resign and let Meighen form a government as his party had the majority seats. In Byng of Vimy (by Williams, at page 305), Byng was quoted to have said to King that he (King) ought not to ask for dissolution in the future unless Meighen was first given a chance to govern. King apparently tacitly agreed to this. King then went ahead to form a minority Government.
His Government then was involved in a corruption scandal. The Progressive party’s support was dwindling. King’s Government then lost 2 motions in the Parliament and was about to face another confidence motion. Against what was agreed previously, King asked for a dissolution. Byng refused it. King presented an order-in-Council seeking a dissolution. Byng still refused dissolution. King then resigned. Byng appointed Meighen as Prime Minister and asked him to form a government, which he did.
Whatever was the motivation of Byng, he was heavily criticised for his refusal to dissolve. de Smith in his book, Constitutional and Administrative Law (at page 106) viewed Byng was as being in an “embarrassing” situation. In fact, Byng’s position became even more embarrassing when Meighan’s Government only lasted for less than a week. Within a week of its formation, Meighan lost a vote of no confidence by one vote. Meighan quickly asked for a dissolution which Byng duly granted.
de Smith argued in his book (in the same page) that the fact that Byng granted dissolution to Meighan while refusing King’s request for one would open Byng to allegations of bi-partisanship. That would taint the office of the Governor-General, which was supposed to be above politics. In a speech in 1997, the Governor General of New Zealand, Sir Michael Hardie Boys expressed the opinion that Byng had been in error in not re-appointing King as prime minister on the defeat of Meighen in the vote of confidence.
Byng and Meighan were humiliated during the ensuing general election. King went to town to critisise Byng’s initial refusal to dissolve parliament. The result of all that was a victory with a clear majority for King, who was seen by the voters as a victim of Byng’s indiscretion. Meighan was seen by the voters as the villain and he even lost his seat.
Central to Byng’s refusal to dissolve at King’s request was also the tacit agreement that both of them had when King had insisted that he should continue to be the Prime Minister even though Meighan was clearly the majority holder in the Parliament earlier.
This, needless for me to point out, was not the case in Perak. HRH the Sultan had appointed Nizar as the MB of a coalition Government with a majority. As far as information which are in the public domain is concerned, there was no understanding between the Sultan and Nizar that Nizar ought not to ask for a dissolution and in the event Nizar lost the confidence, Zambry ought to have been given a chance like Meighan.
Furthermore, King was losing support from the Progresive Party, an integral part of his minority Government. Whereas Nizar did not lose any support from within his coalition, except for the 3 who had jumped ship. In addition, there was also, at the point in time where dissolution was requested by Nizar, uncertainty over the position of the 3 “independent ADUNs” and their case were in Courts waiting for adjudication. Thus, even the loss of confidence was in doubt. Contrast this to the clear and certain loss of confidence on King’s Government when the dissolution was requested by him.
If we superimpose the scenario in the Byng-King affair and the Perak affair now, and considering the underlying disbelief by the people of Perak at what is currently happening, would it be too far fetched for me to conclude that the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional would be badly defeated if an election is called now? I would even venture to ask whether Zambry would be able to hang on to his seat in that event. Meighan and the Conservative party, of course, found out the hard way in the ensuing election.
With all due respect, Hafarizam’s reliance on the Byng-King crisis appears to be misplaced. It is clear that Byng was driven by a tacit understanding between him and King in not granting dissolution. However, history proved beyond doubt that what he (Byng) did was not in accordance with constitutional spirit.
History also, I am afraid, will judge HRH’s refusal to dissolve the Assembly.
Refusal to dissolve – the discretion of the Sultan and the role of Constitutional Conventions
On the power to refuse dissolution, Hafarizam said:
“The powers to grant a dissolution of Dewan Negeri Perak and to appoint the Mentri Besar and State Executive Council members are among the prerogatives of HRH the Sultan of Perak. Consensus amongst parliamentarians and commentators is that there are instances in which the Monarch may refuse to grant a dissolution, especially to a minority government.”
Hafarizam then went on to quote the McDonald and Byng-King affairs as examples. I have shown above that the two incidences do in fact support my position that refusal of dissolution was uncalled for in the circumstances. I have also explained above that Hafarizam’s position that the Perak Government is a minority one is not correct.
Article 18 (2) (b) of the Perak State Constitution provides that the Sultan may act in his discretion in, among others, withholding of consent to a request for dissolution of the Assembly. However, it does not necessarily mean that the Sultan has absolute power in the matter. The question is, and has always been, how should the Sultan exercise that discretion rather than whether he has absolute power or otherwise.
At this point, I must refer to a creature known as constitutional conventions. A constitution is the mother of all laws. In jurisprudential terms, it is the “grund norm”. It is a living and breathing document. It is impossible for any constitution to provide for each and every probabilities and possibilities. Thus a constitution may be as brief as the US Constitution or as long as the Indian one. It could also be unwritten as it is with the British one. But what maintains the order of the state administration in matters where the constitution is silent are the conventions, or accepted practices. It is when conventions are thrown out of the window that crisis happens.
de Smith in the same book (page 55) says that “law and convention are closely interlocked.” Foremost of all, Jennings, in The Law and the Constitution, says that constitutional conventions “provide the flesh which clothes the dry bones of the law, they make the legal constitution work; they keep in touch with the growth of ideas.”
de Smith summed up Dicey’s position on adherence to conventions (in Dicey’s Introduction to the Study of the Law of Constitution as follows:
“Dicey contended that the sanction which constraints the boldest political adventurer to obey a convention he might feel inclined to break was his fear that breach would almost immediately bring him in to conflict with the Courts and the law of the land.”
de Smith then concluded that “obedience to conventions was, therefore, buttressed by the sanctions of strict law”. He further explains that “the sense of obligation and the fear of disagreeable consequences which tend to induce people to comply with conventions are broadly similar to the corresponding feelings which conduce to observance of the criminal law”.
Such is the importance of constitutional conventions that any breaches of or departure from conventions might bring untold consequences. The fear of these consequences drives the compliance with the conventions.
In my humble view, and I say this with the greatest of respect to the Sultan of Perak, the crisis in his state was not caused by a lack of power. It was driven by a departure from conventions in the exercise of his Royal discretion.
What is the convention or accepted practice in relation to the refusal of dissolution under a constitution which draws its form and substance from the Common Law and a Westminster styled democracy? HRH the Sultan of Perak himself succinctly put in his book, “Constitutional Monarchy, Rule of Law and Good Governance” that “under normal circumstances, it is taken for granted that the YDP Agong would not withhold his consent to a request for dissolution of Parliament. His role under such situation is purely formal.”
It is also clear that the Prime Minister has the power to request a dissolution at any time of his own choosing. Wade and Phillips, in “Constitutional Law” posits that ” no sovereign could constitutionally refuse to grant a dissolution of Parliament at the time of his (the PM’s)choice”. It is also of considerable interest to note de Smith’s view that “some modern writers have argued that the usage of acceding to request has hardened into a binding convention never to refuse a request, or the power to refuse exists in theory but not in practice, or that the monarch is too remote from political realities or too likely to be swayed by conservative influence or prejudice or too vulnerable to criticism to exercise an independent discretion. Hence such a refusal would now be highly controversial, unless the request itself was manifestly improper; and this fact alone must make any attempt at definition highly tentative.”
Events in Perak in the past few months have elevated the above statement to a prophecy of sorts. Just look at the controversy surrounding the crisis now. Just look at the public ridicule over the entire issue nowadays. None of these would have occurred had conventions been followed.
The Perak crisis has morphed itself into a black hole which is sucking the whole administrative system of this country. Affected by the crisis is not only the 3 leaping ADUNs and the respective political personages who are jostling for power but also the various institutions which happen to be connected – by close proximity, usages or entanglement – to the crisis.
The Assembly is in a shamble. Its Speakers are in doubt. The Royal House has been ridiculed, though I must hasten to add, mostly unwarranted. It has even been used during by-elections as shouts of “derhaka” were provoked and relished by some politicians. The independence of the MACC (in postponing the case against the 2 leaping ADUNs), the Police, the AG chambers and even the Courts has been questioned. Malaysia is, in fact, a laughing stock. That is the price which we, Malaysians, are paying for the Perak mess. Perhaps we should read more and ponder on the wise words of learned writers, whose words now have become nothing short of prophetic.
Consider what de Smith said: “…the burden thrust upon the Courts when they are called upon to determine whether prescribed rules have been complied with in a politically sensitive situation is liable to be excessive. Whatever the outcome, the prestige of the Judiciary will probably suffer. If the rules have been set down, do not require the Courts to decide whether, for example, a Prime Minister has been validly dismissed. This is pre-eminently a question about the reins of power. If the constitutionality of such an act is disputed, the controversy is unlikely to be resolved by the pronouncement of a court.”
The above statement could have been written as a real-life commentary of what has been happening in Perak and in our Courts recently. But that was written a good 36 years ago. And that is the high price all of us pay when conventions are not followed.
“What it means, in layman’s term is simply this, that YB Dato’ Seri Ir Nizar should have resigned the day he met HRH the Sultan of Perak on February 4, 2009. His defiance on that day has dragged the constitutional crisis to where it was until the Court of Appeal decided today!”
I beg to differ. As shown above, authorities, constitutional precedents and conventions have shown that, when faced with a no confidence vote, a Premier is entitled to seek dissolution. When sought, conventions dictate that the Ruler should not refuse dissolution. In the Perak case, however, dissolution was inexplicably refused. The MB was asked to resign instead. And a new MB was appointed.
Nizar was just exercising his right as the incumbent MB in asking for dissolution. That was his constitutional right. He did not cause the crisis. The crisis was caused by events taking place after he exercised his right as such.
Dismissal of the MB
Suffice to say that the notion that the Ruler has the power to dismiss the MB under circumstances where the MB has lost the confidence of the Assembly, without more, is misconceived. Conventions dictate that firstly, dissolution must be granted when requested.
This is in line with the fact that under the Perak Constitution, by article 16 (7), the MB does not hold office at the pleasure at HRH the Sultan. L. A, Sheridan, in his book “The British Commonwealth – the Development of its laws and constitutions” noted that “in the temporal sphere of politics the Ruler has been since 1957 a constitutional Ruler….a Ruler with limited powers….and that the MB or Executive Council should not hold office at the pleasure of the Ruler or be ultimately responsible to him but should be responsible to a parliamentary assembly and should cease to hold office on ceasing to have confidence of that assembly.”
However, when the Constitution was framed, it makes the Executive Council to hold office at the pleasure of the Sultan but not the MB. And of course, when faced with a no confidence vote, the MB may request dissolution first.
de Smith agrees with this when he says:
“If a Government, having lost its majority…were to insist on remaining in office instead of offering its resignation or advising a dissolution, the Queen would be justified, after the lapse of a reasonable period of time, in requesting the Prime Minister to advise her to dissolve Parliament and, if he were to refuse, in dismissing him and his Ministers.”
So, the exact methodology is this:
The first scenario:
1.the Premier loses majority
2.the Premier offers resignation – if this happens, the Queen appoints a new Premier and the matter ends there.
The second scenario:
1.the Premier loses majority
2.the Premier requests dissolution
3.the Queen dissolves Parliament
4. a general election is called
The third scenario:
1.the Premier loses majority
2.the Premier refuses to resign
3.the Premier refuses to advise dissolution
4.the Queen waits
5.after a reasonable period of time, the Queen invites the Premier to advise her to dissolve
6.the Premier refuses
7.the Queen sacks the Premier
The Perak situation falls under the second scenario. Unfortunately, dissolution was not granted.(In any event, it has to be pointed out that the loss of majority was, at the time of the request for dissolution, not established clearly in the Perak crisis).
It is clear that the power to dismiss is just a residual power. It is a power which is necessitated by events rather than a power which is naturally imbued in the Ruler’s armoury of discretions or prerogatives. It would be wise to take heed of what de Smith later said:
“A change of Prime Minister may be necessary because of the resignation, death or dismissal of the incumbent. The last possibility, dismissal, would arise only in highly exceptional circumstances and, one would suppose, in a near revolutionary situation.”
Thus this residual power cannot be exercised by the Sultan without having explored the possibility of executing any other Constitutional power. It is a power, which, in my humble opinion, is to be exercised as a definite last resort and after having explored all other possible avenues. Since Queen Victoria came to the throne, all vacancies in the PM office have arisen through either death or resignation and never dismissal. de Smith pointed out that the last unambiguous dismissal of the Government took place in 1783!
Even if the Queen were to dismiss the PM, de Smith posits that the new PM must be prepared to advise dissolution of the Parliament at the “earliest practicable moment.”
So, the new PM (or in the Perak case, MB), appointed upon the dismissal of the previous one under this residual power, is not appointed to rule but to advise the Ruler to dissolve the Parliament (or in the Perak case, the Assembly) so that power can be returned to the people through an electoral process. That is in the true spirit of the Constitution. The true spirit in the case of Perak has been forgotten or put aside due to political expediency.
That being the case, even on the assumption that Nizar had lost the majority support and that he Sultan was right in dismissing Nizar, Zambry’s function is not to rule but to advise the Sultan to dissolve at the “earliest practicable moment”.
Mahathir Mohammad, the former Prime Minister, thought that the Perak coup was wrongly done and handled. He then admitted that if an election is called in Perak, the UMNO-led BN would lose. It is, therefore, clear that the UMNO leadership is uncomfortably possessed of the knowledge that they would lose in an election, if it is called. Hence their refusal to advise the Sultan to dissolve the Perak state assembly.
Startlingly, de Smith had foreseen this situation when 36 years ago, he wrote: “She (the Queen) would also, it is submitted, be justified in dismissing her Ministers if they were purporting to subvert the democratic basis of the Constitution – for example, by prolonging the life of a Parliament in order to avoid defeat at a General Election…”
In the circumstances, where the UMNO-led BN government knows full well that it is going to lose in an election, if it is called, it is my humble view that it lacks the moral, and even legal, ground to rule Perak. That is, with respect, an attempt to subvert the democratic basis of the constitution by prolonging the life of the Assembly in order to avoid defeat in an election.
It is, therefore, submitted with respect that the HRH the Sultan of Perak is now possessed with the residual power to invite Zambry to advise him to dissolve the Assembly. In the event Zambry refuses, constitutional conventions would equip the Sultan with the power to dismiss the government and appoint a new one just for the purpose of advising the Sultan to dissolve the state assembly. The real power could then be returned to the people through the ballot box.
I rest my case.