August 27, 2012
The Sultan’s Daulat Is A Myth
Book Review: Ampun Tuanku. A Brief Guide to Constitutional Government. Zaid Ibrahim. ZI Publications, Petaling Jaya, 2012. ISBN 9 789675 266263 256 pp.
As a youngster in 1960 I had secured for myself a commanding view high atop a coconut tree to watch the funeral procession of the first King, Tuanku Abdul Rahman. My smug demonstration of my perched position drew the attention of the village elders below. They were none too pleased and immediately ordered me down.
“Sultans have daulat,” they admonished, “you cannot be above them.” Apparently even dead sultans maintained their daulat. I did not dare challenge my elders as to what would happen once the king was buried; then we all would be above him.
To put things in perspective, this attribution of special or divine powers to rulers is not unique to Malay culture. The ancient Chinese Emperors too had their Tianming, Mandate from Heaven. That however, was not enough to protect them.
Even though it has deep roots in Malay society, this daulat thing is a myth. The Japanese, despite their own “Sun Goddess” tradition, had no difficulty disabusing Malay rajas and their subjects of this myth. The surprise was not how quickly the sultans lost their power and prestige, or how quickly they adapted to their new plebian status during the Japanese Occupation, rather how quickly the Malay masses accepted this new reality of their rajas being ordinary mortals sans daulat.
Only days before the Japanese landed, any Malay peasant who perchance made eye contact with his sultan, may Allah have mercy on him for the sultan certainly would not. When the Japanese took over, those rajas had to scramble with the other villagers for what few fish there were in the river and what scarce mushrooms they could scrape in the jungle. Nobody was bothered with or took heed of the daulat thing. So much for it being deeply entrenched in our culture!
To pursue my point, had the Malayan Union succeeded, our sultans today would have been all tanjak (ceremonial weapon) and desta (headgear); they would have as much status and power as the Sultan of Sulu. Across the Strait of Malacca, hitherto Malay sultans are now reduced to ordinary citizens. They and their society are none the worse for that.
Today’s slightly better educated Malay sultans and crown princes (there are no crown princesses, let it be noted) would like us to believe in yet another myth, this time based not on our culture but constitution. They believe that it provides them with that extra “something” beyond their being mere constitutional head.
This new myth, like all good fiction, has just a tinge of reality to it. The Reid Commission had envisaged the Conference of Rulers to be the third House of Parliament, after the elected House of Representatives and the appointed Senate. It would be a greatly reduced House of Lords as it were, to provide much-needed “final thought” to new legislations.
That assumption had considerable merit, at least in theory. As membership is hereditary, those rulers would be spared from having to pander to the masses as those elected Members of Parliament, or please their political patrons as with the senators. Additionally, this third house would be non-partisan.
An expression of this “Third House of Parliament” function is that all senior governmental including ministerial appointments have to be ratified by the Conference of Rulers. However, unlike the transparent deliberations of the “advice and consent” function of the United States Senates where senior appointees are subjected to open confirmation hearings, the proceedings of the Conference are secret. We know only those who have been accepted, not those rejected or why.
Zaid Ibrahim’s Ampun Tuanku. A Brief Guide to Constitutional Government addresses what should be in his view the proper role of sultans in the Malaysian brand of constitutional monarchy, specifically whether they have this “something extra” beyond what is explicitly stated in the constitution. As a lawyer Zaid is uniquely qualified to write on the matter. He is no ordinary lawyer, having once headed the country’s largest legal firm and served as the nation’s de facto Law Minister.
The title notwithstanding, this highly readable book is more persuasive than descriptive; more political science treatise, less legal brief. The expository flow is smooth, logical and highly convincing. It is refreshingly free of legal jargon or references to court cases that typically pollute commentaries by lawyers. To Zaid, the constitution does indeed grant Malay sultans that something extra, but not in their capacity as the titular head of the government, rather as their being head of Islam and defender of the faith.
Zaid explores the many wonderful opportunities possible as a consequence of this second function without having to invoke additional “special powers.” I will pursue his novel ideas and wonderful suggestions later. At 40 pages, his chapter on this issue (“The Rulers and Islamization”) is the longest, and deserves careful reading especially by the royal class. He puts forth many innovative ideas that if pursued would benefit not only Malays but also all Malaysians.
With active and enlightened engagement by the rulers and Agong, Islam would emancipate Malays just as it did the ancient Bedouins, and in the process enhance race relations. That would be a pleasant if somewhat radical departure from the current environment where Islam not only deeply polarizes Malays but also sows much interfaith and interracial distrust.
In all other aspects the sultans and Agong are bound by what is explicitly stated in the constitution. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, Zaid stresses, and our sultans and Agong must abide by the wishes of the rakyat as expressed through their elected representatives in the executive branch. If citizens have made their wishes clear through an election that they would prefer a certain party and individuals to lead them or certain legislations enacted, the sultan must abide by that decision regardless of where his personal sympathy lies.
In short, there are no penumbras of rights and privileges emanating from those hallowed clauses of our constitution. The matter is clear: Sultans are bound by the law. Sultans cannot claim a penumbra of power based on daulat or divine mandate, as the Sultan as well as the Raja Muda of Perak tried to argue recently. Daulat is fiction.
This principle is central and must be defended against any incursion or erosion. Zaid is rightly distressed, for example, when the Sultan of Trengganu (who was also the Agong at the time) prevailed in making his choice of Ahmad Said as Chief Minister when the citizens had explicitly elected the state UMNO leader Idris Jusoh.
This erosion was possible only because of the weak leadership of then Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. Similar incursion occurred in Perak, this time on a much more blatant and ugly level.
The situation in Perak is particularly instructive. Before becoming sultan, Raja Azlan Shah once served as the country’s Chief Justice. As Zaid reminds us in his book, in that capacity Raja Azlan clearly articulated that the powers of the Agong are well circumscribed by the constitution. As sultan however, he claimed his “special powers.” That was his justification for imposing his solution on the state’s political crisis during the post-2008 election crisis to favor the Barisan coalition.
Such palace incursions and our acquiescence undermine the very principle of our democracy. On a more practical level, if that proves to be the new norm, our chief and prime ministers would then be beholden to their Sultans and Agong, not the rakyat. Our ministers (menteris) would then revert to their role in feudal Malay society, as hired hands of the palace and not the people’s chief executive.
In a democracy, daulat (sovereignty) resides with the people, not the rajas. Our constitution is clear on that point, as Zaid repeatedly reminds us. We must constantly defend this principle lest it be eroded.