September 2, 2012
Book Review: Zaid Ibrahim’s Ampun Tuanku
Zaid begins his book by briefly tracing the history of Malay sultans. Unlike the Japanese Imperial family that stretches as far back as 600 BC, or the British to the 11th Century or even earlier, Malay sultans are of recent vintage. The Raja of Perlis was established only in 1834, while that of Johor only slightly older (1819).
In modeling the Malaysian constitutional monarchy along the British one, the Reid Commission assumed that Malay sultans were like English kings. That was the first major blunder. To Zaid, it also underscores the pitfall of trying to adopt wholesale foreign concepts or models, not just in law but also much of everything else.
Those English monarchs have had centuries of working with a democratically elected government. Earlier, a few of them have had to pay dearly for their errors. Consequently today their system works smoothly. Not so with Malay sultans. Up until British rule, Malay sultans were literally Gods; those sultans could actually take your life. Displease the sultan or prevent him from grabbing whatever you own including your daughter or priced kerbau (water buffalo), and you risked being beheaded, banished, or enslaved (kerah). Those sultans were not above the law as there were no laws then; they were the laws.
Malays like me have a lot to be thankful to those colonials for ending those odious royal traits of our culture. No, that is not an expression of my being mentally colonized, rather one of deep gratitude.
Malaysia has a disproportionate number of monarchs, 9 out of the nearly 40 worldwide, as Zaid and others have noted. The error in that frequently cited observation is the assumption that our sultans are comparable to those other kings and queens; they are not. There is little in common between Malay sultans and the British Queen or Japanese Emperor.
Instead, Malay sultans have more in common with the tribal warlords of Africa and Papua New Guinea, from their insular worldview to their fanciful costumes. The Papuan tribal chiefs have their elaborate colorful headgear, as well as their prominent penile sheaths which they proudly display; ours have their equally ostentatious desta and tanjak.
Like those tribal chieftains, our sultans’ too are afflicted with their feudal habits. Modernity has not erased our sultan’s medieval mentality. When Malaysia became independent, those odious habits began creeping back. Those sultans are not to be blamed entirely, however.
“The Rulers’ unwillingness to remain within their constitutional roles has been further aggravated,” Zaid writes, “by a lack of conviction and courage by the institutions that are supposed to protect and preserve [our] … constitution.” Stated differently, our sultans have many enablers. We allow them to regress. We tolerate them when they flout the rules.
Members of the Malay royal family are perfectly capable of behaving themselves and keeping within the rules if they were to be told in no uncertain terms that their tantrums would not be tolerated. Consider their behaviors during colonial and Japanese times. It was the sultans who sembah (genuflected to) the colonial and Japanese officers.
Today when these Malay princes and princesses are down in Singapore for example, they obey even the basic traffic rules. Those rajas would not dare pull their silly stunts down there; they would be immediately punished. Likewise, if one of our sultans were to skip on his Vegas casino gambling debts, our ambassador would have to quickly bail him out of the county jail.
Just as a child whose earlier tantrums had not been corrected would grow up to be an intolerable brat, likewise when our sultans strayed earlier on and there was no one to restrain them, that only encouraged them to go beyond. A few decades later their excesses would trigger the constitutional crises of the 1980s and 1990s that led to the amendments ending respectively the rulers’ power to veto legislations and stripping them of legal immunity in their personal conduct.
Both were possible because of the strong executive leadership of Prime Minister Mahathir. Today with a government with a less-than-robust mandate and a leader with a banana stem spine, the sultans are emboldened to re-exert themselves; hence the insistence of their daulat or special status.
With that, their old brute feudal traits began to re-surface. Consider the ugly spectacle a few years back in Singapore involving the Kelantan Royal family. They tried to essentially kidnap the estranged Indonesian wife of one of the princes. Had that incident happened in Malaysia, rest assured that a “helpful” minister or religious leader would have “counseled” the poor young girl to return to her obnoxious husband.
In Singapore where everyone is equal under the law, that prince would not dare claim his special status. More importantly, no one would grant him such. Consequently that poor Indonesian bride of the prince was able to escape from her palace prison.
On a much more grotesque scale, there was the case involving a Brunei prince and his British lawyers. As the dispute fell under American jurisdiction, we get to see in open court the peccadilloes of that prince. Not pretty, in fact hideous. You can assume that his counterparts in Malaysia are no different, only that their ugly acts are willfully concealed.
As a consequence of the constitutional amendment of the 1990s, the late Yang di Pertuan Negri Sembilan was successfully sued for his unpaid debts. In the past, his creditors would not have even dared challenge him. To the royal class, those peasants should be grateful that their “tributes” were accepted.
While the royal tribunal is an advancement, its learning or even deterrent value was minimal or non-existent as the proceedings are secret. Had they been open, the lavish lifestyles and obscene unpaid bills of our sultans would be exposed. They could not then readily claim their daulat under such ugly circumstances.
Zaid advocates that those royal tribunal proceedings be open to the public, as with any court hearing; I agree. Such exposures would also help humanize our sultans, showing to the public that they are susceptible to the usual human foibles and weaknesses. Deadbeats, even royal ones, do not have daulat!