April 11, 2017
Malaysia: Ceremonial Titles for Sale
by Dr.M. Bakri Musa, Morgan-Hill, California
A prominent businessman who had hosted more than one Agong (King of Malaysia) as well as many Sultans was hauled away in his orange lock-up attire, desperate to hide his face, on charges of trying to bribe the Sultan of Johor over recommendations for a federal royal honorific title.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency (MACC) has yet to release the suspect’s identity, or the charges. The social and mainstream media have already condemned him, Malaysia’s corruption personified. It is rare for the two often very contrasting views to coincide.
Conspicuous by its absence is any mention of the complementary if not necessary role of the other half of the equation, recipients of his alleged bribes. If we were to focus on that instead, it would expose this corrosive and despicable aspect of Malaysian society. The man, as well as MACC Chief, the Sultan of Johor, and a few others would then emerge as heroes, and Malaysia the better for it. As for who the true villains were, we would have to wait.
The suspect was also alleged to have “brokered” on behalf of aspiring Malay knight wannabes among rich non-Malays, those willing to fork out huge sums for the privilege of donning the white songkok and the accompanying monkey suit during official functions.
The irony does not escape me. Non-Malays, the Chinese in particular, may be resentful if not disdainful of Malay community and culture, the consequence of being excluded from the New Economic Policy. Their elite however, are not at all bashful in pursuing feudal Malay titles. That reflects more the financial, social and other clouts such titles confer in contemporary Malaysia, less the honorees’ respect for Malay values.
UMNO’s Hulubalangs (Warriors)
Cases of Malaysian royal titles being bought, or allegations thereof, are not news. They are also far from being mere allegations. There is a portrait, viral in the social media, of a mongoloid-looking character barely out of his teens, all prim and proper in his official pose as a Malay hulubalang (warrior). I wonder what great service this prodigy had rendered.
I was once at a social function in America hosted by one of Malaysia’s many Sultans here on a private visit. I found myself in a quiet corner with some of the guests. The conversation drifted on the many titled ones in the crowd, and of royal awards generally. To clarify and confirm what I thought I was hearing, I inquired as to the prevailing price of such titles, specifically with this Sultan, known for his exuberant generosity in dispensing such honors. When told, I replied with nonchalant casualness that it was well within my affordability range. With the other sultans, the rates could be doubled, I was told.
Imagine my surprise when a few weeks later I received a phone call from Malaysia. The caller identified himself as a “Raja” and “well connected to the palace.” He wanted to pursue “the topic we had discussed!”
I burst out laughing and assured him that I had only been joking. He kept pressing me, unconvinced by my reply. He was so persistent that I had to hang up on him. I did not know whether he was genuine or a con artist trying to rip me off. I was not interested to find out.
Thus, when the Sultan of Johor exposed that bribery attempt, it elicited a yawn in me. What was new? There was indeed something new, or at least unusual. First, the manner of his revealing it – on his social media. My inquisitiveness then took over. Why him, and of much greater significance, why now and the manner?
When I was a surgeon in General Hospital Johor Bharu in 1977, a colleague was banished out of state within 24 hours for allegedly being rude to a sultan. No trial, no due process. Imagine trying to bribe one! I expected the royal keris to have been sharpened, as in days of yore, not a posting in social media. Not many would dare even consider bribing a sultan, except perhaps the Sultan of Sulu. That would not be a bribe as he has no official function or power, and thus no favors to bestow.
It is safe to conclude that the Johor Sultan was not the suspect’s first or only attempted bribee. It is also safe to conclude that he must have some familiarity with sultans generally and that of Johor specifically.
In Malay culture, peasants bringing tributes to their Sultans is the norm, much like Hindus their deities. That businessman could be trying to be a humble and loyal rakyat.
If MACC were to focus only on the briber, then this case would be no different from the many others. The same dynamics, comparable greed, and similar motives; only the personalities differ, and of course the size, nature, and purpose of the loot.
Circumstances create heroes. This is the rare and unique opportunity for the MACC chief to prove his mettle, to be a true, honest, and devoted public servant, as he without end claims to be. “Flip” this alleged briber; make him a prosecution witness instead of the defendant. Offer him immunity and a deal he could not refuse in return for the “goods” he would deliver.
It would not be an easy choice for the suspect. Coming from a culture that bred the feared Triads, not dissimilar from the Mafia, with its code of silence enforced with unimaginable brutality, being truthful would not come naturally, not to mention could be very dangerous. On the other hand, the prospect of a long jail sentence, and leaving behind your foreign wife and young children, is not palatable either.
Then consider the potential rewards, of being hailed a hero for exposing the seedy aspect of the royalty class, by Malays and non-Malays alike. He would then be truly deserving of his Tan Sri title.
He had it easy thus far, out on only RM200K bail. Peanuts to someone like him and in these days of the depreciated ringgit. From another aspect, the price of one Datukship from a cheap Sultan.
Imagine if he were to reveal all. A special tribunal, as provided for in the constitution (thanks to Mahathir), would have to be empaneled to prosecute those alleged corrupt Sultans. Imagine the electricity once the charges were proffered. Najib would sigh a huge relief as it would wipe off the festering 1MDB scandal from the front pages. His ardent defender, aka Attorney-General Apandi Ali, would also emerge as a hero among honest Malaysians, instead of as now, a renegade and protector of the corrupt.
On the political front, in one fell swoop Najib would outstrip Mahathir in striking fear and terror among the sultans. They are still chafing at their collective treatment by Mahathir in the 1980s and 90s when he stripped them of their personal immunity as well as their veto powers over legislations. The sultans have been asserting themselves lately, in tandem with Najib’s increasing vulnerability. Their not assenting to the National Security Act of 2016 was a non-too-subtle manifestation of this new assertiveness. The so-called First Lady of Malaysia outflanking the Queen and the various Sultanahs in the gaudy ostentatious arenas also did not sit well with the royals.
Expect UMNO newsletters Utusan, Berita Harian and The New Straits Times reprising the 1980s, filling their pages with lurid titillating details of royal peccadilloes.
Forest City Project in Johor
What prompted Sultan Ibrahim, the son of the only sultan ever convicted of murder, to expose this alleged bribery? The Johore Royal Household is the wealthiest not just in Malaysia and not just among Sultans. Its involvement in the massive Forest City Project would ensure its wealth would remain undiminished for generations no matter how profligate their princes and princesses. Perhaps the amount of the alleged bribe was insulting.
Forest City is drawing much negative reaction, in part because of the mega sums, massive Mainland Chinese involvement, and unknown environmental consequences. To many Malays this development rekindles painful humiliating memories of what his great grandfather did to that little island across Selat Tebrau.
Then there was the sultan declining to offer himself for election by his brother rulers to be Deputy King a few months ago. As all kids know, the difference between not wanting versus not being given can be hard to discern. There is not much fraternal love lost between him and his brother rulers. This exposé could be payback time.
This high-profile case will not end up in the usual NFA (No Further Action) file. The only question is whether the suspect, together with MACC chief, AG Apandi Ali, and the Sultan emerge as heroes or renegades?