The Malay rulers: To be feared or respected? 

That kind of behaviour coupled with the continued insistence of a court language that is demeaning and the customs of sembah (to pay obeisance), have put the Malay rulers out of touch with a citizenry more aware of their democratic rights.

Sheridan Mahavera, The Malaysian Insider

Dr Syed Husin Ali has a few revolutionary ideas on how to turn the Malay rulers, who have faced a rash of criticism and venom over the past few years, into a respected institution of national and communal unity.

Not only would they be respected, says the Senator from Selangor, the monarchy could one day be looked upon as an impartial referee to the political rivalry that’s turning Malaysia into a boiler room of ethnic and religious tensions.

But for this to happen, says Syed Husin, a former sociology professor, the nine Malay rulers must be willing to give up some of the privileges that make them royals in the first place.

This is the kernel of his new book “The Malay Rulers: Regression or Reform?”

The slim 83-page work is an update to his earlier book written in Bahasa Malaysia slightly more than 20 years ago titled “Isu Raja dan Pindaan Perlembagaan” (The Royalty Issue and Constitutional Amendments).

Immune no more

The update is no coincidence. In December 1992, the Parliament during the Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamed administration, passed a constitutional amendment that was to have a huge effect on the power of the Malay rulers.

The amendment effectively stripped them of immunity from prosecution in a court of law – a privilege they once had and which till the early ’90s, some of them abused.

A little more than 10 years before that, the Dewan Rakyat also amended the Constitution to take away the power of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to block new laws by not giving his consent to parliamentary bills.

It was during the heady days of what is called “the 1993 constitutional crisis” that Syed Husin penned the original book in order to understand what was going on and what effect it would have on society.

“I was even invited by Utusan Malaysia (which was already an Umno mouthpiece) to write several articles on the issue. My writings were seen as a way to strengthen the reasoning for introducing those amendments”, he said during a recent interview.

As he outlines in the book, although the 1993 amendment was sparked by several brutal beatings of ordinary citizens by members of the Johor royal family, the Barisan Nasional administration was unsure how it would be accepted by the people.

So it ran a media campaign through organs such as Utusan Malaysia and television stations which highlighted the excesses of the royals.

Besides the assault case of the Johor royal, cases of Sultans demanding choice logging concessions were also dredged up and publicised.

The argument then, as Dr Mahathir said during his speech to Parliament when tabling the amendment, was not “to remove the institution of Malay rulers, but to strengthen their position”.

Slightly 20 years later, that position has been questioned and criticised again as the Malay rulers get caught up in the seismic shifts that rocked society after the 2008 general election.

20 years later

Though they have had some of their powers clipped, the Malay rulers have leveraged the influence, power and position they have as heads of state to take advantage of the new power dynamics between BN and Pakatan Rakyat.

This is seen, Syed Husin said, in how the Rulers of Perak and Selangor have acted in ways which seem detrimental to their respective Pakatan governments.

“After 2008, when Umno lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament, they tried to get the support of the Malay rulers in their campaign against Pakatan.

“But they also had problems dealing with some of the royalty,” said Syed Husin.

The Rulers of Perlis and Terengganu had rejected the Menteri Besar’s candidates from the BN Federal government when they were forming the state administrations.

This landscape of intense political feuding, Syed Husin said, has emboldened the Malay rulers as they realise that their support is coveted by the two political coalitions and their civil society supporters.

“The Malay rulers themselves have become instruments to solidify power.”

This has not gone down well with the public. While many have taken to Facebook and the internet to criticise the royals’ behaviour and actions, others have been less civil.

Some of the Rulers have had crude caricatures of them posted on the web. Even worse are pictures, purportedly of their close relatives in compromising situations, being widely spread on Facebook.

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