Is the King out of Line?

Nehru Sathiamoorthy

After hearing the Agong’s speech during the opening of the Dewan Rakyat, Pasir Gudang MP Hassan Karim has called out the new Agong, by saying that the Agong has crossed the line.

Does Hassan Karim’s statement have any merit?

Well, to judge that, we must first see who the Agong is.

The Agong is officially called a constitutional monarch. We got our idea of creating a constitutional monarchy from the British, who used to rule us, and who have also turned their own monarchs into constitutional monarchs.

Now what does a constitutional monarchy mean?

To answer the question simply, I will illustrate it with an analogy. The role of a constitutional monarch is basically analogous to the great grandfather of a large family.

If you belong to a large multi-generational family, during New Year or Raya or Deepavali, generations of your family might congregate at your great grandfather’s house to celebrate the festivities, but just because they congregate at his house, it doesn’t mean that he is the one leading the family.

During the family dinner, it will be your great grandfather that will be sitting at the head of the table, but just because he is the one sitting at the most important seat, it doesn’t mean that it is he that is going to be the one that is going to foot the bill.

If the occasion calls for someone to speak to your entire family, it will be your great grandfather that will be the person that will be given the first right to address the entire family, but just because he has the first right to address the entire family, it doesn’t mean that he can order anyone in the family around.

In other words, a constitutional monarchy, like the great grandfather of a large family, is not someone we honour because of their present worth and value, but because of their contributions in the past. Today, they have a lot of prestige accorded to them, but they have next to no authority.

Their prestige comes not only from the fact that they are the most important institution in the country that links the nation to the past, but also because every segment of society in the country have a long standing relationship with them, and often, we only have a relationship with each other on account of our relationship to the king.

However, they have no authority, because today, the authority in the nation has been transferred into the hands of the people, who vest it in the hands of a government that we created by ourselves, of ourselves and for ourselves.

Once upon a time ago, the monarchy might have been a great and powerful institution, whose word was law and who’s wishes were the command of an entire nation.

Today however, while our constitutional monarchs do have some powers vested in them, for all intent and purpose, they, like the great grandfather of a large family, are expected to be a twilight institution, or an institution that is expected to gradually fade away from existence in time.

I am not just saying this just about our constitutional monarchs, by the way, I am saying this about all the constitutional monarchs in the entire world.

In all parts of the world, where the concept of constitutional monarchy remains extant, the nation that they belong to will give them all the prestige, luxury and comfort that they require, but the nation will also expect that their constitutional monarchs to gradually fade away from existence, by serving a more and more ceremonial and symbolic role with the passing of time.

This is the case, because the very foundation of the concept of royalty is obsolete and out of date. Today, nobody believes in such outdated concepts like our station in life is defined by birth, which is the basic concept that every institution of monarchy in the world is based upon.

The only people in the world today who are given the privilege to practise the idea of being given a station in life from birth, are the royalties, and they have this privilege, although the world where this sort of idea has currency has long ceased to exist, because of their contributions to the people and nation in the past.

Although nobody says it out loud, there is an unsaid expectation, that as the years pass by, and the role of a monarch becomes more and more ceremonial and symbolic, a generation will come where the next in line to the monarchy will simply not wish to take up the role, because to do so, they will have to perform a role that is so symbolic and ceremonial, that they will lose all taste of life.

On that day, the long march into the sunset by the institution of royalty will come to a glorious end, and the concept of royalty will disappear altogether from the face of the earth in an illustrious manner, while remaining splendid and resplendent only in the memories of their people.

So how does this long explanation ties with Hassan Karim saying that the Agong is out of line?

Well, the answer is that our new Agong, who took office last January, seems to have a different idea of what a constitutional monarchy means than the one I have illustrated above.

Rather than be content playing just a ceremonial and symbolic role in the country, and continue the royalty’s long march to a glorious extinction , our new Agong, in many ways, is indicating that he intends for a revival of sort for the royalty, and play a more active role in the governing of the country.

Even before he ascended to the throne, he was already saying that he wants institutions like Petronas and MACC to report directly to him.

While addressing the 3rd session of the 15th Parliament recently, he not only chided the MPs in the house and threatened to punish them like they were misbehaving children, he also said that he was going to vet the government’s expenditure and declared that he was not going to tolerate any attempts to topple the unity government.

It was likely all these statements, especially the last one, that caused Hassan Merican to come out with the statement that the king is out of line.

The King chiding the parliamentarians is akin to your great grandfather chiding you, your uncles and your father before promising to discipline all of you if you misbehave, when he was asked to say a few words before the family dinner started. That was not only not what the King was expected to say, him saying it is making it sound as if the King’s position in the country is superior to that of parliamentarians and the parliament, not only in a symbolic way, but in real terms.

For the King to say that he will vet the expenditure of the government is also an extraordinary statement to make, because it raises the question, what if there is something about the government’s expenditure that the king does not approve of? Can the king strike off the expenditure? Does the king possess the authority and power to strike off an expenditure that is made by the representatives of the people? These are the sort of questions that the king’s statement is raising.

Finally, for the king to say that he will not tolerate any attempts to topple the unity government is also an extraordinary statement to make, for it suggests that it is the king, and not the parliament, that determines who should be the government of the day.

This is naturally problematic, because as Hassan Karim pointed out, if a case were to arise where the government of the day loses the confidence of the parliament, can it still continue to reign, even without having the confidence of the parliament, because the king will not tolerate a change of the government? If so, can this sort of government, that does not possess the confidence of the government, but is continuing to reign on account of the king refusing to accept its dissolution, be considered a constitutionally legitimate government?

To make a long story short, what happened recently when the king addressed the parliament, is that instead of just officiating the opening of the parliament in a symbolic and ceremonial manner, as all our previous the kings had done before, our new king decided to use the opportunity to tell the parliamentarians that he is disappointed with the way that they have been running the country, and declare that from now on, he is going to monitor their behaviour, oversee their decisions and determine how they organise themselves, to ensure that they will do right by the country.

His statements, taken all together, indicates that rather than see the monarchy as merely a symbolic and ceremonial institution, our new king desires to play a more active role in the governing of the country, and the role he is intending to play, is one that is superior to that of the parliament and the government of the day.

It is likely this view that has caused Hassan Karim to state that the King is out of line.