Our Constitution is working

We should be proud instead of being ‘embarrassed’ that the Rulers need to be the ones to restore parliamentary democracy.

THERE is no need (tidak ada keperluan) for an Emergency past Aug 1, 2021, and Parliament should sit immediately (segera bersidang).

This is the firm, explicit and unequivocal view of the Conference of Rulers and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, as expressed in media statements issued on Wednesday by the Keeper of the Rulers’ Seal and Comptroller of the Royal Household of Istana Negara respectively, following the special Conference of Rulers’ five-hour meeting that afternoon.

Social media is already afire with reaction, and politicians are working out their response to the royal command towards a strong and stable government.

Collective statements by the Rulers are not new: in 2008, 2010 and 2017, at times of social unease, Their Royal Highnesses called for the upholding of national unity, the Rukun Negara and the Federal Constitution.

In 2015, the Rulers made the rare step of commenting on controversy surrounding a specific entity – 1MDB – saying “the failure to give convincing clarifications and answers is feared to have resulted in a crisis of confidence”, calling for a thorough investigation into the sovereign wealth fund, its findings to be made public, and listing institutions such as the police, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, Bank Negara, Attorney General’s Chambers and the judiciary to perform their constitutional roles accordingly.

Sadly, that unprecedented statement has been forgotten by many uninformed critics of the monarchy, who falsely claim that the Rulers said “nothing” on 1MDB.

Today, thanks in part to assertive civil society and the ubiquitous use of social media, Malaysians know that the King rejected the government’s request for an Emergency in October 2020. And though the Prime Minister’s second request for an Emergency in January 2021 was approved, all Malaysians now know that it will end.

Of course, constitutional lawyers with opposing views have been working hard.

When the Yang di-Pertuan Agong rejected the first request for an Emergency, some said that rejection was unconstitutional.

On Instagram, I posted Article 150 of the Federal Constitution, highlighting the unambiguous part “If the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is satisfied”.

Now, I further point them to the excellent piece (‘King’s powers and the Constitution’, June 17, 2021) by Prof Datuk Shad Saleem Faruqi, my comrade in writing in The Star and delivering a lecture named after the eminent constitutional lawyer Raja Aziz Addruse.

He lists four reasons why declaring an Emergency is a discretionary function of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong: first, a 1983 amendment to replace the King’s satisfaction with the Prime Minister’s was repealed in 1984; second, the October 2020 refusal was not challenged in court, thus setting “a precedent of the throne supplying a check and balance”; third, the Emergency Ordinance establishes an Independent Special Committee to advise the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on the continuing existence of the Emergency: “why have this committee if the King is bound by advice?” – a question also posed by Dewan Rakyat Deputy Speaker Datuk Seri Azalina Othman; and fourth, advice from a Prime Minister is only valid if that Prime Minister has democratic legitimacy in Parliament.

The conversations happening now between Members of Parliament will no doubt still contain elements of horse-trading that has disgusted Malaysians of late; but perhaps the renewed royal command, articulating the wishes of their rakyat, will open the avenue to imaginative and effective configurations, whether they resemble a unity government or a confidence and supply arrangement with Parliamentary Select Committees in operation – it has been noted that nothing was mentioned about a potential Mageran (National Operations Council) 2.0, although apparently Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s proposal envisioned Parliament operating alongside (unlike in 1969).

Observations of a historical bent were also made on Wednesday. One was that it was Magna Carta Day – the 806th anniversary of when English barons limited the power of the King – and the irony of now, it is the Malay Rulers demarcating the power of the government.

The second was that it was reminiscent of how the Malay Rulers together with the people collectively ended the Malayan Union by repudiating their signatures obtained under duress after World War II and ultimately boycotting its inauguration ceremony.

Finally, the situation was evocative of that legendary contract (wa’adat) between Sang Sapurba and Demang Lebar Daun: that for as long as the King protects the people, the people will be loyal to the King.

Within the ambit of our present Federal Constitution, that is precisely what our monarchs have done. While some commented that it is an “embarrassment” that monarchs need to be the ones to restore parliamentary democracy, I say we should be proud.

Our Constitution is working. The people will judge who is defying the contract.

Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is founding president of Ideas. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.

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