THE Yang di-Pertuan Agong was well into the second half of his royal address in Parliament on Monday when Members of Parliament on both sides of the bench began thumping their tables.
The government backbenchers rapped their table rhythmically in total agreement to what they were hearing and it took a while for many of them to realise that the thumping coming from the other side of the floor was not in agreement, but in opposition.
“When I looked up, I saw that some of the opposition MPs looked stunned. Some looked upset,” said Sempoerna MP and Deputy Defence Minister Datuk Shafie Apdal.
Those who had been leaning back in their seats for much of the speech now sat up to pay close attention.
Opposition leader Datuk Seri Hadi Awang kept his composure as he absorbed every word, but more than a few government backbenchers noticed how Pokok Sena MP Mahfuz Omar, known for his fiery rhetoric, began to frown and shake his head as soft mutters of “ucapan politik!” came from the PAS MPs seated around him.
Some of them were practically banging their table with their fists.
And that was the way the House was divided when His Majesty’s speech reached the part on Islam and the ummah, or more specifically, how disunity among the ummah would reign if there was confusion about the meaning of an Islamic state, jihad and the role of the mosque.
Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin Jamalullail went on to voice concern over the activities of some Sekolah Agama Rakyat (SAR) which had not adhered to the true teachings of Islam but instead instigated students to hate other Muslims.
“If the government were to continue supporting such deviant religious schools, it means it is condoning teachings that are contrary to Islam,” he said.
He also expressed his desire to see students master English to stay abreast of science and technology and described critics of the language policy as “narrow-minded.”
His speech stumped PAS politicians who think they have the upperhand on the SAR controversy, sparked off by the Federal Government’s decision to stop their subsidy funding of these schools.
In fact, they had hoped to fan the issue into the next general election but His Majesty’s unequivocal disapproval of the way the religion has been exploited from the pulpit down the level of religious schools may have dented their political campaign.
The impact of the King’s words cannot be underestimated for he is not only the sovereign head but also the custodian on the matter of Islam.
This is not the first time that a royal figure has expressed apprehension on the politicisation of religion but it is the first time that someone so high up on the Malay hierarchy has taken such a clear stand on the SAR issue.
“I can see why they’re unhappy. PAS has been trying to petition the Rulers on the school issue and this speech is like a reply to them,” said Tambun MP Datuk Husni Hanadzlah.
PAS Youth leader Mahfuz recently led a delegation to hand over a memorandum to the Sultan of Terengganu, who is also the Deputy Agong.
The party’s attempts to meet the other Rulers have been unsuccessful to date. However, a coalition of NGOs, known as Gabungan Gerakan Menyelamatkan SAR (Gegar) and which is perceived as affiliated to PAS, is believed to have handed over petitions to the Sultans of Kedah, Perak and Terengganu.
PAS politicians are now trying to downplay the significance of the speech.
Once the grand opening ceremony was over, PAS MPs held a hurried meeting chaired by Hadi, who is also the acting party president. It was time for damage control, to give the royal speech a PAS spin.
Hadi immediately issued a statement saying that he believed the speech did not reflect the King’s personal views. “We cannot burden the King with the speech. He merely read the text that was given to him,” he said.
Hadi said that “the BN government prepared the text,” implying that His Majesty may not have necessarily agreed with what he had said.
Mahfuz was more direct. He said the King should have taken his own position on the matter when given the text. Others like Tumpat MP Datuk Kamaruddin Jaffar insisted the sovereign ought to have waited till the Council of Rulers had sat before taking a stand on the SAR issue.
Umno politicians find the PAS spin presumptuous and even preposterous. PAS politicians, they say, are walking a very fine line in presuming that the King may not mean what he had said in his royal address.
“What makes them think that Tuanku is not in agreement with the contents of the speech? As the ruler and custodian of the religion, it is his prerogative to remind his subjects regarding the right path in Islam,” said Shafie.
Up till now, the SAR issue has been played out in the political arena. But Monday’s royal address has, as Husni pointed out, taken the issue to a new level.
“The Agong has taken a stand in quite clear terms whatever PAS may claim,” said Husni.
PAS leaders are probably aware that the Agong has grown into a respected and deeply-liked sovereign. He has conducted his duties like a true-blue royal and yet shown the common touch that goes into the making of a popular monarch.
PAS politicians may be able to take on Umno but they are aware that it is not so easy to go against the sovereign.
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