Ampun Tuanku: A book to read
KUALA LUMPUR, July 4 — A nation is a notion, founded in a collective myth and built upon a consensus reality. Especially when emerging from war, revolution or other such destructive civil mayhem, it helps to write down exactly what a new nation seeks to be, where it wishes to go, and how it seeks to get there. In a word, a Constitution.
But a Constitution is an article of faith. When that faith is gone, it dematerialises.
Zaid Ibrahim deserves to inspire a new word: “Constitutionism”. Observing the horrid distortions of the Malaysian System in these latter days of discontent, he wonders — repeatedly, aloud and in a variety of contexts — why we have not sought the counsel and direction of the Federal Constitution to guide us through our labyrinthine conflicts.
Zaid’s latest polemic is a letter to the monarchy. This uniquely Malaysian institution, the fourth pillar of our Constitution, has not been aloof from or immune to the ferment of the times. But it has not comported itself with a clarity of purpose appropriate to its constitutional role.
Rectifying this calls for a subtly nuanced understanding of that role. On the one hand, it would require a diminution of the palaces’ public profile of pomp, pageantry, privilege and conspicuous consumption. On the other, it would require the sultans to step up to their positions as overseers of governance — particularly as heads of Islam in their states.
Much of the deterioration in Malaysian society, politics and governance might have been forestalled by a kingly touch on the rudder, Zaid contends. He acknowledges with approval that the “21st Century” rulers — the younger sultans and the present generation of crown princes — consider themselves members of a more “participatory” monarchy. But Zaid cautions that such participation must abide by the rules set out in the Constitution, and deplores political partisanship among rulers.
This is what the people want, he notes, as was evident at the first Bersih rally in late 2007, which had sought to deliver its memorandum of protest and demand directly to Istana Negara. The people still turn to their rulers to help them resolve conflicts with and among their politicians, which indeed accords with the role constitutionally ascribed to the palaces.
Their role is most crucial, however, in the administration of the Islamic religion. It is their oldest role; the only authority they were allowed to retain under British colonial dominion. Yet it has been observed mostly in the breach, with the rulers all but invisible while Islamic practice, jurisprudence and enforcement has been woven ever more arbitrarily — and divisively — into this country’s politics and society.
That has to change, this book argues. This is not to suggest that the Sultans should arrogate religious authority to themselves by simple virtue of their hereditary position. But it is well within their ambit to assemble sound councils of advisors in order to retain their stewardship of the religion, as constitutionally required. Zaid asks for a lower profile for royal excess and superfluousness, but a higher profile for royal leadership.
It is a plangent call in the present circumstances; a cri de coeur to stanch the haemorrhage of public trust in the institutions of state. The Executive is harried and beleaguered; the Legislature a moshpit of implacable enmities; the Judiciary disdained and mistrusted. The genie of public opprobrium is out of the bottle, and there’s no stuffing it back in.
What’s left? Where else to turn? The people, for whom Zaid Ibrahim speaks, are right to huddle around that one last pillar of the national house — the Tiang Ibu, indeed — in hope that the roof stays up.
Malaysia’s troubles stem largely from failing to utilise wisely the resources at our disposal. These include the Federal Constitution, which remains this nation’s operating manual and road map. Unlike any other such document in the world, it includes a definitive role for the Monarchy as the linchpin of national unity.
When our politicians fail to bind the nation together, and indeed threaten to sunder us into warring tribes, the people will turn to the palaces for succour, wise counsel, and the gravitas to calm the troubled waters of state.
The King is not the nation’s supreme authority, of course — the Federal Constitution is. But he is the Constitution’s prime defender. It is a great and glorious duty; quite the antithesis of the irrelevance, desuetude and oblivion that is the fate of any monarchy unable to perceive or fulfil its role in modern democratic governance.
* Ampun Tuanku by Zaid Ibrahim is published by ZI Publications. It is available in all good bookshops nationwide at a retail price of RM38.00.