Royal Power Grab Augurs Ill For Malaysia – COMMENT

For months everyone has sought to be polite. After all, no one wishes to be unnecessarily disrespectful of a constitutional monarch (even a temporary one) who is born into a job that involves considerable levels of public duty (if loads of private perks).

The Agong has appeared ‘ill advised’ or ‘misinformed’ are the sort of careful terms being used by those increasingly concerned at the ways the present incumbent has plainly exceeded his role.

First, there was the strange response to defections from the elected PH government with his appointment of one of the rebels as prime minister without due reference to MPs’ actual wishes or even the calling of Parliament to confirm that choice.

The action was even more peculiar given that the newly installed Agong had gone so far as to get involved in that political crisis to the novel extent of interviewing each and every MP about their choice for leader.

Having asked MPs whom they wanted as PM (the largest number said Anwar Ibrahim, followed by Dr Mahathir) the Agong nonetheless appointed Muhyiddin whom no one had selected.

That was an abuse of the terms of his office under the constitution and troublingly it appeared to involve a level of collaboration in the plans to overturn the elected government that had been orchestrated by UMNO, PAS and various unseen hands. The Council of Rulers was called to confirm the decision rather than Parliament.

During that deliberation by the rulers instead of MPs, a strange group of critics were granted an audience at the palace to hurl unproven, tawdry accusations in front of the self-same rulers about the supposed moral character of the MP’s leading candidate, Anwar Ibrahim, to apparently secure their approval of the Agong’s choice instead.

Constitutionally, that act of ‘judgement’ is the province of the system of law and justice which is supposed to be independent. The accusations in question have so far been dismissed by the police as lacking in substance.

Seemingly, ‘Covid’ has been used to justify the above departures from the normal processes and the Constitution. Muhyiddin got the job and the population was threatened in no uncertain terms they must not gather in any kind of protest (owing to Covid).

From Constitutional Democracy To ‘Autocratic’ Monarchy?

Certainly, anyone who raises concerns about the conducting of these affairs and subsequent refusals to recall Parliament for several months has had to accept violently expressed criticism and threats from certain quarters.

The argument employed is a backwards one: that no hint of admonishment can be allowed of a royal person who must be treated as if above the law and as a representative of divine will. Many a grim dictatorship has employed the same tactic, however in Malaysia the monarch is a constitutional one with very limited and largely ceremonial duties to perform. There are laws against seeking to overthrow the monarch but the monarch has no legal right to overthrow or indeed ignore the Constitution either.

However, the thrilled new ‘PM8’ (who had betrayed a string of bosses in his quest for the job) exhibited no shame in immediately appointing an unelected political unknown, a close friend and confidant of the Agong, to be the powerful Finance Minister.  Another troubling and unprecedented development on the path to an over-controlling monarchy?

With Parliament firmly shut down for most of the year (on excuse of Covid, of course) and likewise Votes of No Confidence literally banned by another unelected figure parachuted unconstitutionally into the Speaker’s chair, the country has been run by this cabal of rebels and appointees, who have all depended heavily on being propped up by royal command.

To justify the situation the term ‘Royal Decree’ appears to have entered the political language in Malaysia, to mean something the King says he wants, as opposed to a constitutionally processed legal instrument.

““I am touched by the stance of the MPs who support this budget, which also proves they have heeded the decree of His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who wished for the politicians to put aside their politicking momentarily so the budget can be passed..”  [PM Muhyiddin yesterday]

Moving onwards the story has become more disturbing still. The palace chum finance minister has now drawn up a highly bloated and controversial ‘Covid’ budget where in fact the lion’s share of the vast borrowings deemed necessary have been set aside for as yet unspecified ‘development’ projects.

Unfortunately, given the wide historical business dealings of Malaysia’s royal families, it is all rather too conflicted, should any of them be involved in the decision making processes – as everyone can see.

For this and for fundamental reasons of democracy, therefore, the golden rule for constitutional monarchs of the type instituted in Malaysia is to stay completely out of government decision making, politics and parliamentary matters entirely.  Pragmatically, and for purposes of perpetuity, it is a wise acknowledgement that any form of engagement by the monarch may please many, but inevitably annoy and alienate others.  Since the monarch is there to be universally treasured and respected for upholding the system of democracy and rule of law, this should not happen.

Yet it seems that with the advent of the Covid crisis (and a reforming government?) this monarch has forgotten the sensible precedent of all his predecessors and ignored this golden rule. Instead, he appears to rather enjoy ticking off the mere elected folk, who are there to take the decisions and shoulder the consequences, whilst getting involved in their job himself.

Specifically, he has now publicly acknowledged that he has been discussing the present deeply controversial budget and its detailed management and contents with the Finance Minister, one to one. This is the budget he is openly supporting and demanding that MPs pass.

During the process of this bill frequent statements from the palace have openly disparaged and belittled elected MPs as they did their work, accusing them of ‘policking’ and ‘bickering’ – a demeaning description of the task they are elected to perform.  The Agong has instructed them to stop doing it. Yet, at the same time he appears to be involved in the politics of it all himself or at least replacing the process with personal decision-making instead.

This is not an accusation made by others.  Just yesterday the King issued a public statement officially praising those MPs who had as he saw it obeyed his interfering demand to pass his protege’s bloated budget. He took a step further by ticking off those MPs who had called for a proper vote count (which the unelected Speaker had opted to deny).

That ‘obedient’ move followed the Agong’s repeated and publicised advice to MPs to accept the budget without “policking” (for which read debating or criticising). All of which is unprecedented over-reach of the monarch’s constitutional role.

Constitutionally, the King is supposed to privately confer and advise (but not instruct) the prime minister of the day. He is not supposed to lecture the main body of MPs over the heads of their party leadership or worse seek to stir up public sympathy to pressure for the outcomes he prefers. MPs have treated the awkward situation with a natural delicacy seeking to humour the instructions of the monarch as best they can so far, whilst reserving their right to vote down the bill at a later stage.

Friday the over-reach extended further still. The media were informed by the palace itself that the Agong has been involving himself not just in the politics but in the actual consideration and delivery of this very budget which MPs have protested they have had inadequate opportunity to scrutinise and discuss, given the handful of half days this Parliament has been allowed to sit.

The statement, revealed that the Agong received a lengthy personal briefing on the budget from his pal the Finance Minister – the PM apparently being absent. The Agong got the full low down on all that was going on, according to the Palace Statement.

“His Majesty was also briefed on the finance ministry’s efforts on the 2021 Budget since July 2020, involving 40 sessions and the participation of 2,000 individuals and business representatives,” [Malaysia Now]

Why is it that at a time when MPs have been almost banished from their elected role by virtual total suspension of the Parliament, this unelected rotating monarch is instead involving himself and getting to ask questions of the Finance Minister that ought to be answered properly in the sovereign and open chambers of the house?

It all puts into a troubling perspective the near brush earlier this month with a shocking proposal to call a State of Emergency, not because there was a state of emergency but for the political purpose of enabling ‘PM8’ to drive through the budget without having to refer to Parliament or risking a vote on his legitimacy to govern.

Multiple sources now concur that the Agong, together with two other Sultans, had approved the disturbing and unprecedented plan (the excuse being Covid) before being voted down by the remainder of the Council of Rulers.

Despite the ditching of the plainly unjustified declaration of emergency the Agong has nonetheless proved unashamed in appealing over the heads of party leaders to demand acceptance of this budget anyway and support for his chosen PM.

He has criticised MPs in the process and sought to shame them in the eyes of the public for not uniting behind Muhyiddin (of course using the excuse of Covid to do so). Beyond that even, he has indulged in suggesting catastrophic consequences should the budget fail and Muhyiddin be forced to step aside – as if the democratic process did not provide for such an eventuality, which it does.

In short, any populist politician would be more than familiar with the various tactics we have seen utilised by the Agong to get his way with Parliament over this budget during the past few weeks.

Can the royal personage who is supposed to rise above politics have it both ways and retain his lofty persona or will this blatant dabbling in the daily government of the country damage the institution both for himself and those who follow?

Without doubt there is a wide and growing view amongst those who understand how democracy works in Malaysia that this growing interference in the running of the country is over-reach, it is meddling and an unconstitutional encroachment on the sovereign power of Parliament by an unelected monarch.

It seems likely to end in tears all round. Or does the present incumbent plan to change the system entirely, to end the rotation and remain as a very different sort of monarch to those who preceded him – under a very different sort of constitution and form of government?

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