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MGG: A popular King will succeed a popular King
By M.G.G. Pillai

24/11/2001 8:39 am Sat

Malaysia's Head of State, Yang Dipertuan Agung -- He Who Is The Highest Of The High, or King -- with his brother rulers, occupy a role in Malay cultural life the politicians would dearly like to erase. Political power, however strong, plays second fiddle to royalty in Malay cultural life. The nine Sultans have a cultural and constitutional role which at times override the government of the day: they sit as the Conference of Rulers, and some appointments cannot be made without their approval. When Malay cultural power is at stake, they override the political dictates. The Prime Minister, Dato' Seri Mahathir Mohamed, tried 18 years ago to cut them down to size with constitutional amendments that reduced their powers, and even turned a blind eye when one of them was brought to court. But the rulers ended with more powers than they thought they had.

The political view is that the royals are wasteful and spendthrift, do not put in a full day's work, and parasites who are better out of its hair. But the average Malaysian, and this includes the non-Malay, see them for what they are, a stabilising influence whose importance increases by the day in a political world in which the politician echoes President Bush: "if you are not with us, you are against us." It is the ruler, in his state, and the King, at the centre, who moderate the politician. With the Malay world in shell shock after the traumatic events which followed the political destruction of the former deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the influence of the Rulers loom larger than life.

So, when the Yang Dipertuan Agung, King in common parlance, died on Wednesday, 21 Nov 2001, the outpouring of emotion, diminished by an exaggerated insistence on form, was extended by fiat. There was no need for that. Well-liked as a ruler, he was not by any means the "man of the people" newspapers insisted he was. A competent royal in his youth, who worked in the state administrative service before his ascencion as Sultan of Selangor, he lived his role to the full. His self-effacing character shone through. A fair tale rending of his life makes it difficult to sift the truth from the fable, but he would, in any tally, be amongst the top. He was Sultan of Selangor of 38 years before he was elected King by his fellow Rulers in 1999. In Malaysia, the King is elected by and from amongst the nine Sultans.

Sultan Salahuddin Abdul Aziz Shah, 75, the eleventh Malaysian King, died before his five-year term ended; like his father, the second King, who died on the morning of his installation in 1961. He had had two open heart surgeries, and a third operation in Singapore, to insert a pace maker, proved fatal. He did not recover from that, was kept on life support machines, and brought to Kuala Lumpur and admitted to the Gleneagles Hospital when all hope was lost. When the cabinet almost to a man visited him in his Singapore hospital, it was clear to everyone he was seriously ill, and ironically confirmed when Malaysian officials insisted he had only a "minor" operation. It was not. When a radio disk jockey a fortnight earlier announced he had died, nothing happened to him; indeed, he was advised to check his facts and not "spread rumours". But those in the know knew he was brain-dead and would not recover.

His eldest son, Tengku Idris Shah, was proclaimed the new ruler of Selangor as Sultan Sharafuddin Shah. The new King would be selected in four weeks, and the most likely is the Raja of Perlis, not the Sultan of Trengganu, who is the deputy King. The old cliches are brought out to show how popular the new Sultan is with the "rakyat" (people), and how there was no one as popular as him. One wonders why if the rulers are as popular when they are installed or die, there is this running campaign by those who proclaim how popular the rulers are to cut them down to size. But this carries on, because of the Malay insistence on form over substance. When the King died, the government announced that Muslim men must be in their national dress and have on their songkoks "a 3.8 cm white band" around them; non-Muslims must wear dark lounge suits, black ties, "and a 8.89 cm white armband worn on the left side". People don't go around measuring with such precision, but the bureaucrats insist it must, even if it is not.

This leaden subservience to form permeates through the system. This exaggerated official respect, that cancelled bars and places of entertainment in Kuala Lumpur and Selangor but no where else, with all attention in the capital, and all but ignored elsewhere underscored this. There is no attempt to place the monarchy in Malaysian life, except in the ideal form. The rulers, it is clear even to the most republican of Malaysians, are here to stay, though pressure to have them leave would rise as politics is a matter of life and death, as it now is in Malaysia, and as distant from every day life as is possible. If that politics is attacked, the rulers would come with that territory, and therefore distant from the people in whose name they rule. What sustains the rulers is the cultural leadership they provide, and which UMNO despite its best efforts could not transplant. They would continue so long as the Malay cultural overview dominates his worldview. This is not about to disappear. Not yet.

M.G.G. Pillai