Commentary Local

The Malaysian concord (part 4) – the function and position of the Malay rulers

November 20, 2018

By Abdul Rahmat Omar

A couple of days ago it was made known to the public that the street names in a certain suburb of Shah Alam were changed to Chinese characters, in contravention of Sections 2 and 9 of the National Language Act, 1963/67.

Yesterday, HRH The Sultan of Selangor decreed that the street names be taken down and replaced by ones in the Malay language, which is the National Language.

I mentioned in a previous post that a national language is a tool to unite the peoples of Malaysia.

It was the intention of our forefathers in the quest for independence to have ONE language to unite all, and that is the Malay language with a Romanised written form, so that the non-Malays could learn the Malay language rapidly (Tunku Abdul Rahman, The Road to Independence, 1984: pp.112-114).

I gather that those were the reasons His Royal Highness issued the decree mentioned above – in line with one of the functions of the Malay Rulers: to care for the people’s welfare.  Therefore, if there is any issue that may cause tension, the Malay Rulers will step in to remind the people to respect each other and to respect the laws.

What I find disgusting in this episode is that the local government, or local council, allowed for the street name change to happen, forgetting that every instrument of the government is acting on His Majesty’s Service.  

Not too long ago, all government envelopes had URUSAN SERI PADUKA BAGINDA stamped at the top; that was until someone who was not fond of the Rulers changed that to URUSAN KERAJAAN.

 

Essentially, all government branches, including the Federal cabinet as well as the state executive councillors, are acting on behalf of the Yang DiPertuan Agong and Sultan (in the case of states).  

They are not independent of the Rulers – which is why they are sworn in before the Agong or the Sultan.

The Malay Rulers have divested much of their independence now as they did before during the period of British administration.  

However, both they and their state remain sovereign. Independence is not equal to sovereignty.

The British were here through the various treaties signed with the respective Malay Rulers.  Save for the Japanese occupation, Malayan Union period, Pulau Pinang, Melaka and for a while, Pangkor, the Dindings and Larut, Peninsular Malaysia was never under British colonial rule.

There were three test cases to determine the sovereignty of the Rulers and the state they ruled:

 

  1. The infamous Mighell v The Sultan of Johore (1894) where it was ruled that, although the Sultan by treaty had bound himself not to exercise some rights of a sovereign ruler, this did not deprive him of his character as an independent sovereign;
  2. In Duff Development Company Limited v The Government of Kelantan (1924), the House of Lords similarly upheld the sovereignty of Kelantan and its Ruler was not intended to be qualified by the terms of the treaty.
  3. In Pahang Consolidated Company Limited v State of Pahang (1933), the Privy Council summarised the constitutional position in Pahang as follows: subject to the limitations which the Sultan had from time to time imposed upon himself, he remained ‘an absolute ruler in whom resides all legislative and executive power.’ (See, 1894; Q.B 1924; A.C and M.L.J).

The British were in the Malay states to assist the Malay Rulers in the administration and management of their respective states, and were under the Rulers’ payroll.  

The only matters that they could not touch were the states’ Islamic affairs and Malay customs.

Sir Frederick Lugard wrote of the British Residents:

“From the first to last the theoretical independence of the states was the governing factor in the system evolved in Malaya. The so-called ‘Resident’ was in fact a Regent, practically uncontrolled by the Governor or Whitehall, governing his ‘independent’ state by direct, personal rule, with or without the co-operation of the native ruler.” (Sir F.D Lugard, The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, London, 1926: pp.130-1, vid. pp.8-10).

One such Resident was of course James Wheeler Woodford Birch who, in the words of Sir Richard Olaf Winstedt, “dashed into Perak’s Augean Stables like an angry Victorian schoolmaster, confident that it could all be cleaned up with a little firmness and decision.” (Winstedt, History of Perak, JMBRAS, xii, 1).

Birch’s monumental tactlessness, especially over the regulation of taxes, drove all the Sultan’s Chiefs into frantic opposition which resulted in his assassination in 1875.

Other than the occasional odd behaviour by some Residents, the Malay Rulers and their state remained sovereign and ‘independent’.  In an answer to Colonel Josiah Wedgwood (Labour – Newcastle-under-Lyme) about the control over the states of Malaya, Sir Phillip Cunliffe-Lister (Conservative – Hendon), Secretary of State for the Colonies replied:

“There is no question at all of altering in any degree, even by a comma, the Treaties which bind us, and which are charters of the agreements with the Rulers both of the Federated and the Unfederated Malay States.” (British Parliament Hansard, Commons Sitting, Class II, HC Deb 14 July 1933 vol 280 cc 1429).

With the Independence of Malaya, all the administrative powers handed down by the Malay Rulers to the Federal and State Councils was passed to the government that was chosen by the people of Malaya in the 1955 elections.  

The Federal cabinet administer the government of the Yang DiPertuan Agong, who was elected by the Malay Rulers to represent Their Highnesses at Federal level, while the Menteri Besar and state executive councillors administer the state for the Sultans.

The Malay Rulers, as owners of this land, continue to enjoy their position with their income regulated by the respective laws, and receive advice from the Menteris Besar (or in the case of the Yang DiPertuan Agong, the Prime Minister).

This is evident in Article 181(1) of the Federal Constitution which states:

“Subject to the provisions of this Constitution,” the “sovereignty, prerogatives, powers and jurisdiction of the Rulers…as hitherto had and enjoyed shall remain unaffected.”

The same was noted by Mark R Gillen of the Faculty of Law, University of Victoria (Gillen 1994:7).

In the words of the late Sultan of Perak, Sultan Azlan Shah, former Lord President, it is:

“a mistake to think that the role of a King, like that of a President, is confined to what is laid down by the Constitution, His role far exceeds those constitutional provisions” (Azlan Shah 1986:89).

In 1867, Bagehot asserted in “The English Constitution” that the Constitution needed two parts: the dignified – to excite and preserve the reverence of the population’ and the other, the efficient – to ‘employ that homage in the work of government’. 

The monarch was the prime example of dignity in this sense and the Prime Minister (Menteri Besar) and his cabinet (executive councillors) of efficiency.  

Therefore, the monarch, while lacking executive power, had an important constitutional role.

HRH The Sultan of Selangor was correct in the exercise of his function when reminding the people to not touch on the matters that have been agreed upon and are already enshrined in the Constitution – the sanctity of Islam, the National Language, the Malay and Bumiputera special rights, and the position and function of the Malay Rulers.  

Such action, had the Sultan not interjected, would be naïve and dangerous to the fabric of the society.

In the words of Sultan Nazrin Muizuddin Shah of Perak in July 2011:

“Rulers must use wisdom to calm situations, but they do not have a ‘magic lamp’ to keep unity, especially when the situation has become chaotic. “

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