by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail on 26 June 2015
It has been suggested that some Malaysians, by virtue of what their family members do, or by virtue of their possibly holding a constitutional position in future, should not express certain opinions publicly, or should not be able to pursue certain offices. These sentiments arose in relation to two recent incidents.
In the simpler episode, it was reported that one of the Prime Minister’s brothers was thinking of establishing a political party. There was celebration in some quarters and disbelief in others, but there are already many siblings in opposing political parties: Tan Sri Shahrir and Khalid Samad, Tan Sri Joseph Pairin and Datuk Dr Jeffrey Kitingan, Azmin and Ummi Hafilda Ali. In the end, IDEAS Council Member Dato’ Seri Nazir Razak clarified that he wanted to start an NGO, not a political party.
In the more complex (and ongoing) episode, a federal minister accused a prince of making a political statement and wanted to “whack” him for it. Many pixels have been expended on semantics and norms of civilised behaviour, but that debate has distracted from the main point, which is that there are no legal provisions that prevent anyone from making political statements (notwithstanding recent use of certain laws to punish people who do so). Though like in other Westminster democracies there are conventions about Heads of State not making party political statements, in our country it has been accepted since Merdeka that family members are entirely free not only to express such opinions, but also to run for political office, subjecting themselves to the same rules as other politicians.
Indeed, when it emerged that a political party had invited me to join them some years ago (it was more than one, but only one made it to the media), it was suggested that my family background was an insurmountable barrier. Though I clarified at the time that there is no political party sufficiently faithful to the principles of Merdeka for me to consider joining one – and furthermore there is plenty one can do in civil society – I took the opportunity to point out that five sons of Rulers had previously been fully involved in party politics: Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj ibni Sultan Abdul Halim Shah of Kedah, Tunku Panglima Besar Tunku Abdullah ibni Tuanku Abdul Rahman of Negeri Sembilan, Tengku Sri Paduka Raja Tengku Ibrahim ibni Sultan Ismail Nasiruddin Shah of Terengganu, Tengku Dato’ Sri Azlan ibni Sultan Abu Bakar of Pahang and Dato’ Seri DiRaja Syed Razlan Jamalullail ibni Syed Putra Jamalullail of Perlis. Actually I missed a sixth: Tengku Indra Petra ibni Sultan Ibrahim of Kelantan. Some of these held senior positions in their respective lines of succession.
Let us go further: it is even possible for a Prime Minister to later reign as Yang di-Pertuan Agong. We have already had a Head of Judiciary becoming Head of State (when Lord President Raja Azlan became the Sultan of Perak and Yang di-Pertuan Agong), but at the state level there are even more precise equivalents: in Sabah, Chief Minister Dato’ Donald Stephens became the Yang di-Pertua Negara [sic] and then Chief Minister again; the current Yang di-Pertua Negeri of Sarawak was previously its Chief Minister; and the current Yang di-Pertua Negeri of Melaka previously served as Menteri Besar of Pahang. The precedent is clear: Heads of Government can definitely become Heads of State.
Another stir occurred when a royal Instagram post reminiscing about independent Johor was interpreted as promoting secession. There really ought not to be a hue and cry when the topic is broached: over the last millennium our states have been independent sovereign polities longer than they have been part of the Federated Malay States, the Federation of Malaya, or Malaysia. Historically speaking, independence is the normal state of affairs, while our federal nation state is a recent innovation. So when someone issues a reminder of the past, people should stay calm.
Even if lawyers disagree about the circumstances in which our federation might disintegrate – and some did argue that the agreement referred to had been superseded – remember that although Tunku Abdul Rahman proclaimed in 1963 that Malaysia shall “forever be an independent and sovereign democratic State”, two years later one of its components was nonetheless removed. Peace and stability were deemed more important than trying to force a strained relationship.
Others condemned the prince’s view with no such caveat, believing that such past agreements are worthless as they are today politically inconvenient. This attitude fundamentally assaults the principle of rule of law. If we can select which agreements to follow and which to ignore, then not only do we undermine the reciprocal foundations of federation, we demean every subsequent agreement created by it.
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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is Founding President of IDEAS