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1983: UMNO under Mahathir “derhaka” against Malay Sultans

Less ado about anything: Mahathir moves quietly to reduce the constitutional role the sultans play in the nation’s legislative process

By K. Das

Kuala Lumpur: Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mahathir Mohamad, whose reformist zeal has both excited and dismayed Malaysians for two years, left many observers surprised once again last month: he began his third year in office by effectively giving notice that even the symbolic role that the hereditary rulers of nine Malay states have had in the legislative process is to be reduced.

Until now the nine sultans — four of the nation’s 13 states have non-hereditary governors — have traditionally given their assent to bills passed by their own state legislatures. If the prime minister’s proposals are passed, this assent will no longer be required. Parliament has already amended the constitution to make royal assent by the sultans’ chosen head of state, the Yang di-Pertuan Agung, or king, superfluous: if he does not sign a federal bill within 15 days of passage, it is virtually certain to become law in any case.

The king apparently agreed to give his assent to this bill, which limits his own prerogatives, before it was tabled in parliament, but this assent was not immediately extended and the bill was not published in the Government Gazette — steps which are necessary to turn a bill into law. It also appears that some sultans have expressed their unwillingness to accept the amendments to the eighth schedule of the constitution, which obliges the states to follow the 15-day rule of deemed assent to laws to which they do not give their active assent.

Mahathir’s dramatic moves in the past have included a sudden change in preferred trade relations with Britain; an equally unexpected policy of leaning towards Japan for trade and technology; a decision to transfer large parts of public-sector institutions into private hands; a move to give the national newsagency Bernama a monopoly on the domestic distribution of foreign wire-service news, and even a risky but popular effort to force civil servants to clock in and out of the office.

While these and other moves were accompanied by highly visible slogan campaigns, the move to limit the rights of the sultans to be part of the legislative process was done not only with extraordinary haste but also with a secretiveness that is uncharacteristic of Mahathir’s style.

Before parliament sat on July 25, the bill at issue, which contained 22 amendments, was not even made available to the Bar Council, a statutory body of lawyers which has traditionally played an important advisory role. This role had been downgraded in recent years, but Mahathir did undertake, when he became prime minister, to consult lawyers on all laws, even if “we do not take all your advice.”

Even more surprising, in view of the much-touted liberalism of the Mahathir administration, was the summoning of the local press to the Prime Minister’s Department for a “briefing” before the bill was tabled. The message was simple: play down the debate on the amendments relating to rulers. Protests by some senior editors were brushed aside.

When the debate on the amendments bill began in parliament, it soon became obvious that the government was determined to push it through with a minimum of discussion and publicity. The leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), Lim Kit Siang, described the debate as a wayang kulit (shadow puppet play). “We see the shadows but not the substance, as nobody seems to be brave enough to deal with the real substance of the amendments,” Lim said. In fact, none of the usually expansive backbenchers of the ruling National Front had anything to say on the amendment. Lim’s speech which was arguably among the best heard in parliament, was not reported by any newspaper.

The opposition leader did not have to argue that royal assent was essentially a formality because the constitution makes it clear that “the Yang di-Pertuan Agung shall signify his assent.” But Lim made the point forcefully that the amendment was simply unnecessary. Lim argued that there were adequate provisions in the constitution in the event of the incumbent king being either unable or unwilling to sign a bill: the deputy Yang di-Pertuan Agung can sign the bill if it is not given as sent within 15 days.

In fact, there are provisions to return the bill to parliament if the deputy also refuses to give royal assent. Legal experts say that if there is an impasse, the conference of rulers can meet to elect a new agung and deputy. In short, any question of royal assent being refused need not arise.

Lim also said the amendment could set a dangerous precedent that threatened the system of refining the law, which includes three readings in the lower house, passage by both houses, royal assent and gazetting. If the chain is broken, Lim asserted, there could easily be another break brought about by the executive which, with its huge majority in parliament, could amend the constitution to have a law “deemed to have been passed by parliament” if it is not passed within, say, 15 days.

Lim also raised the sensitive question of the sovereignty of the rulers, any challenge to which is seditious under Malaysian law. “In excluding the need for the royal assent in certain circumstances, aren’t we taking an action which would be tantamaount to a derogation of the sovereignty of the rulers?” Lim asked. “Aren’t we in fact challenging and questioning the sovereignty of the rulers . . . ?

“If this is the case, then members of parliament would be liable for the offence of sedition, as MPs have been stripped of the privilege of parliamentary immunity in matters” relating to this sensitive issue. Lim then suggested that the speaker should rule on whether the house was not embarking on a course of sedition.

Neither Lim nor his DAP colleagues speculated on the possible reasons for the amendment, though there is no doubt they were only too aware of the government’s thinking. There is growing evidence that the sultans are becoming increasingly disenchanted with their roles as constitutional rulers. At least one, the Sultan of Pahang, almost brought about a constitutional crisis when he refused to sign bills in 1979; the problem was resolved only with the resignation of the state chief minister, who could not get along with the palace.

Less than three months ago, decisions by the sultans of Johor and Perak to go their own ways in deciding when the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan should begin in their own states also demonstrated that at least some rulers were no longer totally willing to take advice from the federal cabinet or their state executive councils.

Even more urgent, there are fears that when the present king steps down after he completes his five-year term next April, his successor may prove recalcitrant. Under the prevailing system of rotation, the successor must be either the Sultan of Perak or of Johor — both of whom are strong-willed. All the other royal states have already provided one king each since independence in 1957.

While it is understood that the Sultan of Perak will succeed — he is senior, in having assumed his throne in 1963 while the Sultan of Johor became ruler only last year — there are still doubts because the Perak ruler has made it clear that he wants changes not only in the palace in Kuala Lumpur but more importantly, changes in constitutional arrangements so that he can remain Sultan of Perak while he is king in Kuala Lumpur.

Attorney-General Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman said in an interview that this was simply not possible. In a separate interview, the sultan was equally firm in his stand that he will occupy two thrones and be addressed as “Sultan of Perak, the Yang di-Pertuan Agung,” or he will not come to Kuala Lumpur at all.

With about 10 months to go before this succession, the sultan could be persuaded to reach a compromise, but if he is adamant — he has turned down the post twice in his 20 years as sultan — the way will be open to the Sultan of Johor. He is not only a man of fiery temper (he was charged, convicted and pardoned for culpable homicide in 1977), but his family has a tradition of defying the central government.

His grandfather, Sultan Ibrahim, in a speech from his throne in 1955, ridiculed the idea of independence for Malays, and he maintained his own armed forces even under British colonial rule. Johor at present has the country’s only state military force, in effect a palace guard.

No one doubts that as king the Sultan of Johor would delay legislation if he personally disagreed with it. It is noted quietly in senior government circles that it was the possibility of having to face a constitutional crisis if royal assent is delayed that gave birth to the new amendment.

Mahathir’s quiet approach to the amendments is understandable because there is still sizable residue of personal loyalty to the sultans, which could be exploited by opposing politicians. Before the amendments were tabled, the prime minister is said to have faced angry MPs from his own party, the United Malays National Organisation. Mahathir clearly managed to persuade them at least to withhold their objections in parliament.

National Front MPs also remained silent on another amendment that in effect transferred powers previously held by the king to the prime minister. Article 150, which was previously amended in 1981, was again changed to give the prime minister powers to proclaim a state of emergency even before there is one. If the new amendments are given assent and gazetted, the prime minister may declare an emergency without referring the matter to the cabinet and neither parliament nor the judiciary may question it.

Once the prime minister is satisfied that there is imminent danger to national security, the economy or public order, he may proclaim an emergency and not seek parliamentary ratification of the proclamation. There is no time limit on the length of such an emergency. Lim, speaking against the amendment, warned that the four proclamations of emergency made since independence still exist in the statute books even though the circumstances which brought them about have long passed.

Pro-government sources argue that Article 150 was amended against the possibility of a headstrong king who could unilaterally declare an emergency and take power into his own hands under existing regulations. But they could not explain why the government did not solve that problem by simply repealing the amendments passed in 1981 and reverting to the 1957 laws, which made such drastic action impossible. The 1981 amendments provoked vigorous protests from the legal community here — 39 lawyers were reprimanded in court. No such response has been evident this time.

The prime minister disappointed both supporters and critics by failing to answer Lim’s criticisms in parliament. Mahathir’s response was instead limited to rhetoric and expressions of surprise at what he termed Lim’s royalist sentiments. Like Lim’s speech, Mahathir’s received no press coverage at all. Senior journalists say the ban was not on opposition views but on the subject of the two amendments themselves.

Another bill which went through its first reading was postponed for its second reading until the next sitting of parliament in October. Called the Control of Imported Publications (Amendment) Act 1983, the bill stipulates that foreign publishers may be asked to deposit a sum of money, to be fixed by the home minister, with the government to secure a licence to import a publication. The publisher would be required to appear in court should a criminal or civil action be filed against him in respect of anything published in his publications. Locally published newspapers already function under similar legislation.

Postponement of this bill after a first reading surprised many observers until it was pointed out that the bill was so inadequately drafted that even importers of textbooks, comic books, industrial manuals, books on hobbies and even literature accompanying household appliances needed to pay deposits and secure licences. Sources indicate, however, that the reason for the postponement was that debate on the amendment would stir up a far more difficult debate.

This is over the question of Bernama becoming the sole distributor of foreign newsagency reports. Newspaper editors, already angered by this decision, were not likely to be sympathetic to one more attempt to control the flow of information. A symposium on national communication policy at the beginning of August voted in favour of a proposal that the communication policy should not be “another control system.” With this mood prevailing, if the bill on imported publications had been debated in the past session of parliament, editors who were persuaded to remain silent on the issue of the sultans were not likely to have stayed silent again.

Source: Far Eastern Economic Review http://www.feer.com/

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admin says:

Malay sultans are trumpheted as heros for Malays when they are siding UMNO. These sultans were projected as playboys in 80s by the same UMNO when they resisted amendment of the constitution.

johorean says:

this only showed how right mahathir was in reducing the powers of the monarchy back then.. this article by feer shoed how pompous and big headed the sultans was at that time..

in retrospect, i could never imagine the enormous pressure mahathir got fro the rakyat to lessen the cruel acts of these royalty.

good job mahathir back then.