Wednesday, 31 October 2007

FLASHBACKS: 1983 : The Council of Malay Rulers versus UMNO

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December 1983

Vol. 122, No. 48, 1 Dec 1983, 14

Rulers Meet -- And Say 'NO ' To Constitutional Changes


K. Das

November 20, 1983, may go down in Malaysian history as the Day of the Sultans -- or the day which spelled their doom.

The hereditary sultans who rule nine of the country's 13 states (or in two cases their heirs) met in the state capital of Selangor at the Istana Bukit Kayangan, or Heavenly Hill Palace, the home of the Selangor rulers, and expressed their opposition to constitutional amendments pushed through parliament in August by the government of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mahathir Mohamad.

In an official statement issued after a day-long meeting, the sultans not only made it clear that they expected to be treated with due courtesy and ceremony but indicated that they would NOT be deprived of their role, however symbolic, in LAWMAKING, either in the country at large or in their own states.

Under the amendments, the Yang di-Pertuan Agung (king) loses both his power to prevent a bill from becoming law and his right to declare a national emergency, the latter power being transferred to the prime minister.

Eight of the nine state rulers and the raja muda (heirs-apparent) of both Pahang and Negri Sembilan made it clear that they would not be pressured.

After meeting five representatives of Mahathir's United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the dominant grouping in the ruling National Front, and considering their "humble submission," the rulers declared that the proposals "required further deliberation."

The courtly language of the official statement carried a simple message: the constitutional amendments bill passed by parliament in August but not given royal assent will remain in limbo.
Indeed, the rulers made it obvious that, while they regretted it, no laws passed by parliament or the nine state legislatures they preside over will be given royal assent.

Angered by the attempt to strip them of their constitutional powers, the sultans have got together to withhold royal assent on both the 1984 budget appropriations bill and another bill which seeks to redraw the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies.

The language of the royal press statement did hint, however, that the rulers were "sympathetic" to the needs of the people and the democratic process, and that money bills would be passed.

But as the sultans drove away from the palace amid a display of pomp, ceremony and imperiousness, the overwhelming feeling was that they would allow the government to stew in its own juice for a while.

The three-month-old crisis, kept under wraps for about two months after the amendments were passed in early August, is now the subject of detailed discussion even in the remotest villages.

The press, which was told to kill even the parliamentary debate, now reports the crisis in full. Even the official media have been forced to recognise its existence, and the rulers' meeting was covered by crews from the state-run TV company.

Even more surprising was the TV coverage given to the departure of the Sultan of Kelantan from his home state to attend the meeting, with viewers being treated to scenes of large crowds at the airport obviously wishing him well at the conference.

While newspapers reported that there were 2,000 people to say farewell to the sultan in Kota Baru, sources there say that in fact 25-30,000 people were at the airport.

According to some accounts there were supporters of the ruling National Front as well as the opposition Party Islam (Pas) both expressing royalist sentiments, even though Pas has called for the abolition of the present constitution and its replacement with one along Islamic lines. An Islamic constitution, of course, could not accommodate royal houses.

While the Kota Baru demonstration was not regarded as a spontaneous movement -- supporters of Finance Minister Tunku Razaleigh Hamzah are said to have orchestrated most of it -- it was the first demonstration which cut across party lines and backed royalty quite openly. Previous meetings were organised by Umno and expressed the views of Umno.

One such demonstration -- by about 1,500 members of Umno Youth on November 4 -- apparently increased the sultans' determination to dig in and challenge the government. The delegates who met on that occasion not only pledged support for the amendments but were told by party vice-president Ghafar Baba that the king must assent to the constitutional amendment bill by the end of November. If this did not happen, the Ghafar argument went, there would be serious consequences, including difficulties over the creation of new electoral constituencies.

The Ghafar deadline was reportedly seen by the sultans as an ultimatum.

Despite this experience, the REVIEW learned, the government was preparing for a further exercise in confrontation -- a huge demonstration in Kuala Lumpur on November 26 with at least 50,000 people taking part. Only later did it appear that the cabinet would move to calm the atmosphere down. As part of these efforts, the Kuala Lumpur rally was likely to be cancelled, a move which was expected to head off counter-rallies elsewhere in the country.

If the exercise went ahead it would be another example of the government misreading the mood of the sultans, who came to the Istana Bukit Kayangan clearly expecting to be treated with customary deference.

In formal terms at least, proper deference was shown. The government provided each ruler with five motorcycle outriders and the palace grounds were swarming with plainclothes policemen. However, that did not prevent some rulers augmenting the arrangements with a little security of their own. The Sultan of Johor, who arrived in military uniform, was accompanied by two armed soldiers of the Johor Military Force, his personal troops. The Sultan of Perak arrived in combat uniform.

Considering that the Johor and Perak rulers have proved to be the most strong-willed and adamant opponents of the constitutional amendments, their appearance in uniform was seen by many as somehow symbolic. Under Malaysia's system of rotating kingship, one of the two is likely to be elected the next king early next year, since all the other states have already had their turn.

No announcement was made about the subject of the discussions at the palace nor was there any indication of what the Umno delegates offered the sultans by way of compromise to persuade them to accept the amendments.

It is understood, however, that one formula offered was to make royal assent superfluous at the federal level while retaining it at the state level. But this was hardly a compromise since the federal constitution overrides state laws. Another offer was a formula under which the king would give his royal assent and the prime minister would then give a guarantee in parliament entrenching the position of the sultans. But this too was apparently regarded as unacceptable. Another proposal, also rejected, was that the bills become law with or without royal assent after 30 days, not 15, as currently provided.

While the constitutional debate has been concentrated on the question of royal assent, it became clear after the meeting that the sultans also objected to the amendments relating to emergency powers.

The powers, which were formerly with the cabinet and parliament, were transferred to the king in 1981, a move which caused controversy at the time. This year's amendment transfers the powers to the prime minister personally and he can assume the necessary powers if he is satisfied that a grave threat to security is imminent -- even if there is no visible danger. What is more, the declaration of emergency cannot be challenged in court. It is understood that the sultans want this clause to be withdrawn from the bill.

Ironically, the government wanted to change the clause because it feared that a future king might take the constitution literally, unilaterally declare an emergency, and try to rule by decree. Although the checks and balances available would make that impossible, the fear was that a mere attempt could cause serious and lasting problems.

But the sultans now argue the same way and express concern that the prime minister might well take all power into his own hands, particularly if even royal assent is not necessary.

With the sultans' meeting producing no solution to the crisis, the most obvious problem is the supply bill, which must be signed before the end of the year. The sultans, who have retained top legal counsel, are not expected to make themselves unpopular with the people by delaying the money bills beyond the safe date -- before the fiscal year ends in December. But they are expected to resist pressure to assent to any other bill, particularly if there are public demonstrations to suggest that their hands can be forced.

Already there are indications that Mahathir's leadership will be challenged if there is no early resolution of the crisis. But, as always in the deliberating sale of Malay political struggles, there are no signs yet of public attacks.

Even Datuk Senu Abdul Rahman, who caused a sensation when he wrote an open letter to the prime minister on October 5, has not been officially castigated, despite some party branches calling for disciplinary action. The attack on Mahathir began only indirectly, with the demonstration at Kota Baru airport and the crowds cheering the sultan.

At the same time, in the neighbouring state of Trengganu, some 5,000 people gathered in the town of Kuala Dungun to listen to explanations of the constitutional amendments. Police had to fire tear gas into the crowd to disperse it on the extraordinary grounds that it was an illegal assembly.

Police did not explain why the gathering at a surau (Muslim chapel) was illegal. But it was learned that the organisers were from the opposition Pas and that might have made the police overzealous. Similar overzealousness was noted in Kota Baru, where the sultan's supporters were deprived of banners they were carrying to the airport.

If pro-government forces insist on organising demonstrations there is little doubt royalists will organist counter-demonstrations. In such an atmosphere the temptation to declare a state of emergency will become very strong. But in the current impasse, an emergency cannot be declared without royal assent.

The danger, according to a senior and articulate member of a royal family, is that if demonstrations continue to escalate, as they very easily can since state loyalists tend to see their own sultan as the symbol of their own state's dignity, the situation will become difficult to control.

Although Umno has been in politics for 37 years, and in power for 28 years, not every Malay is in Umno.

On the other hand, nearly every Malay is a subject of one sultan or another. And the older Malays, and most women, tend to be ardent royalists. Allowing the situation to develop into a confrontation could be a deadly mistake.

In this difficult situation Mahathir once again recalled Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Musa Hitam, who was on his way to New Delhi for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting after an official visit to Bhutan.

The day after Musa returned, Umno's political bureau met and decided to take the matter to the party's supreme council, which meets on December 3. Mahathir later told the New Straits Times: "I don't think it has come to an open confrontation" between the government and the rulers.

The REVIEW has learned that all leave for police riot squads has been cancelled and that officers from these units are standing by in all major towns. It is also understood that at the time the demonstration was being held in Kota Baru police were tipped off that royalist rallies were being organised in Pahang, Johor and Perak.

Mahathir's dilemma is not one of survival, but how to survive with his credibility intact. If he withdraws the amendments, the crisis will be over. But his credibility in his party will collapse, particularly after he has apparently persuaded several state chief ministers of the need for the royal-assent clause.

Some of them have not only committed themselves to the cause but have been actively campaigning for the change among state Umno leaders. To change now would be to weaken these chief ministers -- and it is the chief ministers who are the real power brokers for Umno at the centre. Without their support no prime minister can survive long.

If Mahathir decides not to withdraw the amendments, the chances are that the sultans will sign only the harmless bills and let the crisis drift until Umno's general assembly next year when party elections take place. In those elections, Razaleigh is expected to challenge Mahathir as party president. Razaleigh, a prince from Kelantan, where he enjoys great popularity, is not only likely to get the blessing of the sultans but is also likely to benefit from the fallout if the crisis continues. Razaleigh, who lost the deputy presidency to Musa in 1981, must also calculate that if he does challenge Mahathir, Musa might well change his game plan and aim for the top as well.

In the past, such a scenario would have been unthinkable because the Umno style of politics has not allowed confrontation at the top. But Mahathir's blunt style has changed all that.

After his confrontation with the sultans, Umno may have to face the fact that as long as Mahathir is in power, confrontation politics will be the order of the day.

In the meantime, there can be little doubt that the crisis has sapped investor confidence at the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange (KLSE). Local analysis of daily and weekly trading results increasingly cites the constitutional crisis as the critical factor retarding investor sentiment or--when signs point to prospects for ruler-government reconciliation -- as a boost to renewed optimism.

The latest recovery, in which the KLSE trading volumes approach a daily average of 6 million units, as opposed to 3.5 million in preceding weeks, was said in the Business Times here to be a sign that investors will be attracted back to the market if current uncertainties associated with the constitutional amendments are removed once and for all.

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Vol. 122, No. 42, 20 Oct 1983, 20

Ruling Out Change:
Hereditary Sultans Convene Over Their Constitutional Role


K. Das

Malaysia's nine hereditary sultans and four appointed state governors began gathering here on October 9 for the 128th Conference of Rulers.

But the currently reigning king was unable to attend, suggesting that the still-raging controversy over the rulers' legislative role would not be resolved. The king was represented by his son, the Regent of Pahang.

The controversy arose when the National Front government led by the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) passed laws in August making the sultans' roles in law-making superfluous.

The rulers were thus gathering in Kota Kinabalu under a cloud and in an atmosphere of confrontation with the government of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mahathir Mohamad.

Indeed, more than two months after the controversial bill was passed, the Yang di-Pertuan Agung, or king, had not given the necessary royal assent to make the bill law. The prime minister's position that royal assent was a mere formality and that the bill did not represent a derogation of royal powers made no impact on the royal houses.

And efforts to keep the issue under wraps by gagging the press did not prevent the opposition and even critics from within Umno quoting constitutional passages that require the consent of the Conference of Rulers for any proposed law "directly affecting the privileges, position, honours or dignities of rulers."

The prime minister reacted characteristically to the king's failure to attend the conference. "The bill will be gazetted as soon as the royal assent is obtained," he said in parliament in Kuala Lumpur.

In an apparent reference to the king's heart ailment, Mahathir added that the king was indisposed and it would take some time to obtain his assent. In essence, Mahathir denied that the country faced a constitutional crisis.

A week before the conference, however, a senior cabinet minister said in an interview that the government faced dangerous problems which could be exacerbated by the hereditary rulers not seeing clearly what their constitutional roles were.

In the past, he said, the opposition to the government came from the communists, who were not only non-Malay but also non-Muslim. But now the challenge came from a section of the Malay community that did not realise that if the unity of the community broke down, the backbone of the ruling National Front, Umno, would be broken and chaos would result.

The rulers who did not see this clearly were playing into the hands of radicals, who not only espoused the cause of republicanism but were trying to imitate the revolutionary example of Iran.

The minister also said that one sultan had been privately threatening that if and when he became king (under Malaysia's five-year rotating kingship among the sultans) he would seize power unilaterally, declaring a state of emergency under the 1981 constitutional amendments.

While such an act would hardly be possible within the existing system of administrative checks and balances, which provides for civilian control of police and armed forces, attempts at seizing power would produce prolonged disruption of law and order, the minister said. "The vagueness of the language of the constitution has always been worrying," he said. "It was necessary to make it clear. Hence the new amendments to spell out the fact that sovereignty lay with the people."

If the argument made sense to federal government members and the 14 state governments, it did not go down well with the rulers. In fact, the gathering of rulers here took on an air of unreality, with formal programmes looking more and more confused.

The conference opened on October 12 in the new M$89 million (US$38 million) Tanjung Aru Beach Hotel. By then the Regent of Pahang's presence in lieu of his father was expected. But as late as October 10, the Sabah chief minister and his cabinet were at the airport at 4 p.m. "waiting for his majesty to arrive." There were also hundreds of school-children lining the streets to welcome him.

The local pro-government newspaper, The Sabah Times, headlined on the next day "Agung's visit may be off."

All this suggests clearly that until the last moment on October 11, the visit was on, despite the king's "serious heart ailment." Indeed, the question arose as to how serious the ailment was, and whether or not it was not simply a diplomatic illness.

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