IMPARTIALITY: The Malay monarchs are traditionally more national than communal in their outlook compared to racial-based political parties, writes Dr Paridah Abd Samad
THE first Saturday of June is mandated by the Malaysian Constitution as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong's official birthday. It is not every day that a Ruler gets to inherit a monarchy twice in his life, but this was experienced by Sultan Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah. The 84 year old assumed the Malaysian throne in accordance to this country's electoral monarchy system.
Sultan Abdul Halim was the Yang di-Pertuan Agong for the first time in 1970. This is the first time in Malaysian history that a Ruler became head of state for the second time. He is not only Malaysia's 14th King, but also its oldest ever.
Although the role of king in Malaysia is largely ceremonial, he is looked upon by Muslim Malaysians as a symbol of Islam. He is also seen as the upholder of Malaysian traditions.
The King's greatest role is to ensure there will be no cruelty and destruction to the people and to the country.
At both federal and state levels, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the states' Malay rulers are theoretically constitutional monarchs. Unlike the figureheads who stay above the fray in the Bagehotian sense, the Malay monarchs are, however, tasked to protect the interests of the Malays and Islam.
In theory, this could compromise their impartiality in the context of ethno-religious conflicts. In reality, free from electoral pressures to play communal champions, the Malay monarchs are traditionally more national than communal in their outlook compared to racial-based political parties.
Since the existence of this constitutional monarch, the political conflicts involving the Malay rulers are in fact not inter-ethnic but rather intra-ethnic, between them and the politicians. Before Malaya's independence in 1957, the Malay nationalist party initially defended the royals and the feudal order opposed by the Malay leftists who were much influenced by republican Indonesia.
Malaysia is an example of an elective monarchy, in which the supreme head of state, or "Yang di-Pertuan Agong", is elected to a five-year term by a "Conference of Rulers" who hold a secret ballot. Malaysia has acquired 14 Yang di-Pertuan Agong for 56 years since 1957. This explains the inconspicuous and the low profile of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong compared to life-long monarchs such as Emperor Akihito of Japan, Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah, ex-King Norodom Sihanouk and even King Abdullah II of Jordan.
In Cambodia, kings are chosen from all candidates of royal blood by the "Royal Council of the Throne".
Today, Cambodia has a new king, but, he holds little of the power that ex-King Norodom Sihanouk once wielded. Instead, a poor farmer's son and one-time communist commander, strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen, now occupies the dominant position that Norodom Sihanouk represented for years.
Sihanouk's death raised questions about the future of the country's royal institution, but Cambodia's monarchy continues to flourish.
King Sihamoni has grown into the role of figurehead, presenting himself as a less volatile symbol of the Khmer nation and national reconciliation. The new king has proven a worthy successor.
Under Brunei's 1959 constitution, the Sultan of Brunei is the head of state with full executive authority, including emergency powers, since 1962. The Prime Minister of Brunei is a title held by the Sultan. As the prime minister, the Sultan presides over the cabinet.
Between 1925 and 1979, Iran was ruled by an emperor who used the title of "Shahanshah". The United States was responsible for putting an end to democratic rule in 1953 and installing what became the long dictatorship of Mohammad Reza Shah.
His dictatorship ended with the Islamic Revolution of 1979 that brought to power a passionately anti-American theocracy. Its radicalism inspired anti-Western fanatics in many countries, most notably Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda and other terror groups found homes and bases.
These events serve as a stark warning to the United States and to any country that ever seeks to impose its will on a foreign land. Governments that sponsor coups, revolutions, or armed invasions usually act with the conviction that they will win, and often they do.
Their victories, however, can come back to haunt them, sometimes in devastating and tragic ways. This is especially true in today's complex and volatile Middle East, where tradition, history, and religion shape political life in ways that many outsiders do not understand.
The violent anti-Americanism that emerged from Iran after 1979 shocked most people in America, who had no idea of what might have set off such bitter hatred in a country where they had always imagined themselves more or less well liked. This also explains a great deal about the sources of violent currents now surging through the world.
Besides Iran, we may compare this with Singapore in which the majority of population are Chinese and in 1965, broke away from Malaysia and opted to be a republic, abolishing any system of royalty or aristocracy, titles, pomp and ceremony.
Therefore, despite their ceremonial roles, the relevance of Malaysia's constitutional monarch will be tested when a constitutional crisis arises. As a symbol of religion and tradition, but most importantly a key figure for national unity and loyalty of their subjects, the "Daulat Tuanku" is here to stay, and more likely for the better.
Dr Paridah Abd Samad New Straits Times Columnist 01 June 2013