Every year Malaysia spends billions of her precious revenue paid for by the rakyat through GSTs and other taxes to maintain the Agung and his fellow nine brother rulers, as well as the four sultan wannabes – the governors of Sabah, Penang, Melaka, and Sarawak – together with their assorted, expensive multitude of hangers-on. The Agung’s new palace alone cost over a billion, quite apart from the running expenses.
The one crucial and very visible duty of the Agung, sultans, and governors is to ensure the smooth and orderly transition of power, as with following an election or resignation of the Prime Minister, or in case of the states, Chief Minister.
It is difficult to say anything positive on the role of the Agung in the transition between Najib and the newly-elected Prime Minister Mahathir. During the more than 24-hour period following the 14thGeneral Election, Malaysia was, as Mahathir reminded everyone, without a government. That is dangerous when you have thousands of illegal immigrants at her borders and warships of great powers prowling the seas beyond.
Indonesia and the Philippines do not have ceremonial heads yet both handled their transitions of power far more smoothly even in more perilous conditions than what Malaysia went through in her immediate post-GE14 days.
If the Agung, sultans and governors could not handle the smooth transition of power during a stable and peaceful period, could Malaysians depend on them during tough and more challenging times?
Malaysians had a preview of that back with GE13 in Perak. Then we had a sultan who was a former chief justice. Yet he too became embroiled in the political battle. He was far from being part of the solution. It looks like the circus is going to be repeated with GE14, this time with his Oxford and Harvard educated son as sultan. The show has not yet begun. Stay tuned! Negri Sembilan has a clear winner but its ruler has yet to swear in the new chief minister. And that ruler has a law degree!
If the Agung, sultans, and governors are not part of the solution, then ipso factothey are part of the problem. Time to reexamine their roles and pose such basic questions as whether the nation needs them.
The history of Malay sultans has not been illustrious. I did not study history and as such I am ignorant of the supposedly glorious days of the Malacca sultanate and the exploits of its luminary knights like Hang Tuah. I can only draw on the experiences of my lifetime, having been brought up in a village in the shadow of the royal town of Sri Menanti.
As could be expected, I was used to the tantrums of those spoiled royal brats having attended the same religious school in the afternoon with some of them. Later when they became adults, they did not change. Only the expressions of their tantrums did, and with far greater consequences. Those are tolerable to me now as I no longer live in Malaysia. If anything, I am bemused.
On to more substantive matters, right after WWII, also within my memory, Malay sultans gave away the sovereignty of the whole peninsula to the British in return for some measly pensions. Only the wisdom and bravery of Datuk Onn stopped that. He did it even after the sultans had signed the papers! Those early colonials should have tried Najib’s current morality of “cash is king.” Or maybe they did, but the first UMNO president was unlike its current one!
Back to the colonials after WWII, I wonder why they did not just banish those sultans to join their uncles and cousins who had been earlier shipped out to Madagascar and the Christmas Islands?
Further back in history, the Sultan of Johore gave away Singapore to the British, again for a few measly pounds and the knighthood of some ancient medieval order.
Back to my childhood in the early post-war period, I remember accompanying my mother fishing in the river with the other women in the village, including the future first Queen of Malaysia. There was nothing regal about her in a tattered cheap sarong fighting over the choice fishing holes in the muddy river.
A few years later, Merdeka. There she was, regal in her glittering tiara. Shehad not changed. Wehad put her up there.
I wonder who coined the canard that sultans are defenders of the faith. Islam does not need defenders, least of all from these characters.
I wish Malaysian economists would study the opportunity costs of these sultans. We could send scores of Malays to the Harvards of the world at the price of maintaining one of them. That would be a wiser expenditure of precious public funds.
These thoughts percolated through me as I saw clips of Prime Minister Mahathir being yanked back and forth to the Istana the day after the election. The palace should release the Agung’s schedule of that day to show the people what was so important that the Agung had to delay Mahathir’s swearing in. It would also be interesting to subpoena Najib’s as well the election chief’s cellphone records for that day.
The Agung was not part of the solution in the immediate confusion of post GE14. Instead he embarrassed the nation.