Wednesday, June 16

Freedom to protect institutions

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ALAS, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was swiftly defeated at the semi-final stage of the French Open, resulting in two Spaniards fighting it out for the Men’s Final. After learning so much about the deposition, restoration, deposition and near-restoration of the French monarchy, I was naturally surprised that a member of the House of Bourbon was in the audience at Roland Garros. It was the Prince of Asturias, the heir apparent of the Spanish throne and a direct descendant of Louis XIV of France. Despite their proximity and blood ties, the constitutional development of Spain was evidently rather different!

While away, I received several messages from home asking me what I thought of the proposals to introduce a new law to criminalise insulting our federal monarch and state rulers. Viewed in isolation, there is nothing extraordinary about this. Many countries have laws that endow special protection to national institutions or symbols: Thailand’s lese majeste law is perhaps the most well-known, but even some of the world’s most liberal democracies have legislated to protect their head of state, flag or anthem.

Of course, there are differences in the extent of protection and severity of punishment, and the history and logic behind such laws can vary, too: in some countries the laws arose after civil wars so it was important to prevent incitement and maintain order while allowing other expressions of dissent, but in other countries the laws are blatant tools to stifle opposition.

It is thus important to consider the context in which the recent proposals in Malaysia have appeared. It all started with a speech delivered by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in conjunction with His Majesty’s official birthday. A number of people unhappy with the speech’s contents expressed their feelings on social media, and additionally criticised the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. Although the police have taken action against some of these individuals based on existing laws, this is not enough for some. These are the ones calling for a new law to deal with cases of insulting the royal institution.

From this account, it is clear that the real cause of this episode is ignorance. Both the people who criticised, and then the other people who subsequently defended, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong based on the contents of the speech were ignorant about the process by which the government writes speeches for state occasions. Both sides seem to think that the Yang di-Pertuan Agong would personally have written a speech of this nature. Indeed, there are occasions where our monarchs do write their own speeches or even speak off-the-cuff, but these are usually at charitable, cultural or sporting events, not state ceremonies. Here, it is the responsibility of the government of the day to supply a speech that will not be seen as politically partisan or potentially embarrassing.

During Tuanku Abdul Halim’s first federal reign in the 70s, that principle may have been well understood by both the government and the people, but today that understanding is woefully deficient and is in urgent need of addressing. This is why it is vital that the development and functions of our institutions is well taught in schools.

Unfortunately, some of the ignorance exhibited in this episode may well be wilful. It is a favourite tactic of authoritarians to hide behind nationally respected institutions to give themselves legitimacy. The military is often invoked in this way, and during the unpopular war in Iraq, many politicians in Western democracies deliberately conflated criticism of the war with criticism of the armed forces in order to make their opponents look monstrous – “how dare you criticise our brave troops?”, etc. Constitutional monarchs are vulnerable to being used in this way, too.

I have also been informed that some of the recent self-proclaimed arch-monarchists have not shown much consistency throughout their careers, happy to curtail the monarchy during our country’s regrettable constitutional crises. I was also intrigued by another recent proposal to remove the power of rulers to appoint a non-Malay Menteri Besar in the states where this provision currently exists – but it struck me that this proposed reduction in the powers of the rulers was not condemned as treason by the same people.

As much as I wish to see voluntary expressions of loyalty and respect for the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and rulers, this is better achieved in our schools and through more interaction and exposure to royal initiatives (especially the many foundations which I have seen transform the lives of many families), than through the force of law.

As I repeatedly point out to friends who occupy positions from liberal democrat to Malay conservative, some of the world’s best democracies are constitutional monarchies. We should strive to join the ranks of these countries.

Tunku Abidin Muhriz is president of Ideas.