Monday, August 26

Crowning change


(Warning: contains spoilers for ‘The Crown’)

THERE are four little nuggets for Malaysians to enjoy in season two of ‘The Crown’. The first comes in the first episode when Queen Elizabeth guesses her husband’s whereabouts during his five-month solo tour.

Thanks to research conducted in conjunction with the Jalan Merdeka exhibition at Carcosa and Seri Negara, we know that the Duke of Edinburgh was indeed in Malaya in November 1956, and met the Rulers at a reception at King’s House. A year later, that building hosted the signing of the Federation of Malaya Agreement that enabled the Proclamation of Independence on Aug 31, 1957.

The second nugget is when the women of New Guinea are described as being “sweeter than those of Ceylon and right up there with those of Malaya”. The third is a little reference to Port Swettenham (renamed Port Klang in 1972) where the crew of the Royal Yacht Britannia apparently lost a game of football.

The fourth comes in the form of a juxtaposition between the liberated lifestyle of Princess Margaret with the regimented duties of Queen Elizabeth. While the younger sister is gallivanting with the colourful Anthony Armstrong-Jones on a motorcycle, the older sister and her husband are hosting a Malay Ruler and consort. The credits claim that this is the Sultan of Perak, so presumably the show’s writers did some research to verify that such a trip did exist. However, the choice of actors, dressing and accent do not seem to be particularly good representations of Sultan Yussuf Izzuddin Shah and Raja Perempuan Ta’ayah (and surely they would not have needed an interpreter).

These are just tangential references to a show about the British Royal Family, of course, and you can’t expect every detail to be accurate. Indeed, even the portrayals of some of the main events have been criticised as being too coloured by artistic licence, conjecture or not in the proper chronology. Still, there are good reasons to watch it, even if you aren’t particularly enthusiastic about the family of the British head of state: although be warned that Netflix has reduced the amount of time at the end of an episode to automatically advance to the next one. You will binge.

Many of the portrayals of society and cultural tensions seem remarkably relatable in 2017 – whether applied to monarchies or republics. There are people who are deferential to authority because they are genuinely loyal, and others who appear so but really seek personal advancement first and foremost. There are those who express their loyalty to an institution by adhering to everything that is traditional and resisting any change, others who feel that survival necessitates adaptation, and of course others who feel that redemption is impossible and abolition is the only answer. The tension is particularly pronounced among those within the institution who hold these different views.

Dealing with these views forms a thread throughout many of the challenges the Queen faces: how to support her sister’s choice of husband in the face of official opposition (again) or to what extent the monarchy should try and directly interact with the public.

We do see some constitutional issues arise, too, such as the Queen’s reluctance to accept Prime Ministerial resignations in the interests of political stability, or her decision to fly to Ghana in the face of opposition from her government to keep that country within the Commonwealth rather than veer towards the Soviet Union.  We get a glimpse of the calculation of risk and reward for any action taken by the Crown that might be interpreted as being too political on the one hand, or where inaction might be seen as dereliction of duty on the other hand. Some food for thought for Malaysia today, not just for the Rulers but the politicians too.

The recent gathering of Malaysia’s largest political party in Kuala Lumpur elicited a wide range of reactions from non-members, but there were intriguing if subtle displays of internal differences of opinion. Even though the party has ostensibly prioritised unity ahead of the general election, a division exists between those who still put racial and religious considerations first (or at least, claim to), upholding those who will fight along these lines (even if outsiders find their methods abhorrent); and those who would rather not talk about such people or tactics and instead adopt progressive causes like youth and women’s issues, using social media to convince the outside world that they are in the party’s ascendancy. Throw in the elements of dynastic politics, deep-seated ambition and lots of money and you can be sure that in a future, freer age, there will be a Malaysian show rivalling ‘The Crown’.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.