Friday, July 10

Amidst political turmoil, trust the Constitution

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AFTER my speech remarking upon the complicated relationship between Malaysia’s first Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, the 12th Deputy Prime Minister was happy enough to pose with the chocolate cake prominently displaying Ideas’ kite of freedom logo. Of the meeting that was scheduled to take place the following day, Datuk Seri Wan Azizah said only that she “hoped for the best”.

That meeting – of the Pakatan Harapan presidential council – preceded a press conference in which the Prime Minister asserted control over the timing of his departure after the Apec summit.

No one could predict the scale and speed of what happened next.

Some weeks ago, I was told that a power grab and reconfiguration of the political scene was imminent. I told my informant that it was far too brazen and could not happen without an enabling event to create a convincing case: otherwise the risk of riots is too great. That Friday evening meeting was the enabler, giving plotters the confidence to make their move.

By now readers will be familiar with the dramatic sequence of events beginning Saturday, presented in different ways by different people to justify different points of view. A friend remarked, in reference to my article of two weeks ago, “there goes your democracy rankings”, and indeed, the events of the past week have represented the antithesis of democratic principles.

The most prominent theme is that of betrayal. Foremost is the betrayal of politicians to citizens and the manifestoes they campaigned on, but politicians have also betrayed each other: some MPs have betrayed their party leaders, and some parties have betrayed their coalitions. Some have exhibited more betrayal than others (eg by signing not one, but two, Statutory Declarations to support rival contenders); while the handful who are more honest are distraught that they are caught up in actions not of their choosing, yet they are obliged to defend their leaders.

Elaborate justifications have been crafted to mitigate the damage. It is claimed that what appeared as treachery was, in fact, pre-emptive acts of loyalty; and those who appeared loyal were, in fact, about to commit treason.

With armies of propagandists on social media, even far-fetched stories have acquired currency. Thus, in trying to work out who the real traitors are, the entire political system has suffered a further loss of confidence.

Take a prominent narrative involving the Prime Minister as an example: first, he was a traitor for masterminding an attempted coup; then, he was a saint for actually not being part of the plot; then, he was Machiavellian (or Palpatine-esque) for manipulating everyone into supporting him; then, he was backstabbed by those who had pledged their support; now, the relationship is said to be “fluid”.

As I write, the country awaits the results of the process initiated by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong in finding a solution.

There are those who have objected to the appointment of an ‘interim’ Prime Minister as it is not provided for in the Constitution (nor is it specifically prohibited; it doesn’t specify a Deputy Prime Minister either), as well as the method of interviewing individual MPs to determine his successor, saying they would prefer a general election, or a vote of confidence in the Dewan Rakyat.

Lawyers disagree about what is constitutionally possible or preferred, but certainly there is precedent at the state level of the method of interviewing members of the legislature to inform the Ruler’s judgment as to who is likely to command a majority.

Furthermore, in light of multiple SDs and alleged bribes, it is only in a private audience with His Majesty that MPs can be completely honest.

Most importantly, there is stability, and all MPs as well as other national institutions have committed to abiding by His Majesty’s decision.

This shows that the Constitution is a living document, able to meet new challenges, and that, as Juan Carlos I did during the Spanish coup d’état attempt of 1981, the monarchy is defending the rule of law and protecting democracy.

Yet, even as the Agong evaluates the situation, political leaders continue to push their ambitions as being “in the best interests of the country”. But while a unity government runs the risk of dictatorship without opposition, a minority government runs the risk of perpetual policy deadlock.

Both are unprecedented, and yet there may be ways to make them work.

Understandably, everyone is impatient for a solution while the economy suffers and Covid-19 threatens. But let us trust that the institutions of the country, led by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and his brother Rulers will, in his own words when distributing food to journalists camped outside the palace, “find the best solution for the country”.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.