Various anecdotes insist that the act of placing a baht note in your pants back pocket is a terrible faux pas to commit in Thailand. It is because all bills have a portrait of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej and placing one in that particular pocket is a sign of disrespect. More so if a person actually sits on it. As it goes, anybody caught doing so by the Thais would be admonished, or sometimes worse.

Though the veracity of the anecdotes is unconfirmed, the message is clear: the Thai monarchy commands tremendous respect from the people of Thailand. This enables the King to exert some influence in Thai politics especially in times of turmoil. Perhaps envious of their counterpart up north, several Malaysian royal houses are looking to play greater roles and claim greater power within Malaysian society. Whether that is a good idea is debatable.

This idea first came to mainstream consciousness in recent times when the Thai monarchy apparently brought the country’s political deadlock to an end. This proved to be temporary but at that particular time, it inspired Malaysians to turn to the monarchy in search of ways to challenge the Barisan Nasional-led government.

In a time when the Barisan Nasional government exercised stifling control over almost all tools of the state to silence disagreements towards its policies, it did not take much of a nudge for many Malaysians to imitate their neighbor up north. Bersih, in particular, held a huge rally to raise concerns to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, in protest of the executive arm of the state.

The support for the monarchy was further strengthened when the royal houses of Terengganu and Perak were deeply involved in the appointment of the Menteri Besar of the respective states. The Sultan of Terengganu rejected the BN-preferred candidate for the MB post, preferring a person more palatable to the taste of the royal house. In Perak, the Sultan played an active role in the appointment to the state’s highest executive office and in doing so effectively resolved the uncertainty that followed immediately after the March 8 general election.

Both episodes demonstrated the capability and the usefulness of the institution. The monarchy proved that it could provide leadership when the situation requires so.

Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean the monarchy deserves an expansion in role or in power. Rather, it is just the case that the status quo works.

While the status quo works, the role of the monarch over society may have been overstated. Just as Thailand inspired Malaysians to turn to the monarchy, the case for overstatement also inspired the events in Thailand as turmoil riddles the country.

This was seen during the September 2007 coup d’état by the Royal Thai Army. Almost immediately after tanks secured Bangkok, the military rushed to the palace to obtain endorsement from the King. The endorsement however came after the military coup happened, not before. Regardless whether the King was in favor of the military coup mounted against an elected government, the King could have acted merely as a rubber stamp. In a practical sense, it was the military that gained control of Thailand, not the King.

It is true however all the successful coups had the endorsement of the Thai King while the ones that failed — namely in 1981 and 1985 — did not get royal endorsement.

Yet, the military’s action was more or less aligned with the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the group opposed to former Thai Premier Thaksin Shinawatra and the two successive Thai Prime Ministers allegedly tied to him.

PAD positions itself as royalists and assumes yellow — the royal color — as its own. It has frequently accused its rivals of being disloyal to the King. With an association like that, it is hard not to disagree with the PAD without being accused as disloyal, especially in a country which makes criminal any criticism against the royal house.

The frequent accusations of disloyalty however have brought suspicion that the PAD is manipulating its relationship with the royal class to forward its own agenda with gross disrespect for the democratic process.

In any case, Bersih was a show of organic power and hardly had anything to do with royalty. As much as many would want to believe, there is not enough proof to show how receptive the Malaysian King was to the movement. Bersih, like PAD, only associated itself with the monarchy as a strategy to pit the executive and the institution to forward its own agenda.

The democratic process itself is not sacred since from time to time, tyranny of the majority does occur. Democracy does suffer from failure, especially when all its checks and balances have been exhausted.

Early liberals held a deep suspicion for democracy because of the fear of tyranny of the majority. Voltaire, for instance, advocated enlightened absolutism where idiocy of the masses is kept in check while preserving liberty and everything relating to the Enlightenment.

This is the same thinking PAD is applying in rationalising its action. It argued that the majority of Thais — the rural voters — are not educated enough to do the right action, like voting properly. By using this argument, it could basically reject any democratic outcome against its favor and refer to the King who, in its view, is an enlightened monarch.

Liberal thoughts however do not stop at Voltaire, and classical liberals distrust absolutism as much as crass majoritarianism. Evolution of ideas later introduced the concept of liberal democracy superior to Voltaire’s. The monarchy is replaced by a liberal constitution which ferociously defends individual liberty from infringement by the majority.

The reason for the superiority of liberal democracy to an enlightened monarch is obvious: not all monarchs are enlightened. And enlightened monarchs do not exist all the time either. Voltaire, somehow, overlooked this.

In the case of Malaysia, the country has neither an absolutist nor a liberal constitution in its purest sense. The county does however, perhaps, have several enlightened monarchs who are able to rise above the noise to appeal to the greater good. And there is some security over individual liberty in this country. The imperfections in the protection of liberty by the state may sometimes call upon the enlightened monarchs to play, in some ways, part of the role that Voltaire advocated.

Thus, the monarchy finds itself as a check and balance apparatus. In times when the power of the executive is beyond disgust, the resurgence of the monarchy to check the excesses is most welcome.

It has to be noted that the idea of checks and balances imbeds within the system parts which are capable of limiting the power of the other parts and vice versa. If one part has the ability to overwhelm the other, however, the idea of checks and balances simply loses its meaning.

The same applies to the monarchy. If invested with greater power, chances are the monarchy will stop functioning as part of a check and balance mechanism. The greater power could upset any balance that exists in Malaysia at the moment.

And one of the easiest ways to upset the balance is to grant all nine monarchies in Malaysia with immunity. Immunity will place any royalty above the law, well beyond the reach of any check and balance mechanism.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

A version of this article was first published in The Malaysian Insider.

One Response to “[1845] Of status quo for the monarchy”

  1. […] I have argued that that appeal would only politicize the monarchy and bring the monarchy into politics in times when the status quo has a republican bias. At the time, however, my argument ran against the grain. […]

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