If we take the idea of democracy as implying the elevation of the voice of the masses and compare it with the idea of monarchy, the elevation of an individual voice, then we obviously have something of an ideological clash, though our system does give a passing nod to the idea of royal opinion having an effect on the making of law. That being said, royal consent for laws was made little more than a formality after the constitutional crisis of 1993.
Given the roots of the crisis and Johor’s role in it, one can understand why Sultan Ibrahim of Johor is reportedly seeking the re-establishment of the monarchy’s power to approve legislation. Under the Federal Constitution, as it was amended in 1993, a bill becomes law 30 days after Parliament passes it, regardless of whether the King approves.
The Sultan has called the curbing of royal power inappropriate and is seeking the relevant constitutional amendments necessary to restore royal authority to approve or veto legislation. Some elements have welcomed the Sultan’s call, judging by comments on social media.
It is understandable why the Sultan’s suggestion has appeal. The ruling government has long been in need of a check-and-balance mechanism. In the absence of a strong and vibrant parliamentary opposition, checks and balances provided by even-handed, fair rulers guided by noblesse oblige would be the last barrier against the excesses of the executive branch of government.
The Johor royals, in particular, have lately endeared themselves to the people of Malaysia like never before. For example, Crown Prince Tunku Ismail is a tremendously popular figure among the youth. The Sultan and the Prince have built this love around their Bangsa Johor rhetoric and have demonstrated a fiercely independent streak. Today, they can be considered among Malaysia’s most influential royals, not because of the powers conferred on them, but because they are seen as leaders who contribute to the shaping of the nation’s consciousness, press release by press release.
However, the DAP’s Ramkarpal Singh has raised some valid points that bring us back to the question of how a constitutional monarchy fits into the idea of democracy. While the two can complement each other, a royal ruler is nonetheless ruler by right of extraordinary privilege while a politician can come from any background and thus be supported by the people as one of their own. He leads by right of having earned votes.
But an apolitical monarchy, like the one currently headed by Queen Elizabeth II, also has its uses as a neutral institution. The English royal family is like a branch of a state department, earning its keep by performing diplomatic functions.
But the true argument against empowering royalty rests on the fact that agendas and policies change with each ruler, who is, furthermore, not vetted by the people. It is because of this that kingdoms have risen and fallen. While we do live in the modern age, we are often reminded of that fact when we become aware of unfair elections and the like, which keep a dominant party and a dominant ideology in power, not necessarily in accordance with the wishes of the people.
Nonetheless, the Sultan’s proposal is interesting indeed. On this, it is perhaps best to concur with historian Khoo Kay Khim, who feels like it is us, the public, who should decide whether or not to restore power to the monarchy. After all, we are a democracy, and it is still our choice, nominally at least.