King and People are Inseparable: Proactive Constitutional Monarch in Parliamentary System

Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar accompanied by his son, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, greeting mosque congregants after Hari Raya prayers in 2018. Credit: BERNAMA


The political system of a country is rarely the result of the conscious choice of the ordinary people, and sometimes it is not even determined by the elite. The establishment of a monarchical rule or a parliamentary system is often beyond human control. The country’s history and traditions, social and economic conditions will either suit its inherited or adopted political system or force a change to its existing political system.

In simple words, the establishment of a country’s political system is mainly due to the needs of practical life, and the most important decisive factor is the wisdom of the leader. This is why until the beginning of the last century, the main accepted political systems of European and Asian countries were monarchical, in various forms.

Johor More Suited for Proactive Constitutional Monarchy

Johor is a State which has adopted a monarchical rule for centuries, and moved to a proactive constitutional monarchy a hundred over years ago. However, due to the lack of high-quality education, the ordinary people’s insufficient political awareness, and their rare participation in political activities, Johor’s political capabilities are found wanting. Therefore, the sudden change from proactive constitutional monarchy to party politics some sixty years ago is unlikely to have any immediate, significant results.

There is no doubt that a proactive constitutional monarchy is more suitable for Johor than party politics. Johor’s history and traditions, social and economic conditions, and relations with countries all over the world all show that under a proactive constitutional monarchy, it is easier to develop the Johor-style Democracy that it must have in order to become a successful State than under party politics.

A good reference model is Liechtenstein, a country with one of the highest living standards in the world. Liechtenstein has a Prince as the constitutional monarch and a democratically elected legislature. The people can also, through referendum, amend the constitution and make laws, independent of the legislature. However, the Prince of Liechtenstein has broad powers: he can veto laws, propose new laws, dissolve the legislature, and call referenda.

None of these prevent Liechtenstein from remaining a democratic country. In fact, the people even gave the Prince more powers in a referendum in 2003: in addition to vetoing laws, he can also remove ministers and nominate judges. Additionally, an attempt to abolish his veto power was rejected in another referendum in 2012.

The late Sultan Sir Abu Bakar ibni Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim was one of the very few monarchs who, on His own accord, reduced Himself from an absolute monarch to a proactive constitutional monarch without any pressure (the economy was good, there was no revolution, etc.) because He recognized the value of a proactive constitutional monarch.

The value of a proactive constitutional monarch lies in the fact that the monarch can effectively unite different (even mutually suspicious and hostile) ethnic groups in a multi-ethnic country, the monarch can prevent the government’s extreme policies, and the monarch can make difficult but necessary decisions that are most beneficial to the people in times of crisis, whereas politicians often have only political considerations.

A very good evidence is Asia’s first and oldest written constitution still in use today, the Johor State Constitution promulgated by the late Sultan Sir Abu Bakar ibni Temenggong Daeng Ibrahim in 1895. To safeguard the racial and religious harmony in Johor, Article 58 of the First Part of the Johor State Constitution states that:

“All the laws and customs of the Country shall be carried out and exercised with justice and fairness by all the courts of justice and by all officers and servants of the State between all the people of the Country and the aliens who sojourn and reside under its protection, whether for a season or for a lengthened period, that is to say, without their entertaining in the least degree more sympathy or regard or partiality towards those who profess the religion of the Country, namely the religion of Islam, or making any difference between those who are the subjects of the State and those who are not.”

In fact, the Johorean subjects of different races have been known as “Bangsa Johor” (which literally means the Johor People) since 1885 and the Johor State Anthem is titled “Lagu Bangsa Johor” (which literally means the Johor People’s Song).

Article 7(1) of the Second Part of the Johor State Constitution further states that:

“In the exercise of His functions under this Constitution or any law or as a member of the Conference of Rulers the Ruler … shall be entitled, at His request, to any information concerning the Government of the State which is available to the State Executive Council.”

As such, the Sultan of Johor has set aside Wednesday as the “Open Day” for State officials to brief and update Him on developments in Johor, so as to ensure that development projects by the Johor State Government and its agencies truly benefit the people. His Majesty will go through various documents and presentations given to Him, especially those relating to development programmes and initiatives for the people.

Every year, the Sultan of Johor also conducts the “Kembara Mahkota Johor” (KMJ, which literally means the Johor Crown Tour) tour to empathize with the people of different races and religions. The KMJ tour is the mechanism by which the Sultan of Johor realises the “King and People Are Inseparable” principle. His Majesty will use this opportunity to inspect the development status of the various parts of Johor, to hear grievances of the people, and will personally read each of the petitions submitted by the people.

Current System Well-designed to Mitigate Crises

Meanwhile, the 2020 Malaysian political crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic also provided us an opportunity to see the value of a proactive constitutional monarch.

Article 150(1) of the Malaysian Federal Constitution states that:

“If the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is satisfied that a grave emergency exists whereby the security, or the economic life, or public order in the Federation or any part thereof is threatened, he may issue a Proclamation of Emergency making therein a declaration to that effect.”

The Yang di-Pertuan Agong (and the Conference of Rulers, of which the Sultan of Johor is a member) rejected the Malaysian Prime Minister’s request to issue a Proclamation of Emergency for the whole Malaysian Federation (which was widely viewed as political and unnecessary), but later agreed to issue a Proclamation of Emergency for the Batu Sapi constituency in the State of Sabah, to mitigate a wave of COVID-19 infections following the state’s snap election. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s decision was applauded by Malaysians. This would not be easy, if not impossible, in a conventional constitutional monarchy in which the monarch is bound by convention to only act on the advice of the prime minister, be it political or not.

Whereas at the Johor State level, the Sultan of Johor had earlier exercised his discretionary power under the Johor State Constitution to appoint a new “Menteri Besar”, to not dissolve the Legislative Assembly, and to not conduct a snap election. These, thus, prevented a possible COVID-19 outbreak in Johor, like that of Sabah.

What the Johor Royalists have been supporting the Sultan of Johor to do, are all in accordance with the Johor State Constitution and the rule of law—nothing more, nothing less.

It must be remembered that Johor is the right of “Bangsa Johor”, and, as the late Sultan Sir Ibrahim ibni Sultan Sir Abu Bakar put it, “Johor must always be Johor”, in our own way.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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  • Willham Siau is a Chartered Accountant of Malaysia, Australia and New Zealand. He is a Fellow, a Council Member and the Secretary General of Jauhar Academy of Social Sciences (JASS) in the State of Johor, Malaysia, and serves as Counsellor to the Member of Parliament for Tebrau constituency in the State of Johor, Malaysia.

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