09 March, 2009

Debate on royalty powers draw attacks and threats in Malaysia

CIJ Special Article: Debate on royalty powers draw attacks and threats in Malaysia

Releases & Announcements
Tuesday, 03 March 2009

Police reports, bullets in the mail, angry protestsa and police interrogations. These are threats that have been expressed and carried out against individuals who have commented and criticised the monarchical heads in Malaysia, the latter who seem to have garnered more media attention as newsmakers and opinion leaders in the last two years.

As the Head of the Federation and an institution of the Malays, the subject of the royalty is largely a taboo for the general populace. Not unlike Thailand's lese-majeste law, the Sedition Act introduced in a period of high ethnic tension, protects royals in Malaysia against defamation under its very broad provision. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy where the sultans of nine states rotate on a five-year basis as Head of the Federation, the Yang diPertuan Agong, and perform legislative, executive and judiciary functions. At the state, the sultans are are guardians of the Islam religion, and Malay language and customs.

The spotlight is in the northern state of Perak, where the head of the state Sultan Azlan Shahmade a crucial decision to allow the ruling Federal coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN) to regain control despite losing the state in the 2008 general election. The decision was made after several state assembly persons from the opposition pact, Pakatan Rakyat (PR) or People's Coalition, declared their independence and support for the Barisan Nasional. However, a public poll by the Merdeka Opinion Research Centre found that 74 percent of the people in Perak wanted a by-election to sort out the changes in the state representation.

Not new to questioning the monarchy, Karpal Singh, the chairman of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), one of the partners in the PR, said that he would be filing a suit against the decision of the Perak Sultan at the special court for the royalty. Last year, Karpal also questioned the jurisdiction of the Perak royalty when it re-installed the head of the state Islamic council, against a transfer ordered by the state government. In both cases, Karpal's statements attracted death threats and a slew of police reports against him by inviduals and members of political parties. In the latest controversy, Karpal received two bullets enclosed in a mail spelling threats to him and his family members.

Also targeted in this episode were two bloggers: Ahiruddin Attan aka Rocky Bru, also president of the National Alliance of Bloggers, and Jed Yoong, a former writer for DAP's publication (Rocket). Ahiruddin was questioned by police on 24 Feb over comments left on his blog about the role of the monarchy by known and annoymous commentators, while a day before the police interrogated Jed Yoong over her fiery critique of the monarch in general in a posting on 12 Feb, which drew the ire of the "UMNO Virtual Club" (Kelab Maya UMNO) who lodged the police report.

Mobilized by UMNO, the dominant partner in BN, public demonstrations in support of the monarchy were organised in Selangor, Malacca and Perak. The UMNO-owned national daily, Utusan Malaysia became a platform where Karpal's and the former Perak Chief Minister from Pakatan Rakyat, Nizar Jamaluddin's defiance were branded treasonous and seditious.

The current ongoings must be viewed with skepticism of UMNO's agenda against the backdrop of the constitutional amendments in 1983 when the same ruling government sought to curtail the powers of the Malay rulers in the passing of legislation. Then, UMNO led a public campaign against the royalty, which included public protests, suggestive movies on the state televisions, and exposes of royal excessiveness. The amendment was successful and royal assent of legislation is now a matter of protocol. A decade later the same government again amended the Federal Constitution to include a special court for the rulers.

These contradictions are not highlighted at all in the mainstream media, raising the familiar spectre of political control in the newsroom. It is very clear that public discourse on the issue of the jurisdictions and powers of the royalty is tightly controlled, where UMNO-linked groups, media and individuals have the monopoly of setting and swaying the national agenda. The lack of critical journalism on constitutional and legal provisions mean that those who choose to be vocal or express their disagreements are seen as anti-nationals and deserve to have their citizenship withdrawn. Its time for the public to be more mature in assessing information and their rights, and it is long overdue for the media to play its role to provide adequate and fair space for debate. Certainly, we do not want a situation where the mere mention of the royalty will draw the kinds of reactions in neighbouring Thailand.


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