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In crisis, Malaysia plays the royal card

Asia Times - July 3, 2013

Chin Huat Wong, Kuala Lumpur When Melissa Gooi posted a comment on Facebook critical of Malaysian King Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah's birthday speech in early June, the 32-year-old did not anticipate she would be accused of being an enemy of the state. Neither did her various Facebook friends, four of whom echoed similar sentiments about the monarch.

Malaysia is nominally a constitutional monarchy, and the nine Malay royal houses have always been politically significant as symbolic protectors of the interests of ethnic Malays, who make up around 60% of the national population. This role has frequently made them both allies and rivals of the United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO), the political party that has dominated Malaysia since 1955.

More recently, UMNO has repositioned itself as defender of the monarchy, coinciding with its unprecedented electoral setback in 2008 when the opposition won control of five of 13 federal states. This year's election in May saw the position of UMNO and its Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition further eroded, winning only 47% of the popular votes despite widespread allegations of electoral fraud and irregularities.

BN nevertheless won 60% of parliament's seats, thanks to extensive gerrymandering and the malapportionment of constituencies in BN's favor. The Pakatan Rakyat (PR) opposition coalition, which won a greater share of the popular vote, has challenged the integrity of the result, thrusting the country into a post-election political deadlock.

On the defensive, UMNO and its mouthpiece, Utusan Malaysia, claimed that the electoral setback was caused by a "Chinese tsunami", a race-tinged reference to ethnic Chinese Malaysians who voted overwhelmingly in favor of the PR. Malay ethno-nationalist calls have been made since to punish the minority community by boycotting Chinese businesses, closing down Chinese-language schools and expanding preferential policies for Malays and other natives.

On the other hand, protest rallies attended by participants clad in black have been held in the national and various state capitals, attracting youthful and multi-ethnic crowds ranging from 10,000 to 120,000. The most recent rally took place two days before the new parliament convened its first meeting, with 35,000 defiant protesters demanding the resignation of the Election Commission. Some even called on opposition parliamentarians not to swear into office to symbolize their rejection of the new BN-led government's legitimacy.

The Internet has become a pivotal venue for this rising political contestation. Critical comments directed at BN, UMNO and Prime Minister Najib Razak have been made regularly on Facebook and other social media platforms since the polls. Out of Malaysia's 28.3 million population, 13.6 million are regular Facebook users.

Since the end of May, pro-UMNO mouthpieces led by Utusan Malaysia have accused the PR, led by former deputy prime minister and finance minister Anwar Ibrahim and especially the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party (DAP), of funding 3,000 "cyber-troopers" to spread anti-government propaganda over the Internet.

Following Utusan Malaysia's accusation, new home minister and known hardliner Ahmad Zahid Hamidi vowed to monitor social media together with the state's Internet regulator. When Gooi and four of her Facebook friends claimed to have suffered digestive discomfort after listening to the Malaysian monarch's birthday speech, a national address in which he called upon Malaysians to accept the election outcome, the government singled them out for harassment. Thirty-five police reports in total were lodged against them.

While the five netizens' remarks went beyond the civility standard of most Malaysians and against the deference they generally have for royalty, the issue goes beyond the breaking of taboos. When Anwar pointed out that the king's speech was prepared by the government and accused Najib of being so "desperate to solicit support from any possible quarter", a junior minister from UMNO, Abdul Rahman Dahlan, immediately accused Anwar of labeling the king as a "puppet".

In an interview with Internet news site Malaysiakini, Anwar's party colleague and former constitutional law professor Aziz Bari said in his legal defense: "As in any Westminster system, such a speech is essentially the government's speech and policy, even though it is read out by the monarch. As such, the criticism is neither disrespectful nor seditious."

Potent symbols

Neither constitutionality nor politeness is the point. Known ceremonially as Yang diPertuan Agong (the Supreme Head), the Malaysian king is elected among and by nine hereditary Malay state monarchs, most of whom carry the title of "sultan."

For UMNO and Malay nationalists, the royal rulers are symbols that Malaysia is historically a Malay nation-state, even though Malaysia is actually a new country whose boundaries were defined under British colonial rule. Not even the powerful Malaccan Sultanate of the 15th century ruled any of Malaysia's currently controlled Borneo territories.

As the British prepared for decolonization of Malaya (the Malaysian Peninsula), UMNO, which was then led by aristocrats, fervently defended the power and stature of monarchy as the protector of Malays and the guardian of Islam. In the aftermath of the Sino-Malay riots of 1969, the Sedition Act was amended to prohibit the questioning of monarchy.

Free from electoral pressure, Malay monarchs have often been more inclusive towards non-Malay minorities than the ethno-nationalists in UMNO. Tales of friendships between Malay rulers and their Chinese or Indian subjects are common in Malaysia's modern history.

The symbiotic relationship between the Malay palace and UMNO turned sour when the aristocratic leadership of the dominant Malay party was gradually replaced by professionals, administrators and capitalists.

In fact, UMNO and the Malay royal houses were often at loggerheads in the late 1980s and early 1990s during the power struggle between Malaysia's first commoner prime minister, Mahathir Muhamad, and his former finance minister, Tengku Razaleigh, a royal prince.

Mahathir subsequently amended the federal constitution to cut the power of Malay monarchs. To force the rulers' consent to the amendment, Mahathir passionately attacked the misconduct of royals using national media. The Sedition Act, of course, was conveniently ignored during his anti-royal campaign.

The royals became UMNO's darlings once again after the political tsunami in 2008, which saw Anwar-led opposition parties win five of 13 federal states and a third of parliament's seats. To label the opposition as enemies or traitors of the Malays, UMNO resurrected the old discourse of "3Rs": race (Malays), religion (Islam), and royalty, and rebranded themselves as loyalists to all three causes. In turn, some royals smartly made themselves pivotal in the competition between BN and PR for electoral support.

Under the Sedition Act, convicted violators may face imprisonment of up to three years and a fine of up to 5,000 ringgit (about US$1,600). Immediately after the Gooi Facebook incident, a retired judge, Mohd Noor Abdullah, called for the enactment of a harsher Treason Act, which carries a minimum imprisonment of two years, to protect the royal institution.

A card-carrying member of UMNO, he recently rose to notoriety for calling for an ethnic quota of 67% for ethnic Malays in every aspect of public and economic life as a penalty for the Chinese who voted against the BN. Minister Mohd Shafie Apdal, a vice president of UMNO, has given his substantial support for the proposed stronger Treason Act.

Contradicting the ethno-nationalist monarchist discourse, the trend in recent years shows that criticism of Malay monarchs has arisen mostly from the ethnic Malay community. It seems doubtful that even the hefty punishments prescribed in the existing Sedition Act or the proposed Treason Act will stop the trend.

Kingship is more of a Hindu tradition and has little justification in Islam. As argued by pro-UMNO Muslim clergies in 1992-3 in support of Mahathir, kings and commoners are equal before Allah.

In two separate incidents last year, a quantity surveyor and a paranormal practitioner both Malays were arrested and investigated under the Sedition Act and other laws for criticizing the Sultan of Johor. While the arrest and investigation of Gooi and her Facebook friends did not lead to formal prosecution proceedings, their harassment has had a chilling effect on critical comments about the monarchy.

When the king opened the new parliament last week, he repeated his call to accept the election outcome and he even praised the Election Commission for a job well done. The speech was prepared by BN and appeared as a rebuke to the opposition, which just two days earlier had staged its 35,000-strong demonstration demanding the Election Commission's resignation. With the threats made against Gooi and others, this time few if any complaints were made on Facebook about the king's speech.

[Chin Huat Wong is a fellow at the Penang Institute, a think tank linked to the Penang State Government. He earned his PhD from the University of Essex on a thesis focused on Malaysia's electoral and party systems. He is also a steering committee member of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections 2.0, also known as Bersih 2.0.]

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