Curbing insults to Malay royalty

There seems to be a spike in the number of Malaysians in trouble for passing remarks about the country's monarchy.

They range from opposition politicians to social media users who allegedly criticised the Malay rulers. Over the last four years, many have been threatened with sedition charges.

In the most recent case, a woman allegedly insulted the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or Paramount King, in her Facebook posting early last month - after the ruler called on Malaysians to accept the May 5 election results.

She and some of her friends on Facebook felt that the Agong, as a constitutional monarch, was too partisan in making such a speech to commemorate his birthday.

While such alleged insults do not erode the legitimacy of the monarchy as an institution, they do raise concerns about the level of respect that a minority of Malaysians have for the Agong and the Malay rulers.

Why did these cases arise and how can they be prevented? First, there could be a lack of understanding of the concept of constitutional monarchy and its role in the political process.

This is despite civic lessons on state institutions that are taught in school.

The nine Malay rulers are the heads of their respective states with jurisdiction over Islam. Every five years, the nine sultans elect one of their brother rulers as the Paramount King to serve as the Malaysian head of state.

The hereditary rulers, including the Agong, are symbols of the state, representing unity and continuity from the Sultanate of Malacca in 1400.

But to the critics, the monarchy looks like an anachronism in a democracy where leaders should be elected. One important feature is its hereditary character that denies the vast majority of the population any chance of assuming such a prominent position. Another issue is its non-accountability.

However, even the critics agree that no one should call for the abolition of the monarchy. This is not so much because it is a taboo and a crime under the Constitution, but because it destroys a main identity pillar of the state of Malaysia. The monarchy is part and parcel of Malaysian identity.

Second, the lack of respect for the monarchy could be the lingering effect of the constitutional crises of 1983 and 1993. This involved a conflict between then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's government and the rulers.

The 1983 crisis was sparked by moves by Tun Dr Mahathir to remove the power of the King to declare an emergency and withhold assent to legislation. A decade later, another crisis was triggered over moves to remove the rulers' immunity from prosecution.

In order to push for the amendments, Dr Mahathir launched a media blitz to put pressure on the monarchy and rally support for the government's cause.

The Malaysian public were told, by the Umno-linked media, of tales of royal extravagance and impropriety. These tales sullied the reputation of the Malay rulers as monarchs who should be respected.

The two crises could have changed the people's attitude towards the Malay rulers to the extent that some Malaysians now feel no inhibition in expressing their views on the monarchy.

Third, with the growth of democracy and the widening influence of social media, many young Malaysians feel they have a right to freedom of expression.

But does Malaysian law allow its royalty to be criticised? The issue sparked a debate in Parliament last Wednesday, with allegations that the opposition was using the opportunity to debate the Agong's opening address to disparage the monarchy.

According to constitutional law expert Abdul Aziz Bari, there is nothing wrong with Malaysians criticising the Agong's speech in which he called on the people to accept the results of the recent general election. It is their right to do so as freedom of speech is guaranteed by the Constitution.

"No one, and this includes the Agong, has the power to deny the rights guaranteed under the country's laws and Constitution," he told a news portal.

At the same time, many feel that under a constitutional democracy, the rulers themselves should be prepared for public criticisms. They should accept the fact that their affairs will be examined in the same way as that of all public officials if they want to earn public respect and exercise their powers as monarchs.

But there are also problems in allowing criticisms of the monarchy. How do you differentiate between criticisms and insults? While those who pass critical remarks on the monarchy may not intend to insult the rulers, they risk sedition charges as the Sedition Act has not been repealed.

Some Malay groups take offence at any insults aimed at the Malay rulers as they view the monarchs as symbols of Malayness and protectors of the community and Islam. They fear that criticisms and insults could undermine the institution, which also symbolises Malay political power.

Hence they have been very vocal in calling for stern action against those perceived to have insulted the monarchy.

Speaking in Parliament last Wednesday, Umno MP Bung Moktar Radin supported a proposal for a Treason Act under which those who insult the rulers would be deemed to have committed treason.

But does Malaysia need another tough law similar to the lese majeste laws in Thailand to protect its monarchy?

Many think there is already adequate legislation against insults to royalty.

The authorities have been using the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 in dealing with netizens who allegedly made disparaging remarks about the monarchy. These cases can also come under the Penal Code and the Sedition Act, where the penalties are already severe.

Public education may be the long-term solution to curb insults to the royalty and encourage citizens to respect the highest office in the land. The existing laws that also deal with the matter can remain as a deterrent in order to protect the dignity of the institution.