A quiet democratic revolution, starring Palace and PM

Unnoticed by most Malaysians whose attention is focused on the power play among political personalities, a revolution in democratic governance is taking place in the federal capital.

It is a quiet revolution, without the sound and fury of slogan-chanting crowds fuelled by hysteria, ignorance and paranoia whipped up by power-hungry personalities.

Remarkably, this quiet revolution is being conducted by just two people: the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, and the once and perhaps future prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

Between them, they have restated the supremacy of the Constitution and rule of law, not the supremacy of the political party or political personality, and not the supremacy of chanting mobs.

They have also, implicitly, restated the role of Parliament – the fact that Parliament comprises the King, Dewan Negara and Dewan Rakyat might astonish those who strive to insist on the supremacy of the Dewan Rakyat (because that is their playground).

The Yang di-Pertuan Agong and his senior officials have taken up their constitutional role – appointing a new prime minister at a time of political uncertainty – with grace, openness and cordiality.

By insisting on personal interviews with every member of Parliament, they have restated the political primacy of the individual citizen representing a constituency of citizens.

Several key points are being demonstrated:

  • The Constitution is the supreme law and the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is bound by the supreme law, as much as it binds all citizens, the sizes of their egos or desires notwithstanding;
  • There is no short-cut around the Constitution: statutory declarations are not part of the process, and are not the means to bring down or form a government;
  • The role of the MP overrides that of political parties and their leaders;
  • Political parties have no role in the constitutional process, are not recognised by the Constitution, and are not part of Parliament;
  • Parliament is the King and the two Houses: without the King, there is no Parliament – it is the King who gives life to Parliament;
  • A prime minister is chosen from among Members of Parliament – not from members of any party and not necessarily the head of any party;
  • The King has full discretion on choosing a prime minister: He is not obliged to choose from among party leaders (or even to acknowledge them).

Impetus for the current process came when Mahathir astutely refused to join the cabal of political leaders, statutory declarations in hand, who sought audience at the palace on Sunday.

Mahathir’s resignation as prime minister, and chairman of the party he founded, dramatically put an end to the distasteful back-door attempt to form a government without going through a confidence vote in the Dewan Rakyat.

By resigning, Mahathir ensured a return to the constitutional track for the formation of a government, after derailments caused by past attempts at deposing a sitting prime minister in 2008 and 2017, and the subsequent Perak debacle of 2009.

Thus, when the Yang di-Pertuan Agong appointed an interim prime minister, it was the MP for Langkawi, one Mahathir Mohamad, who was chosen, not the leader of any political party.

It had been the same MP for Langkawi who in 2018 had to wait – ignominiously, in some eyes– when the then Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Sultan Muhammad V, had the unprecedented task of forming a new government with someone not the head of Barisan Nasional.

Six decades of near one-party rule had made the process almost automatic at Istana Negara (although not so at some state istanas).

Now the MP for Langawi waits once again for a decision by another Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who, again, must choose from a field left open by the breakup of the ruling coalition.

By choosing to interview each and every Member of Parliament, Sultan Abdullah has placed the responsibility in the hands of the individual MP, not party hacks.

On Monday, the Comptroller of the Royal Household was quite clear and quite firm on that point, when answering a question at an impromptu press conference at the palace.

By resigning, Mahathir ensured a return to the constitutional track for the formation of a government, after derailments caused by past attempts at deposing a sitting prime minister in 2008 and 2016, and the Perak debacle of 2009.

Impatient citizens should note that Belgium, also a constitutional monarchy, has been without a government for over a year, and the parties have been struggling to form a new coalition, with only a caretaker prime minister at the helm.

Mahathir and Istana Negara have shown, in the past few days, that democracy has not been betrayed, nor the will of the people been thwarted.

What has been thwarted is the will of the would-be powerful who wish to be the final arbiters, and who clothe venality with a veneer of legality.

For that, there is much to be thankful even if the results are not immediately apparent.

Gobind Rudra is a former newspaper editor.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.