Public Lecture Organised By The Institute Of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore

Minister Teo Chee Hean

Professor Wang Gung Wu

Professor Shih Choon Fong

Mr K Kesavapany,

Director, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies


Distinguished Audience

I am delighted to be here this morning to share my views with such an eminent gathering, which is a more than usually perceptive one. After all the Monarchy in Malaysia is, I’m sure, a subject on which you are all already knowledgeable, if only by virtue of our shared history and close proximity. It is also one, I do not doubt, on which there will be a considerable divergence of opinion. All the more enticing. I hope to find at least an intellectual Causeway on which our thoughts may correspond.


I must also confess that having to present on this subject, to this audience, is a somewhat titillating prospect for me because of the background. Singapore and Malaysia were once considered Siamese twins, indissolubly linked by a common history, cultures, family and commerce. In 1965, separated by political surgery, the twins went very much their separate ways, but continue to share an institutional framework that was the British legacy. One of the main divergences, however, was that Singapore left behind the Constitutional Monarchy it had enjoyed for a brief honeymoon and therefore knows from the inside – and opted instead for being a Republic. My subject today thus enters the arena of political and social choice on which we have taken different paths. My point is that Monarchy since then has evolved and it is necessary to see it in the context of contemporary society, its contemporary form and structure and the equally contemporary animus it commands. I do not intend an academic treatise – there are ample textbooks on the subject but to present my own personal perspective of Monarchy, Malaysia style, and of twenty-first century vintage.

First let me acknowledge a certain subjectivity of which you are well aware that makes the Monarchy a subject of special importance to me personally. If this also enables me to bring to bear an insider’s view I am happy to do so. At the same time the subject also fascinates me, as a student of history and politics, and here I can be more objective. There are very few monarchies left in the world. The Malaysian version, moreover, must be many times more intriguing than most, which gives it great intrinsic interest in and of itself. I welcome the chance to examine this extraordinary phenomenon.

Our stubbornly cherished system of monarchy must seem to outsiders nothing but a curious survival, an anachronism and one surely rendered obsolete now that we are into the third millennium. This is to overlook the essentially dynamic process whereby the Monarchy evolves, recreates and constantly redefines itself in tandem with the progress of society as a whole. In one radical development within living memory this pre-modern, pre-colonial heritage survived by becoming a Constitutional Monarchy. This is what I am here to talk about today and how this was achieved within a fully democratised system, thereby invoking the implicit consent of the rakyat (people) – the hallmark of democracy. We are a small but extraordinary little country and an ingenious one. This helped us reach an exceptional political and democratic arrangement whereby Monarchy is placed above the political fray but remains an indispensable part of the social fabric conferring its own brand of psychological security to the rakyat of all races. Part of the in-built respect for the Monarchy is the permanence of the institution in a volatile world. It is an instrument of unity in diversity and an anchor institution.


These are strong claims. But now there is another implicit challenge in the temper of the times in which we live. We have reached – indeed, mankind has reached – a critical juncture in our affairs that dictates we re-examine our basic assumptions. These are times of strategic change more rapid and profound than we have ever known before. The question is bound to arise of the continued relevance of the Monarchy. Can it remain viable? My thesis will be that it has still a crucial, albeit a more challenging and complex, role to play, in the modern orbit of Malaysia 2004 and beyond. In fact its very uniqueness makes it peculiarly apt for the exigencies of the time. The distinguishing characteristic to which I refer, that differentiates it from the stereotyped version, is an unusual fusion of monarchy, democracy and Islam – three powerful forces. We have successfully integrated them into one dynamic.

The Harmony Dividend

Malaysian monarchy is not merely symbolic. Support for it goes beyond sentiment or symbolism. It is true we have retained the colourful mosaic of ceremonial splendours associated with royalty which add a touch of pageantry to what can sometimes be the humdrum side of existence. One can even argue this is the Malaysian alternative to the iconography of Hollywood but not so ephemeral. However we are here concerned with the much more substantive role of the Monarchy and its contribution to the surprising stability and harmony we have achieved. Surprising because it has to be seen in the context of the multi-ethnic profile of our population. Not just that, but the countervailing strengths of the different ethnic groups that compose it and the inherent dangers in these divisions, compounded by our less orthodox policy of integration rather than assimilation to preserve the diversity in this plurality. We have by and large managed to contain any latent potential for strife thanks in no small measure to the concerted role of Monarchy, democracy and Islam within social and civil polity.

The Monarchy provides a kind of invisible social glue helping to bind us. It is true that it is a potent symbol of this being the “Land of the Malays” and is thereby primarily a bastion of Malay culture helping to identify the Malays as the definitive people. But it is not exclusive. The Monarchy is extended to Malaysians of all ethnic groups who accept its constitutional identity and live comfortably with its Malay- oriented social dimension. The Monarchy, by its very nature, is a force for moderation over extremism. It can be seen as a bedrock of the constitutional process.

Democracy provides the avenue by which the various constituencies can give voice to the way they choose to be governed. It is government by consent and compatible with Constitutional Monarchy. The Ruler[1] plays an important and effective role in maintaining a democratic parliamentary system by remaining politically neutral and be seen to be unbiased.

Islam provides a moral compass. The Rulers are Head of Islam in their State. Just rule is interpreted according to the tenets of Islam which at the same time resonate with the universal values to be found in all religions, thus providing another binding force.

The alchemy of all three — Monarchy, democracy and Islam — creates the desired cohesion. This has provided continuity and brings with it a dividend of social harmony that enhances the functioning of democracy and the underlying political as well as social stability.

The Monarchical System

The Sultanates – and they are very much plural, there being nine of them left – have been in existence for over six centuries with their roots in fifteenth century Malacca (interestingly one of the states where the Monarchy has since disappeared). What is pertinent is that the denizens of these past Malay Sultanates considered themselves living not so much in geographically defined states in the European convention, but under Rajas. The word for “Government” to this day is “Ke-raja-an” of Sanskrit origin incorporating the word “Raja” and signifying “being subject to the Raja or Ruler.” The first kingdoms were imported by Hindu traders on the Maharaja model. The title of “Raja” for Royalty to be found for instance in my own State is a survival from that first era. The Arab traders, who followed, brought Islam and converted the kingdoms to Sultanates in the Middle Eastern tradition. Nine Sultans remain as hereditary Rulers in their respective States. This proved a stumbling block to British imperialist ambitions for outright colonies resulting in the Residency system, a form of indirect colonialism or de facto rule which nevertheless preserved the semblance of Malay sovereignty, so as not to provoke the wrath and the resistance of their loyal Malay subjects. Treaties, separately negotiated with each Sultan in turn resulted in a colonial scenario that was a bit of a patchwork.

The British, however, were percipient in one important respect, being careful to accord reserve powers to the Rulers on sensitive matters pertaining to Malay custom and religion. The principle applies to this day. The Sultans remain not only as Head of their respective States, but also, as stated earlier, Head of Islam.[2] They deliberate on matters of religion and Malay adat as their special area of competence, with a responsibility towards both Muslim and Malay identity.

The Independence Formula

With Independence, Monarchy became a Constitutional Monarchy with clearly defined parameters defining and prescribing the sphere of influence left to the Sultans. The system of Monarchy itself, too precious to relinquish, was prudently retained both in the Federal and State Constitutions along with Islam as the state religion, and Malay as the national language, but with in-built provisions for freedom of worship and recognition of other languages. Malaysians are very accepting people. Accommodation is part of the national ethos. The position of the Rulers has since been constitutionally placed beyond debate. Their position as Head of State and Head of Islam remain unaffected. Independent Malaya had chosen to endorse its time-honoured Monarchy but in contemporary form. This may have seemed to go against the modern trend. Monarchies, some of which have been in existence several hundreds of years, many now regarded as redundant. Newly emerging or newly independent countries tended to go for a Republican system of government – in some cases moving from a monarchy to the latter, clearly the more fashionable option, seen as synonymous with modernity.

The Yang di Pertuan Agong[3]

Malaya in the event, when it had the constitutional choice, not only retained its traditional Sultanates at State level but introduced another layer of monarchy into the Federal system, through an overall, supreme Ruler, thereby elevating the institution. Part of my theme is that monarchy in our country is far from stagnant – revitalising itself in tune with the dynamic of the society in which we live and serve. The British legacy at Independence was a sound institutional framework, it might have seemed difficult to improve upon. The new Constitutional Monarchy nevertheless represented a major innovation. Based it is true on the British model, it nevertheless had its own indigenous identity. The founding fathers had to accommodate the rights and expectations of nine Rulers, the wishes of the rakyat and the political constituency represented at Federal level by the Prime Minister and at State level by the Chief Ministers. Helping to fuse these disparate elements was the common national vision and goal, an essential unity symbolised by an overall Monarch or Supreme Ruler to whom all Malaysians owed their allegiance. This entailed a newly created position – the Yang di Pertuan Agong or overall Ruler – the name literally means “He who is supreme amongst us” – i.e. primus inter pares. Supreme amongst us because there was the somewhat delicate problem of no less than nine candidates. Where should preferment go? It was resolved by democracy, instituting the charming custom of Five-Year Kings to be found nowhere else on this planet. They invented the unique practice of electing the Agong. The Yang di Pertuan Agong is chosen by his brother Rulers, in the Conference of Rulers,[4] and in secret conclave, rather like electing the Pope.

There was one other distinctive contribution. The throne rotates. Each Agong reigns for 5 years then graciously stands down allowing his brother Rulers the opportunity in turn to play a role on the national stage. The procedure gives due recognition to each State. The new so-called Merdeka Constitution that introduced these customs was concerned to preserve to the States their traditional importance.

The Conference of Rulers

Constitutional Monarchy also led to the reconstitution of another traditional body – the Conference of Rulers which existed pre-Merdeka but in more restricted form. This now became federal in scope with participation extended. All States now take part – comprising a core group of the nine Rulers augmented by the four Governors from States lacking a hereditary Ruler. Strictly speaking the King is not a member but on matters of important national policy, the King accompanied by the Prime Minister participates. The consultative process is the basis of the Conference of Rulers.

The Conference performs a number of vital functions.[5] It reserves the right to elect, and is the only body that has the power to remove, the Agong. It has to be consulted in the appointment of certain important positions – the Chief Justice and other Judges,[6] the Auditor General[7] and members of the Election Commission[8], the Public Services Commission[9] and the Education Services Commission[10].

Certain important amendments to the Federal Constitution require the Conference’s prior consent, for example, any changes relating to the national language; the special position of the Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak; and the position of the Rulers.[11] These are all safeguards. The Conference thus provides an effective forum for consultation, participation and in some cases sanction in the Federal-State relationship, but all based on mutual respect. It is a forum for eliciting and making known the views of the Rulers, an instrument for them to exercise influence.

The cornerstone of the democratic system as we know it is the well-known doctrine of the separation of powers — the legislature, the executive and the judiciary being the three entities. One could make a case for the Conference of Rulers to be considered a fourth entity.

Federal – State Relations

The Conference of Rulers reinforces the concept of Federation. The concept is relatively new, and really only came in with Independence in a country where state loyalties run deep – where the people take pride in local heritage, customs and traditions. A way of introducing more balance in the Federal -State equation.

The new Federalism again with laudable diplomacy did not attempt to concentrate power at the centre but devolved it, selectively, to the States, guaranteeing them a degree of autonomy. One of the basic precepts embodied in the Constitution is the distribution of sovereign power between the thirteen States and the Federal Government.


Within the spirit of the Constitution the Sultans’ traditional role is now extended to the wider sphere. They participate in the governance of the country. The Agong has a formal and highly visible role which underlines his prestige, supports the dignity of the throne and in some cases together with his brother Rulers provides an important check and balance to the Government of the day.

The Agong formally appoints (but does not select) the Prime Minister.[12] He reserves the right to dissolve Parliament[13]. He may declare a State of Emergency.[14] Correspondingly, the Rulers at State level appoint the Chief Ministers and have the right to dissolve the State Legislative Assemblies.[15]


This then brings me to the factor of Islam in the equation.

The Islamic Factor

The Sultans are the custodians of Islam in Malaysia. They have wide powers and discretion over matters relating to the Muslim religion. These powers and discretion are guaranteed by the Federal and State Constitutions. The Sultans have a great deal of influence in the direction of religious matters.

They appoint the State religious officials – the mufti, the judges and officers of the Shariah Courts; oversee the establishment, activities and administration of mosques; and issue formal accreditation to religious teachers and missionaries.[16] At Federal and State levels, fatwas (religious edicts) need the consent of the Rulers. [17]

To help them discharge their duty as Head of Islam is the Islamic Religious Council – a body appointed by the Ruler to assist and advise him on all matters relating to Islam.

Constitutional Monarchy and democracy in our equation play a part in defining the exemplary status of Malaysia as a Muslim country, making us one of the most successful in terms of political stability and economic prosperity.

Malaysia is today held up as an exemplar of the kind of modern, progressive, moderate and enlightened Muslim country that we truly are. It has demonstrated that economic development, modernity and technology are not incompatible with Islam. Islam as practised in Malaysia is open to the advances of the Knowledge Age. Islamic banking and Takaful insurance are two examples of innovation in the area of banking and finance, which have become models for other countries.

Muslim Malaysia can thus become a voice in the global debate helping to correct the current inter-religious misunderstandings that are dangerously dividing the world. This country has been conferred leadership of the Organization of Islamic Conference representing all 57 Islamic countries in the world. The more we can promote the fundamental ethics of peace and brotherhood according to the tenets of Islam, the more we uphold the principles of Islamic justice. If we are to be an influence in the universal Islamic debate beginning to engulf us, it will be by example not just precept.

The Challenges Ahead

Let me now address some of the challenges, as I see them, facing the Monarchy in the years ahead.

The question is bound to be asked whether the Rulers are the exclusive preserve of just the one community, the Malays. Whilst the Rulers themselves are without exception Malay and Muslim, the people of Malaysia are Malays, Chinese, Indians, Eurasians, Ibans, Kadazans and other tribal people including the aborigines. Malaysians in the main are Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. Fostering the allegiance of the people is a challenging task in the midst of all this plurality. Yet our inherent differences have been accommodated into a constitutional framework that recognises the traditional features of Malay society as the definitive culture but also reflects the social contract between our multiethnic communities.

Forty years ago Professor Harry Groves[18] observed that the Monarchy provides a “visible symbol of unity in a remarkably diverse nation”. Since then the roots of monarchy, I would venture to add, have grown even deeper in this intercultural soil. What was once perceived to be an essentially Malay institution is now accepted by all as a unifying factor. Far from remote, the Rulers are an integral part of public life, and a highly visible one at that contributing often to the civil order. Malaysia’s Monarchy can certainly play a proactive role in further forging a sense of one community and one nation to which we aspire. It is a role they can more meaningfully play than anyone else given the special position they hold in society.

Second, there is the Generation Gap. The challenge here is to reach out to our young citizens. Here the litmus test of ongoing legitimacy is best applied to the youth – the so called Generation X, the inheritors of the future and with it the present system of Monarchy. What level of allegiance and acceptance will it command down the road? Generation X does not remember the struggle for Independence or the Constitution in which we took such pride. They are more likely to be sceptical of the relevance and value of monarchy. They have scant regard for, or patience with, grandeur or nostalgia. They want bottom line benefit and accountability. Rulers have to be seen to be addressing the real needs of society to fulfil their responsibility to the rakyat and this in more modern form – to demonstrate an interest in education, in IT, in ways appealing to a technologically-savvy generation. It would be wrong for the Rulers to distance themselves from the issues of the day. They must be seen to be role models. I would here like to pay tribute to my father, His Royal Highness Sultan Azlan Shah, who, before he ascended the throne, was an eminent member of the judiciary, who rose to be Chief Justice, then Lord President of the Federal Court of Malaysia, and contributed significantly to the body of legal judgments and judicial wisdom that has helped develop the Malaysian Law.[19]

Third, the Monarchy must adapt to changing circumstances. Though steeped in tradition, it must reflect a contemporary outlook. Changes, when required, have to be addressed and accommodated to suit the temper of the times. In accepting calls for amendments to the constitution in 1993 affecting the Rulers’ immunity, the institution proved itself once again to be adaptable.

After all, the Rulers accept a duty of care to promote the welfare and the well being of the people. Theirs is a dignified detachment and impartiality. The modern Ruler, far from being remote, participates in the world of affairs, in the intellectual and public life of the community, often making a personal contribution that can be considered outstanding by any criteria. The nine Rulers are not made up of the uninformed. They bring to the throne and to the Conference of Rulers a degree of eminence in public life. These include a former chief justice, a former ambassador for his country, a former officer in the armed forces, magistrates and public administrators.

Fourth, where the Rulers are constitutionally required to act on advice, they should accept the advice; where they are to be consulted, they should express their views independently without fear or favour; and where they are to act on discretion, they should exercise it with prudence and wisdom. After all, “constitutional monarchs are the impartial umpires”. In this manner, Rulers and elected members of government complement each other, thereby upholding the rule of law and good governance.

Fifth, the Rulers as head of Islam must make their voices heard on important issues affecting the Muslim ummah (community). Since September 11, 2001 Muslims the world over have been demonized. But ordinary Muslims are very much like anyone else around the world; concerned about the quality of life for themselves and their children. Increasingly, middle class Muslims are also concerned about rights and freedoms, but unfortunately the moderates, who form the vast majority, prefer to remain a silent majority and shy away from speaking out about how they configure their Islamic identity. It is unfortunate and can be perilous because in the vacuum, more strident voices dominate.

The Malay Kingdoms predate the advent of Islam in the Archipelago. But Islam took root because it resonated with “Kerajaan”, with the condition of having a Raja. For example, the Undang-Undang Melaka [20]explain in no ambiguous terms the supreme position of the Sultan, but it is in the quality of the Ruler — his responsibilities and obligations as they had evolved since pre-Islamic times — that one sees resonance with Islam. The qualities required by the Kanun (law) for being a Ruler were that he should be merciful (ampun), generous (murah), courageous (perkasa) and firm in his rule. A fundamental ethos of Islam that reverberates through the Quran is that of mercy and compassion. Every surah (chapter) of the Quran begins with “Bismillah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim”— In the Name of God, the Merciful and the Compassionate. I find the propagation of a moderate, inclusive and progressive Islam, framed within the mandate to be merciful and compassionate, as a defining element and challenge of the Rulers’ stewardship over Islam.



In conclusion, I do not wish to end on just one facet of Monarchy that is the Head of Islam, but on its multiple role and responsibilities central to the evolution of a modern, democratic state. I hope I have demonstrated that Monarchy in Malaysia is different. In modern parlance it has “perfected its own brand”. The final overriding claim I would make is that well within the spirit of the Constitution, we have helped nurture a harmonious society where citizens of various ethnic groups can live comfortably side by side.

Of course what is good for us is not necessarily good for others. What then is the secret in our case that determines the choice we make of our form of Government, its success and its embrace by the rakyat? If I were to single out the one most distinguishing characteristic of the Malaysian people, it is their graciousness. I like to think that the dignity and the stature that have been preserved in our system of Monarchy symbolise this rare but ineffable factor of grace that distinguishes Malaysians and Malaysia.

  1. The terms “Ruler” and “Sultan” are used inter-changeably in this Paper
  2. Article 3(2) of the Federal Constitution.
  3. The terms “Yang di-Pertuan Agong”, “Agong” and “King” are used inter-changeably in this Paper
  4. Article 32(3) of the Federal Constitution. See also the Fifth Schedule to the Federal Constitution.
  5. As to the Conference of Rulers, see generally Articles 38(1) to 38(6), and the Fifth Schedule.
  6. Article 122 B.
  7. Article 105.
  8. Article 114.
  9. Article 139 (4)
  10. Article 141 A(2)
  11. See Article 159(5).
  12. Article 43(1).
  13. Article 55 (2)
  14. Article 150.
  15. See Eighth Schedule of the Federal Constitution.
  16. This is provided for under the various State Constitutions. See also List II-State List to Ninth Schedule (Legislative List) of the Federal Constitution.
  17. There are Fatwa Committees at both State and Federal levels.
  18. Professor Harry Groves, The Constitution of Malaysia, Malaysia Publications Ltd, Singapore, 1964. See also S Jayakumar and Trindade, “The Supreme Head of the Malaysian Federation’, (1966) 6 Malaya Law Review 280-302.
  19. See Judgments of HRH Sultan Azlan Shah With Commentary, Professional Law Books Publishers, Kuala Lumpur, 1986 ; and HRH Sultan Azlan Shah, Constitutional Monarchy, Rule of Law and Good Goverance, Selected Essays and Speeches, Professional Law Books and Sweet and Maxwell, 2004.
  20. 14th century text
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