How does the monarchy affect democracy?
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How does the monarchy affect democracy?

BEING so close to Thailand (in case you didn’t know, Malaysia borders Thailand to the south), Malaysians just can’t avoid having a very close affinity with her neighbour.

Personally, I have visited the Siamese Kingdom numerous times and, as anyone who has ever been there would tell you, the Thais love their King and country to death.

The national anthem is played in public every day and it doesn’t matter where you are or what you are doing, you stand when it does, whether you’re waiting for the train or just standing on the sidewalk.

They turn to their King for everything, from spiritual guidance to being a stable anchor and mediator during extreme political turmoil. The latter being the case in the past decade.

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A Thai woman holding up a picture of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej cries while waiting for a van carrying the body of the king to pay her last respects outside Grand Palace in Bangkok, Friday. Pic: AP.

With the passing of King Bhumibol Adulyadei, the country grieves like they have never grieved before. Tears filled the days after the announcement and the nation is in a full year of mourning.

The country will appoint Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn as the new king; however, he has requested a delay because he wants to mourn the loss of his father together with the people.

For a country that has faced such political instability (in the last decade, they have gone through multiple coups and have one former prime minister living in exile), it would be an interesting transition.

Constitutional monarchs are very interesting because it is a system that incorporates ancient and (some say archaic) system of rule with modern day democracy.

For many countries that are constitutional monarchies, the role of the royals is usually symbolic and ceremonial. But as we are all familiar with, Thailand holds their King in much higher regard.

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Thais pray in front of a portrait of Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok, Thailand. Pic: AP

But how has it affected their democracy? With the late King Bhumibol being so highly revered, his advice, guidance and endorsements are usually rarely debated or questioned.

He is a respected father to a people that is obedient and respectful. And because of that, this could be prone to abuse, especially by those who try to manipulate the system and stay in power.

At the same time, Malaysia, another constitutional monarchy in the region, just went through the process of appointing the country’s new king for the next five years.

For those unfamiliar, Malaysia has nine states that have royal families. These nine sultans take turns being the Yang Di Pertuan Agong (or King) of the country every five years.

Come December, Sultan Muhammad V of Kelantan will be the 15th Yang di-Pertuan Agong (king), after this was unanimously agreed upon by the rest of the sultans in the country’s Conference of Rulers last week.

Malaysia, although not experiencing the kind of political instability like Thailand, still has it’s fair share of political drama, turmoil and scandals. And who do we turn in trying times? Yup, the royals.

Protests and demonstrations usually see a memorandum being handed over to either the YDP Agong or one of the sultans.

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Bersih protesters at a 2007 rally Pic: AP

Unfortunately (of fortunately), nothing much comes out of it except to generate attention.

But most usually, without any prompting, a sultan or two would make a statement in reaction to a political action or statement by the government or even the opposition.

These are the ones that get the most attention from the media and also the public. Luckily, many of the recent comments made by the royals have been fairly rational and decent – in response to irrational statements and actions by politicians.

For example, the Sultan of Johor has been a loud critic of how certain politicians in the ruling party are becoming too religiously strict and narrow, as well as how some are pitting Malaysians of different races against each other.

This is all fine (especially so when the royals are making more sense than the political leaders!), but where is the line drawn? What happens when they actually start getting involved in the administration of the government?

SEE ALSO: Malaysia PM Najib: ‘King told me about his meeting with Mahathir’

There have been instances where royals have actually influenced election outcomes. For example, in 2009, the Sultan of Perak denied the Pakatan Rakyat party (the federal opposition coalition that was ruling the state at the time) from holding fresh elections after several state legislators defected to Barisan Nasional, the pact that runs the federal government.

The high courts had actually ruled that a takeover of the state government via the defections was illegal. However, after the decision of the sultan and a heated legal battle in court, Barisan Nasional was eventually was recognised as the state government.

The fact is, according to the Federal Constitution and the individual state’s Constitutions, the YDP Agong and the sultans are to be consulted on issues such as the passing of laws, dissolution of Parliament and formation of government.

The question now is, how does this affect a true democracy that is suppose to be by the people and for the people? And how can we be sure that a system like this won’t be manipulated and abused by people in power?

For Southeast Asians, and particularly so for Thais and Malaysians, the issue of not having royal families is just out of the question. It is part and parcel of a proud culture. It’s just finding the best way to come to a nice balance with democracy. And that’s the challenge.

 

** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent