Book Review: Zaid Ibrahim’s Ampun Tuanku
M. Bakri Musa
Last of Three Parts: Opportunities for Sultans as Head of Islam
[In the first part of this essay I explored the myth to the sultans’ claim of their special powers based on daulat (divine dispensation); in the second, I examined the dynamics that led them to claim that status today. In this third and last essay, I reviewed Zaid’s novel views of how the sultans could indeed claim their “special powers” by virtue of the fact of their being head of Islam.]
The constitution explicitly states the secular role of sultans. There are no penumbras or derived powers. In practice however, as Zaid noted with everything pertaining to the law, if you have money you could always hire a smarter lawyer who would argue otherwise. Indeed that is what the sultans are doing as they now can afford expensive legal counsel; hence their claim of “something extra” based on daulat.
Legal theories do not arise out of nowhere. It is the current weak political leadership of Najib (and Abdullah Badawi before him) that emboldens the sultans to reassert themselves and challenge established principles and practices.
That notwithstanding, there is one area in the constitution that is indisputable and unchallengeable: The sultan as head of Islam. This is where the sultan could rightly claim his special status as his authority there is absolute. Creatively managed, it could prove to be a splendid opportunity for them to serve not only Malays but also non-Muslim Malaysians.
“Where Islam is concerned,” Zaid writes, “the Malay Rulers have a golden opportunity to make their mark.” That they do not is the greatest missed opportunity, for them as well as for Malaysians and Malaysia.
This special role in Islam for the sultan has a strong foundation. The concept of a supreme head of the ummah goes back to the days of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs and indeed Prophet Muhammad, s.a.w., himself. Not surprisingly, modern Muslim leaders including our sultans have conveniently latched on to that symbolism.
Historically and for very practical reasons, the British were only too happy to relegate matters of Islam to the sultans. That was also politically shrewd as it placated both the natives and their sultans. Conveniently, Islam was also then peripheral if not irrelevant to the politics and economics of the country. So that was an easy concession on the part of the colonials. Further, with Malays consumed with their sultans and religion, that eased the British to exploit the economic riches of the land with the help of immigrants who were unencumbered with either.
Today the situation is very different. Malays are still obsessed with their religion and to some extent (although decidedly less so) their sultans. Islam today however, is central to everything that is Malaysian, especially politics and economics. The increasingly shrill contestation of Islam between UMNO and PAS attests to this. Islamic financial institutions are now major players, and zakat collections are in the billions.
At one level, Malays’ continuing obsession with religion and the afterlife distracts us from making our rightful contribution to the country, especially in matters economic. At another, this presents lucrative opportunities for the sultans to intrude into Islamic financial and economic spheres all in the guise of their being head and defender of the faith.
With his legal background, Zaid rightly focuses on the increasingly assertive role of syaria in the administration of justice. In the past, syaria was concerned primarily with family law, as with divorce and inheritance cases. Now it encroaches into areas hitherto the purview of secular (both civil as well as criminal) courts. Syaria is now on par with and in many instances superior to secular courts, in effect above the constitution. Fatwas (decrees issued by religious functionaries) now have the power of law, thus usurping the legislature.
If those were not problematic enough, with syaria usurping the criminal courts Malaysians face the reality that the punishment they get would depend not on the crime they have committed rather their faith. A Muslim caught committing adultery could face “stoning to death” under syaria while non-Muslims would not even be prosecuted, or if prosecuted would be slapped with a small fine for indecent exposure perhaps and suffer the wrath of their spouses. Even in matters pertaining to family law, they can get messier especially where one party to the dispute is a non-Muslim. The victims are not just the living. Recent cases of “corpse snatching” are but one ugly manifestation.
This judicial abdication by the secular courts, in Zaid’s view, occurred because their judges are mostly Malays who want to appear “pious and upright Muslims… want[ing] to fit into the ‘correct’ image of a good Muslim.”
Islam emancipated the ancient Bedouins and made them give up their odious practices such as female infanticide and “an eye for eye” sense of justice. Perversely today, the more Malays and Malaysia become “Islamized,” the more backward, corrupt, polarized and dysfunctional Malays and Malaysia become. The irony!
“Islam – the great purifier and liberating force in the world – had been reduced to an ordinary cult in Malaysia,” writes Zaid. Not any ordinary cult but a rogue one, with corrupt, toxic leaders.
As undisputed leaders of Islam, sultans have a major role to correct these obvious pathologies. That they have abdicated this crucial role is a major factor to Malays becoming deeply polarized and increasingly marginalized economically. That is a tragedy not only for Malays but also for all Malaysians. Ultimately this will also negatively impact the sultans.
The sultans have shirked their responsibilities because one, they are ill equipped to play this important role as head of the faith. They have severely limited knowledge of Islam and worse, they lack the curiosity to learn. They are Islamically-challenged in all spheres. Thus they become captive to the ulamas (the state sponsored ones), an arrangement reminiscent to what the Saudi royals have with their religious establishment.
The personal behaviors of these sultans also preclude them from playing exemplary roles in Islam. They frequent casinos, night clubs and golf courses, not mosques and suraus. The notable exception is the current Sultan of Kelantan. His visible piety softened what otherwise would have been a very negative public perception of filial betrayal and palace coup after he took power from his incapacitated father. His modest and pious lifestyle also embarrassed the other royals. There is a picture going viral on the Internet of him removing his shoes before entering a mosque during Ramadan. This was juxtaposed to that of the Johore crown prince being fitted with his polo riding boots by one of his subjects. The contrast could not have been more revealing; two very different portraits of the head of Islam.
At another level, Malay sultans do not pay any income or other taxes. It can be argued that this is the norm for monarchies elsewhere, those being the privileges of being head of state. In Islam however, nobody is exempted from its precepts. One of the five cardinal obligations of a Muslim is to give zakat (tithe) in the amount of 2.5 percent of the value of your assets. This applies to leaders and followers, imams and ordinary believers, and sultans as well as subjects.
As head and defender of the faith a sultan must be an exemplary Muslim. I challenge our sultans to declare how much zakat they have contributed. On the contrary, they are the consumers and beneficiaries of zakat.
In the final analysis, the fate of Malaysian sultans lies less with what is written in the constitution or their accepted role as head of Islam, rather how they perform both in their official roles as well as personal capacities. As for the former, we have the Sultans’ of Perak and Trengganu performances following the last elections to go by; for the latter, the thuggish behaviors of the Johor princes and the debt-skipping late Yang Di Pertuan of Negri Sembilan. With such examples we cannot be optimistic on the future of the institution of sultans.
The sultans may be the constitutional heads of state but to most non-Malays they are irrelevant; they are after all Malay rajas. Those non-Malays who found the sultans useful do so because they provide reliable conduits to lucrative government contracts. The relationship is less symbiotic, more parasitical. I leave it to my readers to determine which party is the parasite. Those are the non-Malays who flaunt their fancy royal titles and are genuinely proud of their status as Malay hulubalangs (knights). Few Malays, especially the young, urban and educated, have favorable views of their sultans. Those in the kampong still display at least outwardly their loyalty and fealty, but that is more an expression of cultural courtesy rather than respect.
I visited my kampong in Negri Sembilan near the royal town of Sri Menanti during the reign of its former ruler and was surprised by the outward displays of loyalty by the villagers despite and especially considering the blatant “un-Islamic” and “un-Malay” behaviors of the princes. One would conclude that this tolerance of and acceptance by those villagers effectively turned them into enablers for the royals’ excesses.
Then that Yang Di Pertuan died and the Undangs bypassed his family in their choice of his successor. The relief and joy of the villagers was palpable. Only then could one subtly discern the loathing they had for the members of the previous royal family.
On a grander scale, one would be hard put to deny the “love” the Iranians had for their late Shah, judging from their behaviors during the 2,500-year Persepolis “anniversary” celebration in 1971. Who could have predicted that barely eight years later the Shah would be hounded out of his country!
The Shah of Iran, Egypt’s Farouk, and the King of Afghanistan all had their positions secured in their respective constitutions. During their reign, they all enjoyed the effusive adulations and loyalty of their subjects. Today those monarchs are all gone; recalling their names would only evoke loathing among their former subjects.
Malay sultans would do well to ponder that. As they reflect, they would also do well to read Zaid Ibrahim’s Ampun Tuanku. Better yet, invite him to address their next Conference of Rulers. That would be the best way for them to avoid the fate they endured during the Japanese Occupation, or worse.