By: Huzir Sulaiman
IN 1779, the Dutch Governor of Malacca commissioned a study of Malay court ceremonies. The scribes took as their source a learned mosque official named Abdulmuhit who knew of the traditional ways of the Malacca Sultanate two centuries past. The resulting manuscript, the Adat Raja-Raja Melayu, mentions the ritualised insolence of the Prime Minister towards the Sultan.
According to the commentary of Prof Panuti Hudjiman of the University of Indonesia, when the Sultan summons the Bendahara, or royal Prime Minister, to attend a betrothal ceremony, “the Bendahara has a peculiar way of responding to this royal summons. When the messenger approaches him for the first time, he replies, ‘Datanglah kita mengadap’ (We will come).
“Instead of going straight away to the palace, the Bendahara takes a bath. Again a messenger is sent, only to be told by the Bendahara to return to the palace, as the Bendahara is coming. The Bendahara lets people wait for him: he gets dressed, and waits for a third summons before he obeys.?
“This is to show his position in relation to the king: the Bendahara is chief advisor to the king and is regarded as the power behind the throne. The use of the pluralis majestatis “kita” (the royal “we”) must be an assertion of superiority or arrogance.”
This is not just an isolated case being reported; the Bendahara repeats this ritualised show of arrogance when a new Sultan is crowned and the Bendahara is called back to serve, refusing to approach until the third summons.
We can see from the Adat Raja-Raja Melayu that the tensions between the Malay ruler and his powerful ministers were already encoded in the culture of Malay kingship at the time of its early flowering in the Malacca Sultanate – and I would argue that we are seeing echoes of it today in the recent standoff between Seri Paduka Baginda Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who is also Sultan of Terengganu, and the Prime Minister.
It’s tempting to interpret the degree of interest shown by Their Highnesses the Sultans in the recent selection of Mentris Besar as a sudden flowering of royal activism, to be viewed with either glee or concern, depending on your attitude towards the Federal Government.
Seen from a historical perspective, however, this supposedly new royal intervention in the political arena is just the latest recurrence of the natural and understandable desire of the Malay ruler to actually do a bit of ruling once in a while – a desire that in the last 100 years has been continually constrained by the demands of British imperialists and Malay nationalists alike.
We should not be surprised that the Malay Rulers are making noise now; rather, we should be shocked that they have been quiet for so long. Much as they once had to deal with a ritually rude Bendahara, Their Highnesses have been obliged to accept as graciously as possible the interference of others.
In the colonial period, in the years before World War II, the Unfederated Malay States of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu, and Johor had British Advisors who in the course of their “advising” attempted with varying degrees of success to govern indirectly.
From 1896, the Federated Malay States of Perak, Selangor, Negri Sembilan, and Pahang had British Residents imposed on them by treaty, and who governed quite directly, making proclamations and decrees that began with the famously offensive formula “The British Resident is pleased to?”.
The Japanese Occupation of Malaya saw some Sultans deposed by the new invaders, and others intimidated into cooperation. After the Japanese surrender, the British Military Administration presented itself to the Malay Rulers as the sole authority capable of recognising them as legitimate. If the Rulers were deemed to have collaborated with the Japanese or, more crucially, if they were not prepared to sign a new set of treaties turning over all their authority to Britain, they would be removed.
Brigadier H.C. Willan’s report on the Sultans on Oct 7, 1945, is a chilling example of the cynical exercise of power:
“In my view it would be wise to approach the Sultan of Johore first with regard to the negotiations for the new treaties. I think in his present state of mind he will sign. He is a realist and is fully aware that he is dependent on H.M.G.’s support ?
“(The Sultan of Selangor) is a pleasant person with not a very strong character and at present is so overjoyed at the return of the British and re-recognition of himself as Sultan, that in my view, he will sign the new treaty ?’’
“In my view the Yam Tuan of Negri Sembilan should be approached next. In his present state of mind he is somewhat depressed and appears to me to be perplexed as to how his State can recover itself and would welcome directions rather than advice?.”
In the end, on pain of being deposed in favour of someone more accommodating, all nine Malay Rulers signed the MacMichael treaties, giving up virtually all their sovereign powers, except those relating to religion and Malay culture.
This first step towards Britain’s planned Malayan Union angered the burgeoning Malay nationalist movement, but scholars have pointed out that it was not so much the curtailment of the Malay Rulers’ powers that affronted Datuk Onn Jaafar and his comrades, as it was the British proposal that citizenship be granted to non-Malays born in Malaya.
It was the perceived threat to the powers of the Malay community, as opposed to the Malay Rulers, that truly galvanised the nationalists. (Indeed, Onn was arguably ambivalent about the Sultans, having in his younger days written newspaper articles critical of the Sultan of Johor.)
On March 30, 1946, the Malay Rulers were gathered in Kuala Lumpur to attend the installation of Sir Edward Gent, the new Governor. As Harry Miller tells it in his biography of Tunku Abdul Rahman, “That afternoon Onn personally conveyed to the Rulers a message from the United Malays National Organisation that it was the ‘desire of their people’ that they should not attend the Governor’s installation, and, indeed, they should ‘desist from taking part in any function connected with the Union.’
“The message went further: If the Rulers insisted on meeting the Governor they would be disowned by the people, who were determined to boycott the Malayan Union.”
Thousands of demonstrators gathered in front of the hotel where the Sultans were staying, shouting “Daulat Tuanku!” and “Hidup Melayu!”
As Miller puts it, “The Rulers walked down to the great crowded porch to receive the obeisance of the demonstrators. This was also a touching scene, although the more unyielding of the leaders in the U.M.N.O. said later, ‘We brought them down those stairs to teach them a lesson. They were lucky we did not destroy them completely for having signed the MacMichael treaties. As it was, we told them we would support them.’”
Caught between the “rock” of the British colonial authorities and the “hard place” of the angry Malay nationalists, the Malay Rulers complained to London that they were coerced into signing the MacMichael treaties, boycotted the Governor’s installation, and maintained a distance from him in public (while maintaining warm and cordial relations in private) until the British realised that the groundswell of opposition to the Malayan Union was too strong, and backed down.
The Federation of Malaya, the compromise constitutional scheme reached in 1948, saw Britain appointing Advisors who were truly advisory, with the states’ executive powers passing to the Mentris Besar.
Nonetheless, it appears clear that the Malay Rulers still feared that they would be emasculated by Umno, and Onn could not entirely reassure them.
As Sir Malcolm MacDonald wrote to Sir Henry Gurney on Dec 15, 1949, “In my talk with him on December 12th, Dato’ Onn told me of his recent talk with the Mentris Besar ? They asked him whether he proposed that the Rulers should be ousted in the near future. He replied emphatically in the negative. He said that probably in due course at least many of the Rulers would be abolished, because the Malays themselves would wish this. But that would not happen for a long time and depended on Malay public opinion.” (Emphasis mine.)
For Malaysians of my generation, who have grown up conditioned by the Sedition Act to not entertain the slightest republican thought, it is shocking to hear the founder of Umno coolly tell the Sultans’ ministers that he supposed Malays would one day wish for the abolition of their Rulers.
Six decades later, that day is still unthinkable.
But from the pre-Merdeka negotiations of the Alliance through to the events of the 1981-2003 era – when the metaphorical Bendahara was not so much ignoring the Sultan’s summons as trying to do the summoning – the Malay Rulers have had to stoically endure many more attempts to curtail their powers. I will examine this in my next column.