YESTERDAY, the 15th Yang di-Pertuan Agong was installed. A young man of 47, he symbolises the historical continuity of the country, the colonial powers notwithstanding. For, despite the centuries of colonisation, the royal households from which the king is chosen remains a centre of power within the states.
Sultan Muhammad V, as Malaysia’s king, is reputed to be a man of pious inclination, making him a suitable head of Islam within the states not under the Malay rulers. That he is religious is assurance for non-Muslims because Islam holds respect for other believers paramount, as the Quranic dictum of “no compulsion in religion” proves. However, as an institution of governance outside the ambit of representative democracy, the monarch’s powers are proscribed. Hence, the term constitutional monarch.
The Yang di-Pertuan Agong possesses various powers and shoulders multiple functions. Most of all, the king has the duty and responsibility to preserve and protect the country’s sovereignty. This is probably the most meaningful and vital function of the institution of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong for an independent and sovereign nation. Indeed, the Federal Constitution speaks of the king’s discretionary powers, for instance, the dissolution of Parliament. This is done by convention on the advice of the incumbent prime minister. Given that the Malaysian Constitution was fashioned closely after the British constitution, a convention is deemed as having the force of law despite the peculiarity of Britain’s unwritten constitution. This, in turn, necessitates an interpretation of “discretionary power” as that which cannot overwhelm the will of the people as expressed at general elections. Even a hung Parliament does not provide much leeway for the king’s personal preference as he is obligated to appoint the person able to put together a majority voice in Parliament.
The legal technicalities of the Constitution make the king, outside his position as head of Islam, as head of state, and not head of government. As head of state, he is the commander-in-chief and, hence, he appoints the chief justice of the Federal Court and the other Federal Court judges, the president of the Court of Appeal and the judges of the High Courts, on the prime minister’s advice; and members of the Public Services Commission and other commissions are also appointed by the king, again, on the advice of the prime minister. And, many other important appointments, including the auditor general and the senators, but always upon the advice of the prime minister.
Under some circumstances, the king consults with the Conference of Rulers; however, the prime minister who embodies the majority will cannot be overruled. While it is designed as part of the check-and-balance mechanism of governance, the monarch comes into his own only when a general election does not produce a clear outcome. This, in effect, makes the monarchy the most important institution when the country faces political uncertainty. His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong then matters, very much: unelected, he is neutral.