Palace, Political Party and Power: A Story of the Socio-Political Development of Malay Kingship
Milner, Anthony, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies
Palace, political party and power: A story of the socio-political development of
By KOBKUA SUWANNATHAT-PIAN
Singapore: NUS Press, 2011. Pp. xxiv + 447. Appendices, Illustrations, Index.
In this new and stimulating survey of monarchy in Malaysia, Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian--the author of a fine study of Thai-Malay relations in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (1988) and a widely-cited book on the Thai monarchy (2003)--writes of a current 'socio-political revival' of 'Malay kingship' (p. xxii). The 'proactive and participating constitutional rulers' of today, she says, are a 'new phase in the history of Malay kingship' (p. 391). Since Prime Minister Mahathir left office in 2003, the Rulers have claimed 'a royal discretionary power' that is a 'total rejection of the Westminster-style constitutional monarch'. According to Kobkua, the Rulers are seeking 'another type of constitutional monarchy'--one that is 'akin to the concept and practice ... perfected in Thailand' (p. 408).
These observations will come as a surprise to many around the world who have taken an interest in Malaysian matters. Academics have buried the Malaysian monarchy time and again over the years. When the Federal Parliament 'abolished the royal immunity from suit' in 1993, for instance, the legal scholar Andrew Harding judged that 'the veil of mystique which has always surrounded royalty in Malaysia' was 'drawn aside', and that the 'forces of populism' had 'demonstrated amply their superiority to the forces of feudalism'. He then proceeded to proclaim 'the declining position of the Rulers in the Malaysian polity'.
Kobkua's work is an ambitious survey, reaching back briefly to precolonial times. In discussing the British period, it makes useful comparisons between the Federated and Unfederated Malay States and criticises Simon Smith's impressive British relations with the Malay rulers from decentralization to Malayan independence: 1930-1957 (1995) for not giving enough stress to the damage caused by the Japanese Occupation. In the Occupation, Kokbua argues, the Japanese 'reduced the Rulers' royal status to that of commoners, no different from their erstwhile subjects ...'. She conjectures that it would have been 'a cultural and political shocking experience' for the 'average Malay' to witness 'his Ruler performing self-demeaning exercises such as bowing in the direction of the Imperial palace as a mark of homage to the Emperor' (p. 109).
Her account of the Malayan Union period and the lead-up to Independence contains a good deal of interesting material on the Rulers' role, and will supplement the writings of Sopiee, Stockwell, Smith, Fernando, Lau and others. The account of recent royal developments, however, is likely to attract most interest--and contains particularly useful detail on the views of the Rulers of Perak and Selangor, and the Raja Muda of Perak.
The main weakness of the book arises from poor editing--which is unexpected, given the generally high standard of NUS Press. …