This is a booklet by general standards – a huge booklet perhaps but still a small book.
But Dr Syed Husin is not competing on size here. If we accept that the qualities of a good political book must include clarity of writing, an interesting story or history to tell, bold assertions of fact and most importantly a no-holds-barred criticism of those considered to be above criticism, then there is no question that this book meets the test.
Having had the privilege of reading it earlier, I can say that there are things said here about which many of us, if not all, wouldn’t dare to say. Dr Syed Husin is, as social scientists would like to say, sui generis.
He is in a category of his own. Unique in terms of moral conviction. He is not in the business of saying things to please people.
I may be biased of course having known him for so long and partisan too for he had been in the senior party leadership. But let’s put all these aside for thosefamiliar with his writings will be able to tell you that there is an unbreakable chain in his overriding theme and that is the theme of social justice.
And it is not just about welfare for the underprivileged or the economic position of Malays or how real development should be given to the lower-income group – no doubt important issues that should never be ignored.
But he goes beyond that into the realm of justice for those who have been unjustly treated, deep-seated inequality not just of material wealth but societal inequality in terms of status.
In this book almost all the facts are in the public domain but, it is the manner in which Dr Syed Husin has asserted them that makes the difference. Inthis regard, some controversy will be stirred up by those who are in the business of stirring up controversies.
At p. 4 we get an immediate taste of the unapologetic approach of the author when he recounts an incident as told in Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals). This is the story of the son of Sultan Mansur Shah, Raja Muhamad,who killed the son of Tun Perak, Tun Besar. Well, he killed him because a ball that was kicked by Tun Besar had hit him on the head.
Did Tun Perak keep quiet and just let the matter pass? He most certainly did not. As the most famous prime minister in The Malay Annals he was not about to suffer in silence. So, he proclaimed:
“The Malay slave is never disloyal, but we should not have this prince as our master.”
Consequently, he was not allowed to succeed his father.
This is not a story about disloyalty or treason but a story about a Prime Minister who had the courage to stand up to the Ruler in the face of oppression and injustice.
But one must not forget that it is also a story about the sense of justice and fairness of the Sultan. The cruelty was committed not by him but his heir. And by stripping his son of his position, the Sultan allowed justice to prevail.
As the title of the book suggests, it is about the Rulers of the Malay states but what is even more telling is the sub-head: Regression or reform? The focus therefore is very much also on the Malay feudal system. We know where the author is going when he refers to the existence of “a slave psychology” among the people. He uses this term interchangeably with “psychological servitude” as well as “slave mentality” and by his analysis, this phenomenon is buttressed by such concepts as loyalty and treason – as in ‘setia’ and ‘derhaka’.
According to Dr Syed Husin, this slave mentality is manifested by the hierarchical terms of address, customs related to the palace, and the psychological attitude that influences the relationship between the Ruler and the people.
These are outdated terms of address and while linguistic changes cannot be achieved by mere legislation, Dr Syed Husin advocates the democratization of the spoken language when addressing the Ruler. The leaders must set the example.
For the record, I too have talked about feudalism before. This was in a speech atthe 51st UMNO General Assembly where I quoted Dato’ Onn Jaafar who said that the concept of independence was not about reviving feudalism.
The point has to be made that criticising feudalism and calling for a change of mind-set – and this is essentially the thrust of Dr Syed Husin’s book – is not the same as advocating the abolition of the institution of the Malay Rulers. No one is calling for such a thing – even though we expect the spin doctors from the other side to be working overtime to twist and turn our words.
In terms of style, Dr Syed Husin writes smoothly and concisely. The history ofBritish colonisation is summed up in just a few sentences. At p. 9, we are told that after the 1874 Treaty of Pangkor, Raja Abdullah was recognised by the British as Sultan while Raja Ismail was made regent. But indeed as there is no such thing as a free lunch, Sultan Abdullah had to agree to accept a British resident to be advisor to the Sultan on all matters except Islam and Malay custom.
And this is the part that sums up succinctly in one short sentence the history ofhow the British colonised the Malaya:
“Following Perak, one after another of the Malay states fell under British domination. In every state, a British Resident or Advisor was appointed.”
This is history told in a no-nonsense fashion and truly illustrates the meaning of ‘less is more’.
I won’t cite further excerpts which speak for themselves but must be retold on this occasion since we have the audience and the medium. Dr Syed Husin debunks the concept that the Ruler is above the law and can do no wrong.
This, he says, can be clearly seen from the ceremony of the installation of a ruler. There are two significant characteristics. First, the ruler takes the oath to be just. Secondly, he is positioned below a copy of the Holy Quran symbolically placed on his head. Dr Syed Husin contends that this means the Ruler is subject to and cannot override Allah’s commands as contained in the Quran.
Conflicts with rulers
As explained by the author, even though in theory the Rulers do not take part in the administration of the their states, several instances of conflicts with the political leaders in power stem directly from their interfering with the choice of the state’s head of government.
Convention dictates that the Ruler acts on the advice of the Menteri Besar but there is a lacuna here because the appointment of the Menteri Besar is in the hands of the Ruler. Of course, the Ruler does not have absolute power in this regard but only discretionary power. He is to appoint as Menteri Besar someone who commands a majority in the state legislative assembly. That sounds elementary enough but as we know, and as is well documented in the book, the reality has been quite different.
And even more significant is the question of dissolution of the state assembly when it is requested by the Menteri Besar. Must he accede to the request or can he just ignore the incumbent Menteri Besar and, effectively sacking him, appoint a new Menteri Besar instead?
We know what happened in Perak.
Dr Syed Husin supports the removal of the Rulers’ immunity from the law but he questions why the political leaders in power are so reluctant to remove their own immunity. Why, for example, have so many politicians got away with murder, literally?
Code of ethics
At p. 27, Dr Syed Husin talks about the Federal Government taking action to introduce a Code of Ethics to govern the Rulers. Indeed, at this juncture I can add some perspective into this account. Yes, in 1993 I led the delegation of senior UMNO leaders to meet with Sultan Azlan Shah who, as the Agong at that time, represented the Conference of Rulers. In my discussion with Sultan Azlan while drafting the Code of Ethics he expressed concern about the double standards of the political leaders. His concern was why were the UMNO leaders harping on the Rulers being involved in business while they themselves were so deeply tied up in business and enriching themselves.
This is a crucial point and it must be remembered that the support that was given to the government’s initiatives to curtail the protection of immunity of the Rulers was predicated on the belief that there would be proper governance and the rule of law.
These moves were supported by all sides including the Opposition at that time. On hindsight, it would appear we were indeed misled and taken advantage of. The expectations that we had held then were eventually shattered as a result of the greed the powers that be.