Monday, April 20, 2009

Some aspects of the role of the Ruler

  Sultan Azlan Shah, Tuanku Bainun,  Raja Dr Nazrin Shah and Tuanku Zara Salim at  Istana Iskandariah yesterday. — Bernama picture
Sultan Azlan Shah, Tuanku Bainun, Raja Dr Nazrin Shah and Tuanku Zara Salim at Istana Iskandariah yesterday. — Bernama picture.

Sultan Azlan Shah has spoken on the need to correct what he described as the misconception that the constitutional monarchy was just a symbol devoid of power.

He is quoted as having said that the rulers were neither blind, deaf nor mute. and, that the rulers were fully aware of what was going on in the country.

"It should be stressed that the constitutional monarchy has three rights -- the right to give views and counsel, the right to encourage and motivate, and the right to remind and reprimand."

Sultan Azlan Shah said although the constitutional monarchy acted based on the power vested in it under the Constitution, it would be erroneous to think that the role of a ruler was similar to that of a president whose functions had been pre-defined in the Constitution.

"The role of the constitutional monarchy goes beyond what is stipulated in the Constitution.

"The rulers have a far wider responsibility in ensuring that the spirit of the Constitution, the philosophy behind the written law, and the interests of the country and people are safeguarded at all times."

He said based on the spirit behind the formation of the Federation of the Malay States, the rulers were responsible for protecting the privileges and position of the rulers' institution, Islam, the Malay language and the legitimate interests of other races.

"These are the basis of understanding and the ingredients which resulted in the formation of an independent and sovereign nation, enabling its people to live in peace and harmony."

Walter Bagehot had offered an observation of the role of the Ruler in constitutional affairs during the reign of Queen Victoria which is oft quoted since. We must remember that in the English ethos constitutional monarchy had evolved after much trauma and bloodshed in the period before and, after, the beheading of King Charles I by Oliver Cromwell on 30th January 1649 that led to the creation of constitutional monarchy in England.

Bagehot wrote, thus:-

To state the matter shortly, the sovereign has, under a constitutional monarchy such as ours, three rights – the right to be consulted, the right to encourage, the right to warn. And a king of great sense and sagacity would want no others. He would find that his having no others would enable him to use these with singular effect. He would say to his minister, “The responsibility of these measures is upon you. Whatever you think best must be done. Whatever you think best shall have my full and effectual support. But you will observe that for this reason and that reason what you propose to do is bad; for this reason and that reason what you do not propose is better. I do not oppose, it is my duty not to oppose; but observe that I warn.” Supporting the king to be right, and to have what kings often have, the gift of effectual expression, he could not help moving his minister. He might not always turn the course, but he would always trouble his mind."

To Bagehot’s observations we should also add the notations made by Sir Ivor Jennings on England’s constitutional history. In particular, a long memorandum made by Sir Herbert Asquith in 1913 in response to the English sovereign’s strong views on the government policy on Home Rule for Northern Ireland:-

We have now a well-established tradition of two hundred years, that, in the last resort, the occupant of the Throne accepts and acts on the advice of his ministers … He is entitled and bound to give his ministers all relevant information which comes to him; to point out objections which seem to him valid against the course which they advise; to suggest (if he thinks fit) an alternative policy. Such intimations are always received by ministers with the utmost respect and considered with more respect and deference than if they proceeded from any other quarter."

Sir Ivor Jennings also cited another memorandum, this one from Lord Esher, who wrote inter alia as follows:-

"If the Sovereign believes advice to him may be wrong, he may refuse to take it, and, if his minister yields the Sovereign is justified. If the minister persists, feeling that he has behind him a majority of the people’s representatives, a constitutional Sovereign must give way."

Further into his memorandum Lord Esher made this point:-

Even if it is true that the King has no power to act upon his private judgment and to override the will of the ministers, he has, however, the unquestioned right of remonstrance. This right should be used for the double purpose of safeguarding the King’s conscience and of placing beyond all risk of misconception the whole responsibility for the advice they tender upon the shoulders of the ministry..."

The Ruler, whether standing alone or, collectively, as in the Conference of Rulers, has a constitutional sentience and, a conscience, that must be allowed some form of expression. This is particularly reflected in matters that requires a discretionary exercise of its advise on constitutional appointments by Article 38(6)(b) of the Federal Constitution.

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