Monday, March 10, 2014

Yang di-Pertua Negeris – a mere pawn in the game?

Last updated on 09/03/2014 - 11:16

Aziz Bari
OUTSPOKEN: The role of the Yang di-Pertua Negeri of Malacca, Penang, Sabah and Sarawak under the Constitution – as explained by the Reid Commission Report – is actually quite significant. The role and powers, the commission said, are essentially similar to that of the nine rulers who sit together with the four heads of state in the Conference of Rulers. That includes being the figure of unity and formal repository of powers for the states which used to be the British colonies. This type of functions requires the holder to stand above party politics.

In a way the office seeks to fill the gap left behind by the absence of an office similar to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong at the federal level or the rulers in the nine Malay states. Some of the formal functions include the official opening of the house and presenting state awards. It is interesting to find that even though the YDP Negeris are appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the latter has no power to dismiss them. Instead such a power is vested in the state legislature. The YDP Negeris have also been protected from being the puppets of the politicians: the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is only bound to consult the chief minister concerned without being obliged to follow what the latter has to say.    

The powers vested in the office of the non-royal YDP Negeris – such as the discretionary powers to appoint government and withholding the consent to dissolve the house – are actually similar to that of the nine royal heads of state. This is indeed the law even though some quarters have recently tried to create the impression that the powers vested in the rulers were more significant: thus the palace may reject the person chosen by the majority party in the house to head the government. This is evident in the manner the Umno-BN media reported what happened in Sarawak: the passing of the mantle from Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud to Tan Sri Adenan Satem was presented as something that happened as a matter of course which the YDP Negeri had no role at all. But in Selangor the Umno-BN media have been trying to portray the Sultan as having a key role in deciding whether Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim could succeed Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim should the former win the Kajang state seat. As stated above, this is wrong for under the Constitution the role and function of both the Sultan and YDP Negeri on the matter are exactly the same.

Despite what the Constitution provides, it appears that when it comes to the appointment of the YDP Negeri it is the politicians, and not the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who call the shots. This is evident in Sarawak recently, especially in the manner the term of office of Tun Abang Muhammad Salahuddin was shortened. Under the Constitution the key role is supposed to be played by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the Chief Minister of Sarawak. In the present case it appears that it was Taib, the outgoing Chief Minister, who made the decision. But this is not the first time we come across such a case. Back in the mid-1980s when Taib had some run-ins with his uncle YDP Negeri Tun Rahman Yaacob, we saw how the latter was eventually replaced by someone else. Note that Rahman was Taib’s predecessor, running the state between 1970 and 1981. We should remember how the federal government treated the office: in 1966 Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman told the then Sarawak head of state Tun Abang Openg to dismiss the independent-minded Chief Minister Datuk Stephen Kalong Ningkan. The latter, however, took the matter to court and won the case, something which later prompted Kuala Lumpur to declare emergency in the Borneo state.

The neighbouring Sabah went through quite a similar experience. In 1985 for example, state chief Tun Adnan Robert was forced to appoint Tun Datu Mustapha Harun as chief minister in the wee hours following the state elections the day before. At the time the full results were not out yet. But Datu Mustapha, who was himself the YDP Negeri when the state joined the federation in 1963, insisted that his party Usno would have the required simple majority if the six appointed seats be taken into account. Lucky enough this was subsequently declared illegal by the court.

We have also seen how the YDP Negeri and Chief Minister “swapped” positions like what happened in Sabah. Just remember how Datu Mustapha resigned as YDP Negeri in 1965 to enter politics. He subsequently became the Chief Minister in 1967. Another important figure in Sabah politics,Tun Fuad Stephens, also went through a similar route: he started off as the Chief Minister in 1963 but later left to serve Tunku in the federal cabinet. Fuad went back to sit as the YDP Negeri in 1973 but later re-entered politics by resigning the post in 1975. It was said that he did so with the backing of the then Prime Minister Tun Razak who was not happy with sitting Chief Minister Datu Mustapha. What we saw later was Fuad, the former head of state, back in the head of government’s office after his newly-established party Berjaya was able to unseat Datu Mustapha’s Usno in the 1976 Sabah state elections.   

Dr Abdul Aziz Bari is formerly IIUM law professor who now teaches at Unisel. He is also a Senior Fellow at IDEAS, an independent think tank, and Penang Institute, owned by Penang state government. 

~ The Ant Daily

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