There have been some recent incidents that beg the question of authority of governance within the context of a federation as well as the constitutional monarchy as practised in Malaysia.
To better understand this form of governance, we need to view it from its historical perspective.
Before the advent of the modern form of government, various parts of the Malay world were governed by titular heads/chieftains, according to the unwritten code based on tradition.
Their territorial control was proportionate to the strength of their power.
Territorial incursions were a constant threat as the powerful chieftains and potentates sought to expand and extend their dominion; thus creating kingdoms and their subjugated vassals.
There emerged kingdoms when these titular heads/chieftains installed themselves as kings, sultans and even emperor, instituting the feudal system of governance, in which the people (rakyat) lived in subservience at the behest and pleasure of the monarchs.
Thus, arose the kingdoms of Funan, Srivijaya, Majapahit, Malacca, Langkasuka and Riau.
Then came the Western form of governance. Among the Western powers that colonised the Malay archipelago, the British and the Dutch were most successful in subduing the Malay kingdoms to serve their economic, political and military interests.
The Dutch colonised the Indonesian Islands while the British reigned over Tanah Melayu, North Borneo and Sarawak, which were originally part of the Brunei kingdom.
After establishing the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore in the early 19th Century, the British began their foray to colonise the Malay states ruled by the raja and sultans.
They achieved the initial impetus when the Malay rulers signed an agreement with the British government to accept its patronage and advice in all aspects of state administration.
It brought about the establishment of the Federated Malay States in 1895, where a British resident was ensconced in each state to advise the rulers on all administrative and financial matters, save for Malay customs and religion, which were under the rulers’ prerogative.
This was the inception of the current federal set-up. By 1905, a Federal Consultative Council was set up to oversee state matters that included finance and state policies. The council has priority in administrating state matters.
And, in 1927, the Federal Consultative Council was amended to include the power to enact laws for all states in the Federated Malay States.
At the same time, the Malay rulers were no longer involved in the deliberations of the Federal Consultative Council, thus strengthening the power of the central authority (British governance).
The Unfederated Malay States of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu, which were ceded to the British by the 1909 Treaty of Bangkok, were ruled by their respective rulers.
But a Malay officer referred to as menteri besar administered the states on advice of a British officer on all matters of governance, except those on Malay customs and Islamic affairs.
After the Japanese occupation, the British engineered the formation of the Malayan Union, which combined the nine Malay states with Malacca and Penang.
With the establishment of the Malayan Union, the power of the Malay rulers, which had been progressively eroded, was further reduced to a mere custodian of Malay customs and religion.
However, because of the strong protest orchestrated by Datuk Onn Jaafar and the Malays to safeguard their interests, and to restore the dignity of the Malay rulers, the Malayan Union was aborted. And on Feb 2, 1948, Persekutuan Tanah Melayu (Federation of Malay States) was instituted, replacing the proposed Malayan Union.
The next development in governance was the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, which included the nine states of Peninsular Malaysia, Sabah and Sarawak, giving the central government powers over all matters of crucial significance for national security and wellbeing.
State jurisdiction was confined to local matters.
However, within the federation set-up, each state is an inviolable entity, whose boundaries cannot be altered or subsumed under any existing territory without the acquiescence of the state assembly and the consent of the people.
There is no restriction of movements among the states of bona fide citizens to undertake work, social or political activities, except for Sabah and Sarawak, which subject Malaysian citizens from Peninsular Malaysia to immigration control.
The role of the Malay rulers as absolute monarchs had long been abrogated when they signed the agreement to accept British patronage in the early 19th Century. But the Federation of Malaysia restored the dignity of the Malay rulers.
However, the rulers of their respective states must abide by the advice of the elected menteris besar, who represents the state assembly. And the Yang di-Pertuan Agong must accede to the advice of the cabinet in the person of the prime minister.
This means that the power and authority of administering the states and nation is vested in the elected representatives. The rulers act in an advisory capacity and should provide checks and balances in the interest of the people.
And the need to maintain their dignity precludes them from being embroiled in the riff-raff, schism and turbulence of partisan politics. Further, they are not burdened with the running of the state, which is best left to the elected representatives.
The relationship between the rulers and the elected representatives should be cordial and harmonious to enable the implementation of policies for the betterment of the people and the state.
Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin is an emeritus professor of performing arts in the School of Arts at Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang