For those who know me, this might come as something of an unusual piece to bash together. Everyone who knows me well enough often complains that I have a peculiar aversion to authority and established norms. You could say that my natural inclinations are towards street fighters and other hot heads. I went to school in England and instead of becoming an Anglophile, I became more enamored of the Yellow and Brown people who got rid their native lands of colonial rule. Although a good portion of the good things I enjoy are as a result of being born into Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, the South East Asian I admire most was never Mr. Lee; it was Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam. Mr. Lee was merely a British colonial administrator of a different colour. By contrast, Mr. Ho was something I could look up to – he overthrew the established orders on the battlefield. He was the little Asian man in black pajamas who drove out the French colonial order and ensured that both the USA and PRC got a bloody nose for trying to invade Vietnam.
So, for someone who has a natural tendency towards figures who smash up establish orders, it may come as something as shock that I’ve always been sympathetic to monarchies and monarchs. While every logical cell in the brain tells me that the monarchy is something of an outdated concept of governance, there’s also something very compelling about it. Let’s put it this way, a “King” sounds more impressive than a “President.” I don’t think I’m the only individual to be fascinated by “Kings” and “Monarchy.” Just listen to the way Americans, the people who came into being by getting rid of a “Royal Family,” speak of how families like the “Kennedy’s” are their version of the “Royal Family.”
Generally speaking, nobody in the Western world would probably go back to the concept of “Absolute Monarchy.” The system of “democracy” has proven to be a decent enough system of allowing talented people to rise to the top and more importantly, it has provided the only effective system of removing incompetent government in a bloodless manner (losing an election is more peaceful than say a coup).
Having said all that, there’s something to be said for the unelected silver tea spoons that countries call monarchies. I look at the British monarchy as an example. You could say that the monarchy gives the people a sense of stability that the elected politicians fail to deliver.
You look at people like Prince Charles and you end up having more admiration for them than many of the politicians that get voted in. Prince Charles may have terrible taste in women (the man who threw out a beautiful blonde for an old hag,) but he’s also stood for principles that the people so admire. I take his refusal to attend State Dinners of visiting Chinese dignitaries and deploring them as “dreadful wax works” at the moment when every British politician is “kissing arse” in Beijing. He’s Princes Trust has put an untold number of homeless people to work and you got to give it to him for handing over a portion of his income to the treasury when he didn’t have to.
Prince Charles or at least the reports I read of him, is a man of principle. My mother thinks he’s the best reason to restore the absolute monarchy – her argument is that whoever is in power is going to screw it up anyway, so you might as well go for the guy whose heart is in the right place.
Here in Southeast Asia, the monarchs have actually been essential in protecting the people from their elected representatives.
The most prominent example is that of Thailand’s King Bhumibol. Under the Thai constitution, the King has no formal powers. Yet, the King has behaved in a way that has given him tremendous moral power (OK, Thailand has strict Les Majeste laws that make criticism of the King a crime and nobody doubts that there’s been a good amount of media/ image manipulation but by and large nobody doubts that the people’s love for the king is genuine.)
I think of 1992 when the then military government decided to gun down protestors in public view. It was the King who stepped in and saw to it that democracy was restored.
I also think of the way in which the King berated Thailand’s judges for allowing Thai Rak Thai to run in a snap election in 2006 where it was the only party running (the others boycotted it thinking it was a Thakshin trick). His exact words were, “How can there be an election with ONLY ONE party – that IS NOT DEMOCRATIC.” Ironically, the unelected monarch’s views would be spoken a few months before Singapore’s elected politicians proceeded to explain how their version of democracy with only one party running was special and uniquely Asian.
Further South, in Malaysia, the institution of the monarchy has achieved a similar feet with the spat between Johor’s Crown Prince Tunku Ismail questioned the Prime Minister for not showing up at event that questioned a corruption scandal. When a Minister berated the Crown Prince for meddling in politics, the Prince replied that the Minister was a Minister and NOT GOD and should remember that he was there to serve the people – this has drawn the masses to the palace shouting “Dauluat Tuanku.”(I think the closest translation is “Long Live the King.”)
This is not to say that Southeast Asia’s royals are saints. The Malaysian Royals used to be known for abusing their status of being above the law. Something which was eventually removed. Just as Thailand’s king is revered, the Crown Prince is known as something of a crook.
However, as far as a good number in Southeast Asia are concerned, the problem in Southeast Asia is not so much unelected Royals but politicians that nobody can get rid of.
So here lies an interesting question? Why is it that various royals have found themselves being thrust in the role of guardians of democracy?
I like to think that elite (What is a Royal except the pinnacle of elite) upbringing does involve instilling a sense that privilege involves care for the less fortunate rather than being something that one is entitled to. I think of my own upbringing in a minor Public School in the UK. We were told that we were privileged to attend the school that we went to and we had to work to justify the said privilege. As another person who had been to a similar school to mine said, “The Public School system trains you to get along with people of all backgrounds.”
One of Asia’s most ancient text is the Ramayana. The young Rama who is groomed to be a king is told that, “A King is greater than a normal man – therefore his responsibilities are greater.” The Ramayana latter tells of how Rama has to send his much loved wife Siti away because he overhears one of his citizens complaining that the king is effectively living with an adulteress.
This is of course an ideal. History has shown that Kingship has produced a series of horrible leaders who have screwed up the nations they were meant to lead for their personal gain. The Romans had to get rid of their kings because they guys were a useless bunch who thought it was quite acceptable to plunder the city they were supposed to rule.
So, ironically, the removal of political power from monarchs might actually have been good for them. Once they were without power, the Royals had to find a reason to exist. The ones who were thrust into the lime light had to find something to do and new purpose. If money is no object, what better way can one create a purpose for oneself than to “care for the people.”
By contrast, the elected politicians succumbed to the same problem that monarchs used to have – entitlement to wealth and power. In Malaysia, the ruling party has remained in the same hands for over fifty years. While Singapore’s government has a better track record of governance, there are people in Singapore who would argue that our politicians something forget that their jobs are not an entitlement.
Let’s look at India as another example. India had Maharajah’s who had untold wealth and power. When they stripped of their wealth and power, they had to reinvent themselves. Many became businessmen renting out palaces and a few of them actually did good things. The new “Royals” became people like the “Gandhi-Nehru” dynasty, which an Indian friend of mine described as the biggest curse to India.
Or let’s go further north to the Himalayas. In Bhutan, it was an absolute monarch who brought in democracy and rule by the people to guarantee their wellbeing. The Dalai Lama, by tradition and belief did the same for the Tibetan people in exile. Contrast that to Nepal’s royals who thought they could seize absolute power, screwed up the people and were abolished accordingly. Incidentally, Nepal’s politicians haven’t done much better.
While one may not always appreciate monarchies for what they do, its perhaps time for us to acknowledge that they can be institutions for good. Unchecked power in perpetuity for any particular group has never been known to be healthy. This has been true of whether its Royals or politicians. While one has to applaud the way in which the reinvented Royal Families have stood for the people against the tyranny of entitled politicians, it would nice if Asia as continent could find ways of strengthening institutions and establishing better rules of law that go beyond particular individuals.