Do the rich and royal truly care about Malaysian politics?

By Dina Zaman

It would seem that they are skittish, and prefer to either side with the current government or act as fence sitters. There are the “different” royals who have articulate and intelligent opinions — Tunku Abidin Muhriz of Negri Sembilan, Raja Nazrin Shah of Perak, the Sultan of Kelantan Sultan Muhammad V Tengku Muhammad Faris Petra, who is fast gaining a reputation as a people’s Sultan. However, these are the very few. The wealthy and corporate types shun publicity or speak only on businesses issues. Politics is an anomaly to them.

At one of The Malaysian Insider’s closed-door forums, a professional — Malay, educated, and soft-spoken — approached me at the door. He was deeply concerned about Malaysia, and he was horrified by what he reads and sees.

The neo-Malays of 2012 were not the Malays he grew up with and looked up to. You must write about this, how we Malays have lost our way, he said. He is what others would call a pragmatic nationalist.

“There is a way,” he said, and looked up at the uproar inside the venue where the forum was all hammer and tongs.

“You have to get the royals into the political picture.”

I stared at him. Malaysian royals are not favourites of the public, I reminded him. Their excesses disgust many, and almost everyone remembers their Malayan history. Most Malaysians seem bitter at how the royals of yesteryears sold their souls to the colonials, at the expense of the people.

The new generation of royals are admired for very little: their wealth, even more so if earned by merit and sheer industry; their titles and lifestyles, by social climbers and business opportunists.

“Er,” I said, holding a bowl of taco chips dip, “I suppose they are popular among our artis-artis.”

He disagreed. There are hundreds if not thousands of extended family royals who are politically aware, and who have their own opinions on how the country should be run. These are people who work for a living and do not benefit from the perks of the royals close to the apex of the aristocracy.

“They may not be termed as strictly ‘royals’ close to the Sultan, but of royal blood they still are! And they too are probably more concerned about the state of the monarchy and how it should be conducted. They should be lumped together as the rakyat.”

He smiled.

There was Tunku Aziz of the DAP (who has since resigned). Of course, Tunku Abdul Rahman. Yes, yes, I said. Ah. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.

“You forget. Who represents the Malays of the country? The royals. The Sultans. At the end of the day, even the basest of Malays look up somewhat to their Sultan. Apa lagi we all ada? Our maruah? What?”

He continued: “I believe the Sultans, no doubt a symbol of Malay heritage and history, should be a Sultan of and for everyone, of every creed and of every political leaning. HOWEVER, what is happening is that they are too comfortable sleeping with the powers-that-be, relying on their relationships with the government to get projects, to support their lifestyle that they forget that they should be a Sultan of/for everyone.

“They forget that 51 per cent of the population voted for the opposition and why are the representatives of these people not part of governance like in England? Does the Sultan need to get permission from the MB to meet another politician who is not from BN? Why? Why are the Sultans not practising fairness, openness and approachable to all and sundry? Why shouldn’t they meet politicians from Pakatan?

“The royals should not worry about their status in the country. The Constitution will protect them. The state takes care of them. What they need to do is meet with politicians who are influencers, and talk. The Sultan can act as a role of the mediator. Politics haschanged. The power equation too.”

I reminded him again that the Sultan may act only as a head of his people and religion of his state. The government and opposition may approach him on matters, but what power does HRH have? “He may not have much (power) but he sure can make life difficult for people who have crossed him.”

“Does the ‘Daulat’ still exist?” I asked. I too was curious. I grew up in Terengganu hearing about people being booted out of the state, buang negeri because of a royal’s wrath. Was this true, because this would be good for my research?

He smiled, and left the event.

You know, when it rains, it pours. That week itself, I was thrust into society. I had my Dominick Dunne moment. I exaggerate. I had only two dinners. However it’s not always a writer gets an airing, so I went along with the ride.

At a discreet European restaurant, dinner is being served to a family.

These are men who do not depend on government contracts for their sustenance, and can afford to look at the country’s politics with a cool eye. These men, whose names would escape the average Malaysian’s mind, thrive on their anonymity and make sure that they and their families exist below society’s radar.

If you meet them, you would probably assume that these men are successful professionals who have raised well-brought up families. It is only those who are very clued on in the business world who would know who they are.

Their wives are attractive and clever, but again, like their spouses, do not flaunt their presence in society magazines. Their children would put yours to shame. Again, mercurial and successful. However, there is a difference between them and you.

Their friends own their own jets. The women discreetly keep the ailing retail scene afloat in Malaysia, and their children who tend to work in finance, deal with hundreds of millions. US dollars and euros, mind you. Ringgit Malaysia is just paper.

They have been observing Bersih and local politics keenly, albeit in a detached manner. Their response is as measured as they.

They like Lim Guan Eng and Khalid Ibrahim. These politicians are, at the end of the day, businessmen, and for hardened men like them, it is easier to deal with a corporate mindset than a politician. You see, running a country is like running a company. And our politicians fail at simple economics.

And in their world, honour is held in high esteem. Which is why they hold Tuan Guru Nik Aziz of PAS on the same level as triads and gangsters.

“PAS honour their word. Just like gangsters. Many Chinese businessmen like working with PAS, because they never go back on their promises and are direct.”

“DAP too. The young in DAP have sharp minds.”

What about Barisan and PKR?

The men are silent. One of them pats his mouth with a linen napkin, as he finishes a meal.

“Hmmm,” he says. There are good people in BN (“Saifuddin fellow. He’s good.”) and Pakatan, but he feels that their good intentions may be blocked by gatekeepers. The two parties give them a headache. They are too messy.

Anwar Ibrahim?

A long silence.

But the international business community like him, I ventured.

“This talk about his… sexual proclivities… we don’t care. What we do remember is when he was in power, and that is a discussion that won’t be disclosed. We read The Malaysian Insider, God only knows what will come out.”

There is public resentment. Malaysians are fed up, plain and simply put. While the rakyat calls for people power and civil society, they may have to swallow the fact that (perhaps) in Malaysia, they will have to persuade the business community and yes, the royals, that a change is needed.

Likewise, with our silent rich and royals: they too have no choice but to concede that to do business in Malaysia, and to rule it, changes need to happen.

High society and politics. What an interesting potion they are. - M Insider

* Dina Zaman is an API Senior Fellow 2012-2013 and her research is on saints and their impact on Malaysia, which is part of her column Holy Men, Holy Women that is currently on hiatus, as she pursues research. She is a weary nomad.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

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