Did the King really congratulate the PM?

(Today, the King opens the Parliament for this year. I published the following article in Malaysiakini on 2 May 2008 after the Yang diPertuan Agong opened the Parliament last year. It may be of interest to you.)

One of the most confusing parliamentary conventions is that of the Royal Address. The New Straits Times’ headline (April 30) read, ‘Uphold people’s trust, King tells Parliament’ while The Star said, ‘Keep the peace – ensure the various races remain united, King tells MPs’.

The King’s speech (Para. 4) read: ‘We congratulate the Prime Minister for successfully steering the country’s economy despite the many external challenges such as a slowdown in the world’s economic growth and soaring prices of crude oil and foodstuff, coupled with stiff competition in trade and investment’.

But is the King really speaking for himself at the opening of a parliamentary session? The answer is ‘no’. His Majesty speaks for the government of the day from a text prepared by the prime minister.

Each parliamentary term lasts for up to five years and is divided into annual sessions. The Yang di Pertuan Agong officiates a session of Parliament once a year. Each term consists of five sessions. Each session is practically a year and usually consists of three meetings.

Malaysia’s Parliament is an adaptation of the Westminster system. Since the 1920s, the British monarch has opened Parliament to mark the start of its annual session in November, except in an election year which disrupts the cycle. Whereas the Governor-General of Australia opens the Parliament once only at the start of its three-year parliamentary term. In Malaysia, the annual session usually begins in March.

But there is a stark difference between the opening of the Malaysian and British Parliaments. The British monarch addresses the members of the Commons and Lords in the House of Lords Chamber. There is an interesting history behind the choice of Upper House as the site of opening.

The British monarch is by convention ‘disallowed’ to enter the Commons since 1642 when King Charles I attempted to arrest five leading members of the Commons for treason.

The British speaker, therefore, voices his allegiance to Parliament rather than to the monarch and hence established the independence of Parliament.

Although the our King’s Royal Address is made by the monarch, the content of the speech is entirely drafted by the Malaysian government and approved by the cabinet and details the government’s policies and possibly the Bills it will introduce in the next session. This is explicitly manifested in the ceremony of submission of the text by the prime minister to the monarch.

In short, the Royal Address is our version of the American president’s State of the Union address, but read by the monarch.

It is of course smart politics for the BN government to appropriate the aura of the King to ‘praise’ the prime minister and the government of the day. It is perhaps not in the government’s interest or inclination to expressly articulate the institutional relations between the monarch and itself, but as the electorate becomes increasingly more educated and message-savvy, it is perhaps better to call a spade a spade.

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