JANUARY 13 — I was a guest on a TV talk show last week which discussed, among other things, the monarchy.
Interestingly, it reminded me of an incident involving Lord Altrincham, the monarchy and the taping of a TV show — which most of us, me included, watched in an episode of the popular Netflix show The Crown.
Right after Lord Altrincham, who was also a journalist, finished an interview with TV channel Granada to discuss his article criticising the British monarchy, he was slapped by a royalist who exclaimed: “Take that from the League of Empire Loyalists!”
The attacker, Philip Kinghorn Burbidge, was furious about Lord Altrincham’s article titled “The Monarchy Today” published in his own newspaper National and English Review, in which he had advocated for a more egalitarian monarchy.
Queen Elizabeth II’s court was too upper-class and too British, he said, particularly taking issue with the Queen’s rigid, stifled public speeches. The monarchy, he said, was no longer relevant with the public of the day.
Lord Altrincham was no republican though. Instead, he reportedly said that his article was written with “no intention other than to serve the monarchy, to strengthen it and to enable it to survive.”
“It is too precious an institution to be neglected. And I regard servile acceptance of its faults as a form of neglect,” he was quoted as saying.
The backlash was severe: he was censured by many publications, almost universally reviled — and of course there was that slap.
Despite that, Lord Altrincham managed to get the ear of the Queen’s assistant private secretary Martin Charteris — and some of his recommended reforms were later even implemented by the Royal Household. Some say the reforms contributed towards the British monarchy’s continued existence and popularity.
As dramatised in The Crown, it was rumoured that the Queen herself granted him a secret audience in order to hear him out.
Formerly the second Baron Altrincham, he even disclaimed the noble title as soon as an Act allowing such a move received the royal assent. He died John Grigg, a commoner.
Grigg’s article came out in August 1957, the same month Malaya achieved its independence as a constitutional monarchy — where the authority of the monarchy is bound by the Federal Constitution, but without any absolute power.
It has been over six decades since such a debate occurred in our former coloniser’s nation, but it does not seem like a discussion on the topic can ever be had here — at least not at this perilous juncture after a regime change.
Last week, Kelantan’s Sultan Muhammad V resigned as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. Right after, a group of online vigilantes crawled out of the woodwork into Facebook, hunting whoever dares to speak out of place against the ruler.
It managed to list eight targets — revealing their personal identities to its supporters, in order for others to harass and threaten them — before the move received public notice and condemnation, as Facebook attempted and failed to clamp down on the group.
But still, eight people have been publicly harassed. At least four of them have lost their jobs. And three of them have been arrested and investigated for alleged sedition.
That is three people too many to be tormented by the archaic Sedition Act, especially when the new Pakatan Harapan (PH) administration has previously vowed to abolish it and other oppressive laws.
Despite initially announcing a moratorium on such laws, power and the compulsive populist need to pander to the majority has caused the Cabinet to lift the moratorium on “exceptional cases” involving national security, public order and race relations.
The task of the PH government is unenviable. There is a long list of laws that need to be reformed, amended, replaced, or even abolished altogether.
Whether they can even accomplish those in its five-year term hangs menacingly over them — with the political threat of getting voted out at the next general election, or a perversion of the reform agenda should a leadership change happen along the way.
Remember child marriage? It’s a new year, and men still can get married to children. Any criticism of this slow pace has instead been pilloried as unreasonable expectation.
Or how about unilateral conversion? A Muslim parent can still force their child to convert, and nobody can say anything unless the other parent is willing to escalate it and challenge it in court.
Will we ever see the Universities and University Colleges Act abolished?
Instead, law minister VK Liew was recently quoted saying that Putrajaya will not only amend, but even consider a law to “protect” the country’s rulers from insults — claiming current punishments are “a bit on the low side.”
The Sedition Act currently penalises first-time offenders with a maximum RM5,000 fine, or a maximum three-year jail term, or both.
If this is considered on the “low side”, then we can only imagine how exactly PH aims to gleefully punish commoners who are already living on the wrong side of privilege.
The irony that this suggestion came just days after Malay supremacists Perkasa reiterated its call for an “Anti-Islam and Anti-Malay Rulers Act” is not lost.
The group wanted offenders who oppose Islam and the rulers to face mandatory jail and caning, citing the lèse-majesté law in Thailand.
The perceived rise in antagonism towards such an institution, the subsequent vigilantism and violent threats and the harsher crackdown. These point to some kind of fault lines.
And loathe as I am to quote our former colonisers, but by turning its back to voters and the working class, PH is merely demonstrating a form of neglect.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.