The King and us — Gurdial Singh Nijar

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NOVEMBER 3 — The King’s refusal to accede to the PM’s request to declare an emergency has triggered keen excitement in his role in the Constitution.

Some argue that the King has no role and must abide by what the government of the day wants.

Others say that the King is empowered to overrule any decision proposed by the Cabinet. It’s a matter of his personal discretion.

Yet others assert that while the King must (generally) act on the Cabinet’s advice, nonetheless he has residual powers; and can act as he deems fit in the best interest of the country. A check and balance role.

How may these seemingly irreconcilable contentions be resolved?

Perhaps we must go back to fundamentals. The Constitution is founded on the rule of law. Which envisages a separation of powers.

Encapsulated in three organs: the executive, the legislative and the judiciary.

These represent the governing architecture of the country. Our highest judiciary has entrenched this as an inviolate basic structure of the Constitution.

The grant and exercise of other powers is subsidiary to this governing structure. To help reinforce it. No more nor less.

The King rules and the government governs. After all the government has the wherewithal  —  access to information, and the machinery of state  — which the King does not.

The King is a constitutional monarch. And is obliged to act on the advice of the Cabinet in all matters relating to governance: article 40(1) and (1A). The functions where he may act in his discretion are explicitly stated in art 40(2): the appointment of a PM, the withholding of consent for the dissolution of parliament on the PM’s request; and a matter not relevant here regarding the requisition of a meeting by the Conference of Rulers.

Those attributing extended or residual powers of the King point to the concluding phrase in the article: “and in any other case mentioned in this Constitution”. This cannot be open-ended. They must be expressly provided for.

The constitution enumerates a vast panoply of powers for the King. Executive authority is vested in him: article 39; he is part of the legislature: art 44; he appoints members of the judiciary: art 122B; he is the supreme commander of the armed forces: art 41. And countless other roles assigned to him by the Constitution.

So too in the matter of the proclamation of emergency. Despite the wording of article 150(1) that he “may” declare an emergency if “satisfied” that a grave situation exists. These words, seemingly bestowing discretionary powers, also appear elsewhere.

Article 92 says that the King may if “ satisfied that it is conducive to the national interest” proclaim any area for which a development plan be put in place. This paves the way for Parliament to override state jurisdiction.

Development plan is defined as a plan for the development, improvement, or conservation of the natural resources of a development area, the exploitation of such resources, or the increase of means of employment in the area: article 92(3).

If the same interpretation is accorded to this article as for the emergency proclamation article, the King is given final determining authority to trigger Parliament into enacting development plans for any state. And this determination he makes without the aid and support of a whole functioning government machinery.

Thus a contextual and realistic reading of the Constitution shows that the King is assigned these roles as the head of state not as head of government. He does not participate in the actual functioning of these governmental organs; nor will he have the operational knowledge to do so.

His role is, in the words of a famous constitutional commentator, Bagehot: to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. Except where the functions are spelt out explicitly as stated earlier. And in matters of Islam of which the King and rulers are heads. And they act in accordance with practices (‘conventions’) many of which are expressly provided for in the Constitution.

Our highest Federal Court has made this crystal clear, pointedly in declaring an emergency. In Abdul Ghani Ali vs PP [2001] 3 MLJ 561, it ruled as firmly established that “the King does not have a personal discretion under art 150(1) of the Constitution but has at all times to act on Cabinet advice.” Affirming the earlier Privy Council decision that the King “is required in all executive functions to act in accordance with the three advice of the Cabinet”. Including where the power is expressed to be exercisable where he is satisfied that a particular state of affairs exists: Teh Cheng Poh vs PP. Declaring an emergency is, undoubtedly, an executive function.

There is an imperative need to quieten the voices on the role of the monarchy. Clearly, no ruler desires to become, in Asquith’s phrase, “the football of contending factions”. Who is to fulfil this task?

When the then Perak Sultan assumed the right to decide on who had the confidence of the majority in the state assembly to rule the State in the 2010 crisis case, it was ultimately the courts that played a key role in delineating the various strands of power and authority. And they broke new ground indeed.

Perhaps that’s where heads are now turned. To stymie any hurt to our constitutional construct. In the words of Shakespeare (in Henry VI):

“A little fire is quickly trodden out;

Which being suffer’d rivers cannot quench”.

Gurdial Singh Nijar is a former law professor and is now a practising lawyer.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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