Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Above the Law

Recently, I learned of the passing of a person who had generated lots of controversy because of his outlandish behavior. That individual was the former monarch of Malaysia and sultan of the country's southernmost state. 

As a former British colony, Malaysia -- even upon independence -- kept its tradition of ascribed hierarchies. For that reason, today there are 9 "royal" families. These family groups and their many members, numbering in the thousands, receive not only financial subsidies from the federal and state governments, but special privileges. In short, the common man pays tax dollars to support a system of collective imperial welfare. At the same time, the system makes specified allowances for behaviors from these royals that would not be deemed acceptable of others.

The late sultan, according to many well regarded sources, exceeded the typical limits of his office. In fact, many allege that he was so abusive of his position that his subjects' well being, and at times very lives, were at stake. The story is that he killed several unarmed people: one of his golf caddies for snickering at him after a missed shot and a trespasser who dared to walk too close to the sultan's helicopter.

Oddly, when the man died, the major newspapers of Malaysia responded as if a national hero had succumbed. In the obituaries it was universally stated that he had been loved by his people.

The absurdity of such eulogies hit home when my mother-in-law, a resident of said southernmost Malaysian state, was pressured to wear a black arm band to demonstrate her sadness about the late sultan's demise. Because of his reputation though, this was something she and, according to news sources, a large number of other citizens were loathe to do. This brought questions to my mind:

Where does liberty lie when a person, because of a traditionally ascribed status, stands not just above the law but above common decency? And what aspect of the much vaunted Asian values are on display when government-owned Malaysian newspapers as well as government officials and other members of the entrenched aristocracy treat the passing of such an individual as an event that should publicly mourned with grand respect?

I welcome your opinions. But be careful. According to a number of sources, the Malaysian authorities are on the look out for bloggers who get too nasty when writing about their wayward former king.


Brian said...

If this issue were presented on a global platform, I just wonder how people would compare it to the political atmosphere in Singapore, which many also reckon to be state-controlled, and in essence, a dictatorship in disguise.

I'm also trying to imagine what would happen upon the passing of one of Singapore's own "royal family" members and the respective reactions of the masses, the elite and the media, both local and foreign. i think the ethical issues spawned would be very similar.

And so this inevitably brings us to a question: are Singaporean and Malaysian governing systems just different versions of the same concept. My two cents worth.

Jie Ren said...

This might be down to the fact that people generally do not like to talk poorly about the deceased in Asian societies. As a result, eulogies tend to focus more on the merits of the deceased individual.

Brad Blackstone said...

As an outsider living and working in Singapore who has also lived and worked in Malaysia, I'd say there is no comparison.

As one clear example, just look at Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for 2009. In the organization's own words, it's ranking shown in a detailed table does the following:

"The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) table shows a country's ranking and score, the number of surveys used to determine the score, and the confidence range of the scoring.

"The rank shows how one country compares to others included in the index. The CPI score indicates the perceived level of public-sector corruption in a country/territory.

"The CPI is based on 13 independent surveys. However, not all surveys include all countries. The surveys used column indicates how many surveys were relied upon to determine the score for that country.

"The confidence range indicates the reliability of the CPI scores and tells us that allowing for a margin of error, we can be 90% confident that the true score for this country lies within this range."

On this index, Singapore ranks third out of 180 countries along with Sweden (with a confidence range of 9.2) after New Zealand (9.4) and Denmark (9.3). (9 surveys were used to determine the Singapore ranking, which is more than those used in all the other countries except for one.)

Malaysia ranks 56th (along with 4 other countries) just below South Africa and above Cuba.

The US stands at 19th.

If that doesn't convince you, try this on for size. At the national university (where I teach), students are matriculated and then advanced "through the system" based on merit, and merit alone.

A large number of these students are, in fact, from Malaysia. In working alongside these guys and their Singaporeans classmates, and from my own experience teaching within a blatantly discriminatory "affirmative action" program at a university in Malaysia, I can declare that merit (along with an amazing work ethic and high degree of talent) determines advancement in most if not nearly all areas of study and work within Singapore.

That's consistent with a society that values the rule of law and not the whim or sacred rights of an ascribed elite.

Different versions of the same concept? No way.

For the CPI, please see:

Brad Blackstone said...

To add to what I wrote in my comment above, I would like to ask the Malaysian students who read this abiut how they feel concerning the education system in their home country.

Is merit the most important variable for advancement, scholarships and the like, or do other factors come into play?

Rohan Rajiv said...

I would like to ascribe this to an Asian love for drama and a 'wow' factor associated with larger than life characters.

As a result, we tend to be very forgiving and turn a blind eye to their tantrums - akin to pampering a spoilt child.

Our treatment to royalty is just one such example.

Anonymous said...

it sounds like he had the royal bug up his ass

CK Lam said...

Hi Brad,

I'm looking forward to return to Malaysia next week for my CNY celebrations without any hiccups! But nevertheless, let me try to be as non-offensive to the royal family as possible.

Let's just say that everyone in the media is trying to be politically correct. They can't offend the royal family, because it would be an act of treason! I'm sure they have contributed to society as what was mentioned in eulogies.

Take me for example. I grew up being told to treat the royal family with upmost respect. I learn their language, I read about their practices etc. While I have my reservations to their roles in modern Malaysia, I've never said anything bad about them before.

Am I scared to be charged in court? Was I psychologically brought up to think this way? Or am I just plain ignorant? I don't know!

Brad, I'm sure you've seen the difference in standards between those Malaysians you've thought here, and those that you've thought 'there'. Merit is the ONLY way, and I think even private universities in Malaysia are flourishing ahead of the public ones!

But on another note, I know of some American universities with allocations for minorities. How does that system work? Is it that they allocate these space for minority students, but they will only accept them if they're good in merit?

TC said...

I believe we can't really ignore that "royal families" do get special treatment even in Singapore. Remember the time an officer from one such family did the unimaginable when he was pissed with another fellow officer?

To my knowledge he only got away with a light punishment, whereas i believe if any of one of the normal country people did the same thing, he would definately be spending a few nights in detention barracks.

I might be wrong.

Brad Blackstone said...

To Rohan:

You mention Asians being forgiving of the "tantrums" of "larger than life characters." In the case of the former sultan, such forgiveness, or "turning a blind eye," certainly came from the government and the media. I doubt if the informed populace would be so kind though if the official stance were not enforced by the cops.

To CK Lam:

You mention affirmative action programs at US universities. Allow me the easy way out by quoting the section on this topic from Wikipedia (I know, I'm sinning gravely): The intended beneficiaries of affirmative action in the United States include historically disadvantaged ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities, and veterans. Affirmative action has been the subject of numerous court cases,[3] and has been contested on constitutional grounds. In 2003 a Supreme Court decision concerning affirmative action in universities allowed educational institutions to consider race as a factor in admitting students, but ruled that strict point systems are unconstitutional.[4] Conservatives say that state officials have widely disobeyed it. Alternatively, some colleges use financial criteria to attract racial groups that have typically been under represented and typically have lower living conditions. Executive Orders 11246 and 11375 prohibit federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating against any employee or applicant for employment because of race, skin color, religion, gender, or national origin. Some states such as California (California Civil Rights Initiative) and Michigan have passed constitutional amendments banning affirmative action within their respective states.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Guo Cheng said...

At least Malaysia is at 56.

For the most economy growth promising countries BRIC, Harmonic society(That's what President Hu always mentioned) China is at 79, Brazil is 75, Russia is at 146, and India(the biggest democracy country in the world) is at 84.

I think many people think respecting powerful authorities are more important than respecting law. Unquestional authorities is a dangerous concept.