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.