Assessing the Relevance of Southeast Asia’s Monarchies

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Assessing the Relevance of Southeast Asia’s Monarchies

Southeast Asia’s monarchies stand at a crossroads of socio-political change.

Southeast Asia has four monarchies, each with its own unique traits. Brunei is an absolute monarchy, while Thailand, Malaysia, and Cambodia have the constitutional form. The history of these monarchies, including their future prospects, is discussed in the March 2013 issue of the Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. The essays in the volume give a fascinating overview of how these monarchies survived colonialism and the transition towards democracy. 

In Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah has been the absolute ruler since 1984. Professor Naimah Talib argues that the Sultan successfully wields centralized authority by promoting the ideology of Melayu Islam Beraja or Malay Islamic Monarchy. To accommodate the rising middle class, the Sultan welcomed educated elites into his government. To further strengthen his legitimacy, he used the country’s oil revenues (accounting for 70 percent of its GDP) to implement generous welfare programs which allow Bruneians to enjoy one of Asia’s highest standards of living. What’s more, there is no personal income tax in Brunei.    

Constitutional amendments were introduced in 2004 to pave the way for so-called democratic reforms, but they only gave the Sultan greater powers. A Legislative Council was formed, but its members were all appointed by the Sultan.

Meanwhile, Cambodia’s past half century was dominated by one figure, Khmer King Norodom Sihanouk. He was King for two terms and abdicated twice. Throughout Cambodia’s tumultuous modern history, he served as head of state, premier, and even became a guerrilla leader who fought for his country’s independence. There was no Cambodian monarchy from 1970 to 1993, but Sihanouk became King again and continued to be a well-liked figure until his death last October.

According to Professor Charnvit Kasetsiri, Sihanouk was the first King in Cambodian history who made direct contact with his subjects, which probably explains his enduring popularity among the masses.  monarchy in the 21st century.Sihanouk’s charisma could benefit his son, King Norodom Sihamoni, and ensure the continuity of the Cambodian

Malaysia's monarchy is the least known in Southeast Asia, but it's unique for having a system of elective monarchy. The current Yang di-Pertuan Agong (Head of State) is Abdul Halim, the Sultan of Kedah. Malaysians have been engaged in a lively public discussion about the monarchy’s role in modern times. Many have also criticized the lavish lifestyle of the royal families and scandals involving some in their midst. 

For Professor Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, reviving the image of Malaysia’s monarchy might be possible through Tengku Faris Petra or Sultan Muhammad V of Kelantan, who is also Malaysia’s Deputy Yang di-Pertuan Agong: Fauzi wrote: “Being comparatively young and hailing from a state long ruled by the opposition, Sultan Muhammad V injected vigor into the monarchy with his simple lifestyle, humility, friendly disposition and avoidance of controversies which had beleaguered the Kelantan royal household.” 

In Thailand’s case, aside from being the most popular political figure in the nation, King Bhumibol Adulyadej is also the longest-reigning living monarch in the world. But Professor David Streckfuss thinks the Thai monarchy is “at its all time low in terms of both popularity and legitimacy” and the next monarch will inherit a “debilitated and factionalized institution with no clear path on which to continue.”

What contributed to the weakening of the Thai monarchy? Streckfuss gives three core reasons for the decline. For one, he thinks that building a personality cult around the King is not good for the throne. “The more successfully the King as a person and his good works are portrayed, the weaker the monarchy as an institution becomes,” he wrote

A second reason could be that some political activities, such as supporting coups and protests by some members of the Royal Family and the powerful Privy Council of Thailand have tainted the image of the monarchy as being neutral or existing above politics. Lastly, the excessive use of the lese majeste law, often described as the world’s harshest anti-royal insult regulation, has eroded the legitimacy of the monarchy in the eyes of many educated Thais.  

These essays demonstrate the scholarly and political interest inherent in the four remaining monarchies of Southeast Asia, which survived the great upheavals of the 20th century. It remains to be seen if these institutions will play a prominent role in shaping the future of their societies, and whether they will coexist with greater democracy and transparency.