8 May 2019
It has been a right royal year thus far for hereditary monarchs, those vestiges from a different time who still reign in modern Asia’s new power constellation of populists, capitalists and bureaucrats. In one single day last week we saw Thailand’s new King Maha Vajiralongkorn turn his flight attendant consort into his queen just prior to his coronation, Japan’s Emperor Akihito abdicate from the world’s oldest throne and Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, indulge in yet another spat with one of his many royal families. Meanwhile, and more significantly, Brunei’s absolute ruler, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, and the head of Indonesia’s one remaining sultanate in Yogyakarta, Hamengkubuwono X (who is not the head of state), have in recent weeks taken distinctively different approaches to the crucial issue of Islamisation.
Collectively, Asia’s remaining royals don’t mean a lot for Australia’s position in Asia. And it is a longstanding article of faith for local Asia-first foreign policy advocates that Australia becoming a republic would enhance our independent status in the region. But although it’s hard to quibble with that argument, last week’s events are a reminder that feudal social structures still play a significant role in an otherwise modern-looking Asia. When it comes to diplomatic strategy, perhaps Australia need not beat itself up over its own ties to the British royal family.
Australia’s individual links to many of these royals should also not be underestimated as they are valuable diplomatic back channels in a part of the world where personal contact is gold. The two members of these royal families I have met, for example, were very favourably disposed towards Australia. King Vajiralongkorn was educated here, at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, in the early 1970s. Akihito’s son and successor, Naruhito, took his first overseas trip as a teenager to Australia. Hamengkubuwono knows Australia well from his daughters’ education here. These hereditary figureheads play a key part in the evolution of their realms, in nations that are of increasing strategic and economic importance to Australia. We would do well to look beyond the exotic court ceremonies we have seen in Tokyo and Bangkok in the past week.
Japan’s royals are said to be prisoners in a “gilded cage”, designed during the US occupation after World War II and now run by the impenetrable Imperial Household Agency. And yet, at a time when Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has been advocating a more muscular Japanese regional security policy, the emperor’s main international activity has been working as a regular apologist for Japan’s wartime actions. This is in line with the less interventionist, more traditional postwar approach to foreign affairs. When the Abe government stonewalled the emperor, Akihito took his wish to abdicate to the people, demonstrating that the royal cage is not solitary confinement.
Although the Thai kings are constitutional monarchs like their Japanese counterparts, they have played a much greater role in settling civil disputes in the coup-prone country. Critics say this just adds a veneer of respectability to periodic military rule. But Vajiralongkorn, moreover, appears to be asserting himself institutionally more than his father by taking ownership of the Crown Property Bureau, potentially making him the world’s richest monarch. He also publicly intervened in the recent election and has been taking more control over security arrangements. His sister, Princess Ubol Ratana Rajakanya, briefly but remarkably allowed herself to be nominated as a prime ministerial candidate at the election by a party opposed to the military junta.
While the Thais seem to be increasingly involved in national affairs, Malaysia’s Mahathir is reiterating his longstanding disdain for his country’s nine sultanates. Indeed, the nonagenarian’s first action upon being returned to power a year ago was to publicly lecture the king on how to conduct the first ever transfer of power to an opposition government in the country’s history. The mercurial Mahathir appears to regard the royal families as part of a traditional Malay culture that is restraining the country’s modern evolution.
This week’s backdown by Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal, one of the world’s rare remaining absolute monarchs, on his recently imposed death penalty for homosexual activity, is a testament to the power of the modern global economy over absolutism. The Brunei Investment Agency was facing a consumer backlash against its luxury hotels in the United States and Europe. The original anti-gay ruling appears to have been a concession by a wealthy traditional Muslim monarch to the rising forces of modern political Islam, which likely favour a different sort of regime in Brunei.
The Sultan’s approach to Islamisation, however, is in stark contrast to the way Yogyakarta’s Hamengkubuwono intervened during Indonesia’s recent election to defend plural society when a village tried to ban non-Muslims from living there. Hamengkubuwono was in effect throwing his weight behind the more moderate abangan approach to Muslim practice, which prevails in East Java and was a key force behind President Joko Widodo’s election victory. He has also been a controversial advocate for gender equality by declaring his daughter should succeed him. Prime Minister Mahathir may not agree, but from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo to the Kraton in Yogyakarta, Asia’s royal relics can be a useful force for civility in a time of great change.
Greg Earl is an editor and writer. He was Japan and South-East Asia correspondent for The Australian Financial Review.