Long Live the King!

Malaysia, you might be surprised to know, has a very complicated system of royalty. Out of the country’s 12 states, nine of them have a royal family (specifically, the nine majority-Malay states). The kings of those states get together to elect a King of Malaysia every few years—right now, it’s the Sultan of Kedah, the state below Perlis. (Fun fact: each state calls their king “sultan”, the Arabic word for king, except my state, Perlis, which uses the Malay/Indian term “raja”.) The kings don’t have any legal power anymore, but royalty is still a big deal over here. Royal immunity was still a thing until just 20 years ago, and it was only instituted after the Sultan of Johor (and former King of Malaysia) killed two people—including a golf caddy who laughed when the Sultan missed a putt—and beat up a famous field hockey coach.

Unlike the Sultan of Johor, luckily, Perlis royal family likes to get out into the community and talk to people. The Crown Prince visits each Perlis school once every three years, and I learned recently that our school was due. Yet when I was told the Crown Prince was coming,I was kind of disappointed. We had already canceled class three days for our sports week, and I was told classes would be canceled for the entire day of the ceremony. I was also told I’d would have to participate in some way. After tossing around some ideas including writing a poem and singing a song, my teacher mentor and I decided on creating an English script for the ceremony to go along with the Bahasa Malaysia one, and having me as the English emcee. As such, I went to the rehearsals, which consisted of everyone in Forms 1-3 sitting in the our hot, sweaty Open Hall for three days and, of course, not going to class. As I stood at attention to practice singing our school anthem for the 20th time, sweat dripping down my shirt, imagining the speaking lessons I could’ve been teaching in class, I can’t say I was happy. Angry, even. Much better to have students be in class learning real-world skills than rehearsing salutations for an unelected leader.

See, I’ve never been much for royalty. As I learned early on in Fiddler, my ancestors spent considerably more time struggling against the whims of kings and queens than saluting them. As a kid, I got annoyed by Disney princess movies because they didn’t talk at all about the king’s subjects. What was life like under the rule of Prince Charming for the common man and woman? At university, I fell in with a group of British exchange students who wanted to end the British monarchy, and I’ve been staunchly in the anti-royalist camp ever since. Unfortunately, Malaysia doesn’t have a similar group of anti-royalists, or if they do, they certainly haven’t made it up to Perlis. So I knew I had to fake some deference, put on my Serious Face, and carry out my duties respectfully and elegantly during the ceremony.

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Our school’s Vice Principal introducing the Crown Prince (the man in yellow).

I reluctantly learned the proper royal address and the specific hand motion that salutes the Crown Prince and Princess, not to mention the second-by-second choreography that accompanied all these addresses and salutes. The day of the ceremony came, and I saluted the Prince and Princess and raced to my podium to read the emcee script. That was when I experienced my first surprise: I found that my students, instead of struggling to stay awake in our Open Hall, were engaged in a rather interesting presentation from one of the royal staff members on the dangers of smoking, no small problem in our town. When the Crown Prince came up to make his Royal Address, I was in for another surprise: he quickly brought up another member of his staff, a personal trainer of sorts. That staff member taught the students some easy exercises they could do by themselves, started a miniature exercise session right there in the Open Hall, and talked about the importance of staying active.

When the staff member finished his session, the Crown Prince gave a stirring speech (at least according to my mentor, who did his best to translate from BM) about the importance of talking about and tackling some of the biggest social issues in Perlis, from cleaning up the environment to welcoming refugees to combatting human trafficking. In a particularly striking moment, he addressed the mass grave of Rohingya migrants that two teenagers found near my school last year. My fellow Perlisians have been reluctant to mention anything to me about what happened, but the Crown Prince said that it needed to be talked about.

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The Crown Princess (foreground, in yellow) and Crown Prince (background, in yellow) shaking hands of students after the ceremony. The Crown Princess is one of the few Muslim women in Perlis who do not wear a hijab (tudong in Malay).

After the ceremony, the Crown Prince’s protocol officer got in touch with me—he liked the idea of having an English emcee for royal events and wanted me to emcee two fundraising events the next week. Since it was a royal request, I figured I couldn’t say no. Quickly, I was introduced to my co-emcee and rushed off to meetings at the University of Malaysia-Perlis to plan what we would say and where we would go in the ceremonies. We worked long into the night multiple times that week, but nothing could’ve prepared me for my job at the first event. I had been told it would be a fundraising walk for facilities for children with autism, but I did not realize that upwards of 500 people would attend this event, that it would last four hours, or that I would spend most of my time with a microphone in the bed of a pickup truck with 7 of my closest friends. I feared for my safety as the truck would periodically stop and start, each time almost ejecting the camera operators who were squatting perilously close to the edge to get the best shots of the Crown Prince. My greater fear was thinking of what to say in English to a crowd of 600 people that could hardly hear my co-emcee when he spoke in BM. I did a lot of shouting into the dark. The next night was more tame, but it had the same focus on facilities for children with autism and managed to raise a lot of money a new autism center in Perlis.

The view from the truck. The Crown Prince is the man on the left holding the small boy’s hand. I’m not sure who the glow-in-the-dark guy is!

After all my royal events, I can’t say that I want to go back to a monarchy, but I am starting to see the value in having a royal family around a place like Perlis. I’ve heard from my friends here about all the hard-working, smart people who grow up in Perlis, only to move to Penang, KL, or out of the country because it provides them better opportunities. Social activists sort themselves into places like Georgetown (Penang), Brickfields (KL), and Islington (London), because, well, it’s easier to be a social activist there. But it means that places like Perlis more often than not don’t get the kinds of social activists that can raise a voice for change in the community. Of course, it’s not just a Malaysian phenomenon—rural America has faced many of the same brain drain challenges. But Perlis has something going for it—it’s got a royal family who is obligated to stay in the community and raise awareness about the issues the state must face. And that’s not nothing. And if partnering with the Crown Prince and Princess is the way to raise the dialogue about the social issues and activism that I care so much about, I’m happy to be a royalist here.

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One of the traditional dances from the Royal Gala.

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