Sunday September 9, 2012
Sparkly prince of ideas
By HARIATI AZIZAN
Like the dashing Prince William, our own Tunku Zain Al-Abidin Muhriz is one blueblood who is redefining the role of a young royal in today's world.
A “FASHION icon” or “trendsetter” is something Tunku Zain Al-Abidin Muhriz of Negri Sembilan will never be mistaken for, but the 30-year old prince is as cool a young royal as “Will and Kate” to many young Malaysians.
Maybe it's because he has written in various local dailies (he now has a column in The Star called “Roaming Beyond the Fence”) and has been very vocal about various issues in the country. Or maybe it is because he founded and heads IDEAS (Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs), perhaps Malaysia's first libertarian think-tank, and currently one of the most vibrant economic and public policy research organisations in the country.
Or maybe it is just because of his geeky good looks (geeks are in now, as the latest Hollywood hero trends show).
But what would probably endear the second son of the Negri Sembilan royal house, better known as (Tunku) Abidin, most to many royal watchers is this gem he actually went to school with the Duchess of Cambridge, Catherine, in England.
As he tells in an e-mail interview, “Kate Middleton and I were both at Marlborough College and used to have breakfast together in the Sixth Form, so I look forward to meeting her again in KL!”
This might have just hiked up the attractive quotient of the bookish and brainy prince, who completed his Master's degree in comparative politics and imperial history at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
The term “intellectual royal” fits Tunku Abidin to a T, and when asked if he sees himself as royalty or an intellectual first, he sounded almost appalled.
“You ask that question as if the two are mutually exclusive! But chronologically, I graduated with my Masters from LSE and entered the thinktank/public policy world before I became a son of a Ruler,” he notes, adding that he feels that there is no conflict in fulfilling the two roles.
As he points out, he is not the first or the only royalty to play an active public role outside the monarchy.
“Many children of Rulers have successfully combined their royal position with employment or other appointments that have contributed to the nation. Five sons of Rulers have served as elected representatives (including our first Prime Minister), and many others have been members of political parties, the civil service, the military and of course the private sector.”
Still, he stresses his hope that his life will not be as “public” as Prince William's.
“I think the media intrude far too much into his life! In my case, I already had a newspaper column and think tank before my father's proclamation as Yang di-Pertuan Besar.
“Obviously, public interest in my family increased as a result of that event, and perhaps because of that more people read my articles. If I become more of a public figure, I hope it will be because Malaysians find my contributions to be useful or at least thought-provoking”
He reveals, unlike what his close friends had assumed, that his life did not change much after his father became Ruler.
“Certainly, during royal events, or when I attend functions in Negri Sembilan, some protocol is observed, but I very much enjoy living my past life' too,” he quips.
In some ways, Tunku Abidin has had the good fortune of growing up away from the royal fanfare leaving Malaysia at the age of 13 to pursue his education in Britain and returning to Malaysia when he was well in his 20s.
Upon graduation, he had a stint at a Westminster think tank before becoming a parliament researcher at the House of Commons. In fact, before returning to Malaysia for good some two years ago, he tried out life in Washington DC (as a public sector consultant at the World Bank) and Singapore (as research fellow at the National University of Singapore).
Coming back to Malaysia was something that he has not regretted though, especially after “sterile” Singapore, although he had reportedly admitted that it was difficult at first, to the point that he even had to make new friends.
One “barrier”, he concedes, is the misconception about the royals.
“Being an anak Raja or even anak Datuk has its pitfalls. There is no way to deal with it apart from being oneself and hoping that people will accept you as an individual,” he says, lamenting that stereotypes are too entrenched in Malaysian life due to ethnicity, religious affiliation, gender and class (all perceived of course, he notes).
As for some Malaysians' blissful ignorance of or indifference to the Malaysian royal families, Tunku Abidin opines that it is not unique.
He agrees, for one, that many Malaysians know or care more about Prince William and his wife than the Malaysian monarchy.
“(But) it is not unique to royalty. Many Malaysians know more about British footballers, actors and celebrities compared to their own, too.”
And when it comes to royalty, he adds, the House of Windsor is the “international superstar dynasty”.
“Even non-Commonwealth USA goes gaga over Prince William. But it's not just about how well-known royalty is, but also about why they are well known. I think the rakyat would like to see hard-working and effective royals, even if they are not always in the spotlight.”
As for the irreverence of a few, particularly the young, towards the royals, Tunku Abidin also feels that it is not unique to the monarchy.
“Many young Malaysians feel that many institutions of state have no real relevance to their lives, whether it's parliament, the judiciary or the police.
“Education has a lot to do with it: young people are not properly taught about history and citizenship to fully understand the development and relevance of our national institutions, but on the other hand, the institutions themselves need to connect to young people to gain their confidence. The monarchy is no exception,” he asserts, highlighting that the monarchy has various established channels such as the Conference of Rulers to communicate directly to the people.
Tunku Abidin believes strongly that one crucial role the royalty needs to play now is to unite Malaysians regardless of political affiliation.
“It is clear that now, more than ever, Malaysians have different political preferences. This is perfectly normal in a healthy democracy, but unfortunately not all of our politicians understand this.
“Apolitical heads of state can ensure that political leaders do not get out of hand, especially when they deliberately try to divide people on racial or religious grounds. This can be done in many ways, from supporting relevant charitable initiatives, giving appropriate speeches or even summoning potential troublemakers to the palace for a chat,” he opines.
However, he concedes that the “correct” extent to which royalty needs to play a role in society beyond the constitutional definition is difficult to gauge.
“Recently, so many different groups have been requesting royal intervention in policy matters as well because other institutions have failed the rakyat.
This can be tricky because if they do nothing, some will claim they are failing the people but if they intervene, then others will say they are acting unconstitutionally. The right balance is always being fine-tuned, and generally I think we are not too far off.”
Ultimately, he stresses, the Malaysian royalty represent all Malaysians.
“There is no doubt that the Malaysian monarchs are Muslim Malay Rulers albeit with many historical roots varying across the nine families. Similarly, there is no doubt that the British monarchy has Anglo-Saxon, Norman and German roots. But that does not mean they represent only certain sectors of the population. They are heads of state for all citizens. And if you look through the speeches and actions of our Rulers, it is clear that Their Royal Highnesses all fully understand this.”