Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Diana: Intrigue and Relevance in Constitutional Monarchy

The tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales in a tunnel in Paris on August 31st, 1997 brought about a down-to-earth and yet profound change in British constitutional monarchy. Diana phenomenon became a symbolic space for public debate that touched on British identity and the role of the monarchy.

Following her divorce from Prince Charles on August 28th 1996, a year before her death, Diana ceased to be part of the British royal family household. The event should have resulted in a loss of public attention. It did not, but instead turned into public sympathy. Her tragic death brought a spontaneous public outburst of grief perceived to resemble a demonstration to the established class. Tony Blair, the then new media-aware Labour Prime Minister, seek the Queen to appease the public to set aside the dictates of protocol and honour Diana with a royal ceremony she is no more entitled to.

Ten years after her death, public attention on Diana still has not waned. More so with the latest inquest by the British court revealed Dodi had bought her an engagement ring. If the verdict return concludes the long lingering suspect of premeditated murder, a civil legal action is possibly to come from Mohamed Al-Fayed, chairman of Harrod and father of Dodi, Diana's Egyptian boyfriend.

Like celebrities Marilyn Monroe and James Dean, whose life interrupted at such an early age, Diana will be permanently imbedded in memory for her fresh image of youth and beauty.

Diana Her Life

Diana was born into aristocracy, youngest to the 8th Earl of Spencer with royal Stuart ancestry, whose lineage goes back to King Charles II and King James II of England.

She did poorly in academics, twice failed her O Level and was sent to a Swiss finishing school at 16 for a year. Without any formal education, she made a move to London but end up jumping from cooking school to temporary jobs at a ballet academy and filled time as cleaner and cocktail waitress. Just prior to attracting the attention of the heir to the throne of England, she was part-timing as aid at a nursery school and baby sitting.

Penny Junor, who wrote her biography after the dubbed fairytale wedding in 1981, provided a glimpse into her psyche. In boarding school, Diana was a compulsive washer and had a sense for drama and attention. She loved popular culture and romance novels and that developed her "common touch," to later serve her well to talk to ordinary people about things they cared about.

Since childhood, she had to deal with a broken family marked by divorce, infidelities and disappointments. Her mother lost custody of her children because the court saw fit to punish her for adultery. Her father chose to marry a woman his children detested. Diana yearned for a happy family and she risked all when prince charming pursued and presented her the opportunity. In one of her charity function, she was quoted to say, “The worst illness of our times, is that so many people have to suffer from not ever be loved.” On hindsight, it’s her inner feelings and wants expressed.

In his eulogy at the Westminister’s Abbey ceremony, her brother, Charles the 9th Early of Spencer describe her as:

"Diana was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style, of beauty. All over the world she was a symbol of selfless humanity. All over the world, a standard-bearer for the rights of the truly downtrodden, a very British girl who transcended nationality. Someone with natural nobility who was classless and who proved in the last year that she needed no royal title to continue to generate her particular brand of magic.”

Humanitarian Quality

Diana had a sincere commitment to charity beyond the call of duty and it’s an area closely associated with her.

Soon after her marriage, from the mid- to late 80s, Diana began to assume patronage of various charitable organisations. While this stemmed naturally from her role as Princess of Wales, where she was expected to engage in hospital visitations and comforting the sick, she had a profound interest in certain illnesses and health-related matters.

Even after her divorce, where she had to resign patronage from some 100 charity organisations, she maintained presence in the English National Ballet, British AIDS Help, children hospitals, plight of the homeless, isolation of lepers and Red Cross. She left a prominent legacy against the random destruction of landmines, a cause that won the Nobel Prize award in 1997. In the infamous TV interview, she said, “I'd like to be a queen of people's hearts, in people's hearts, but I don't see myself being Queen of this country.”

Her involvement in charity comes about more out of her humanitarian sensitivity than for any political reasons. As revealed in the eulogy by The Earl of Spencer, “it was her innermost feelings of suffering that made it possible for her to connect with her constituency of the rejected”.

Diana presented a different quality in the theme of being charitable - more warmth, sincere and profound. She does not hesitate to touch and hug AIDS patience live on TV to help dispel prejudice and misconception of AIDS, to visit landmine sites in remote areas of Africa and Bosnia, and out of the sight of photographer, find her way under bridges in winter nights to view the plight of the homeless. Mother Theresa, which died two days before her own death, had much respect for and maintained close contact with Diana.

Perception and Reality
Many believed that Diana is a temporary phenomenon and not permanent change in public psyche. People tend to want to see somebody worth seeing. Her beauty – physical, fine attributes and good manners – attracted such attention and built into fond affection. Diana represented a 20th Century phenomenon of stardom.

While the media played a role of bringing her life into people’s homes, Diana’s celebrity status transcends the usual association of celebrity with a certain ability or achievement. To her admirers, the Princess of Wales was a role model — after her death, there were those calling for her nomination to sainthood.

But to her detractors, and their conclusion do went overboard, they claim her as suffering from mental illness, delusional, and exhibit skin deep stardom. Diana was accused as saboteur of the monarchy.

Beyond the glitz and overindulgence of the media, Diana’s qualities are undeniably genuine. Though born into noble aristocracy and glamorous celebrity image, her close proximity with the suffering of the common people and her own imperfections and revelations made Diana acceptable as one of us to the “common people”. Her imperfect virtues endeared her with the British public as a more realistic representation of the royals; human with its own frailty.

There are those who believe that the emotional display of her death is but a manifestation of ourselves. Diana’s life mirror the pain and dream of the common folks – her hopes for happiness during courtship and marriage, her disillusionment and shattered dreams from divorce, her yearning and struggle to put her life together, and the sad ending to her new romance.

Diana was a symbol of sacrifice. Firstly, as patron of victims, the sick, the discriminated against, the homeless and herself as the family love deprived. Secondly, it was partly her real suffering in the rigid royal household and partly her shrewd manipulation of the press, which finally made victim of her.

Royal Reaction

The royal family then initially had their reasons to dislike her for being headstrong, insufficiently discreet, and enviably popular with the press and the public. It’s unfathomable to them of her refusal to the kind of life offered. For it was beyond them to perceive the need to transform themselves.

Eventually, Diana’s death awakened the royal family to realise the public shift in values. The new modern undeferential Britain showed itself capable of feeling and compassion and ready for emotional expression too long kept bottled up. Such gestures are sacrilegious in the Victorian idea for order in hierarchy, authority and masculinity that is associated with the reserve, stoic and stiff upper lip British composure.

The royal family was caught unaware that Diana’s presence in the royal household coincide with a Britain transforming to be more cosmopolitan city living that is at ease with different societies and settings, and receptive to different sexual orientation or ethnic background. Britain has over the years grown to embrace the open emotionalism of southern Europeans and Americans, and expressiveness advocated by popular psychology guru.

Despite unaccustomed to having her decisions questioned, the Queen eventually learned to see the rationale in the different approach. She learned to shed her indifference to acknowledge the delicate line between public disdain that could lead to their total irreverence, and allowing its subjects their dignity.

Before Diana’s death, the perception of the Windsors was that of removed, out of touch, not genuine, insensitive, and poorly advised. It was this timely realisation that their past and future existence is dependent on the public's acceptance that brought about the change in attitude.

The Press did stretch itself to infer the existence of a demonstration against the royal family and claim the monarchy as under threat. It’s unfair to demand the Queen to adapt and become more like Diana’s common touch and vulnerability, lest the monarchy will crumble. The royal family's attitude actually did became more Diana-like - more open, more engaged, more accessible, and more systematic in their contact with the public.


The Malaysian constitutional monarchy having adopted from British tradition has much resemblance in practise. Constitutional monarchy separates out the ceremonial and official duties of the head of state from party politics, although of late is being dominated by politicians. This represents and provides stability, continuity and a national focus. Since independence and with the consent of the royal, the sovereign acts as head of state, and legislative power and selection of executive resides with an elected parliament, with judiciary as another independent branch of Government.

The sovereign governs according to the constitutional power accorded with the basic rights to be consulted, to encourage, and to warn. This is supposedly done officially on the Wednesday consultation and briefing between the prime minister and sovereign, prior to Cabinet meeting. Over the course of their reign, a sovereign has all the opportunity to accumulate far more knowledge and experience in the working of government and nation than any Minister to make their consultative role more relevant.

In one of his lecture this year, YM Raja Nazrin, the crown prince of Perak, stated, "The Federal Constitution mandates the monarchy to be the guardian of the just rule of law, an impartial arbiter in the democratic process and an overseer over the pillars of state.” This burden of responsibility on the sovereign requires a dedication and attention to be in the know, in touch and in confidence with Government and people and constitutionally above politics.

In addition, the monarchy has official roles in the armed forces and police. The civil service carries out their role under the command “Urusan Seri Paduka Baginda” and that explains the use of “kerajaan” to signify Government. In certain former unfederated Malay States, the state civil service comes under the direct purview of the sovereign.

Diana experience perhaps has its relevance to the Malaysian constitutional monarchy. If the stoic British royal family could transform in line with social change, the same should be anticipated by their Malaysian counterpart. To a limited extent, Malaysia itself is undergoing transformation into its own modern cosmopolitan character and some common social change could only be expected.

The modern practise of monarchy needs to be realistic and relevant with the time. No more the perpetuating the myth of monarchy as divine, removed from public exposure and access, and commands blind loyalty. It is this notion in the not too distant feudal history that resulted in rampant episodes of neglect, indulgence, and abuse on the nation and people and left an indelible mark on the people’s psyche and mindset. Through it, the subjects remain loyal to the monarchy. It’s timely that the monarch redeems this past to deploy public respect and affection to bring about national morality, dignity and unity.

The monarch could take a leaf from the Diana episode to be more open, engaged, and accessible to endear themselves with the common people that are increasingly more indifferent with the institution. Their active role in public and voluntary service should be the opportunity to break the barriers for a direct touch with the subjects and civil servants to listen more, embrace more and involve more.

This is Diana in her own intuitive, articulate, and observant ways indirectly extending herself for Malaysia. Indeed, she is a serious thinking woman beyond the biography of herself portrayed her to be.


Zakhir's Zoo said...

The English monarchs are so much different from the Malay monarchs.The House of Windsor princes underwent military training and actually served various branches of the military. Example, HRH Duke of York was the Principle Air Wing Officer in various Royal Navy frigates and destroyers, even during the Falkland Wars conflict. They even do diplomatic role for the Queen in official function abroad.

The Malay monarchs nowadays have distant themselves from administration affairs, almost completely. They are no longer involved in the administration process, especially the Federated Malay States (Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak and Selangor). At least the Civil Service in Johor, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu is still close to the HRH Sultan and refer to HRH for certain issues. The appointment of top Civil Service positions in these state must get the consent from HRH Sultans.

DYTM Pemangku Raja Perak, Raja Nazrin no longer has any clout to give any advice, especially in the Government and administration. He has never had any capacity nor experience in Civil Service ever, thus his understanding of any situation is purely academic.

The HRH Malay Rulers should get themselves involved in administration FIRST, before they can exercise their clout. The HRH Malay Rulers should start by meeting the Prime Minister or respective Menteri Besars, at least once a week FIRST (most of them are more keen to waive this off and stay completely oblivion of administration matters). HRH Malay Rulers should regular make visitation in various departments, offices and agencies, even at district level.

Example is HM Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin, SPB YDP Agong XIII. How many Government ministries, agencies and/or departments has he visited and listen to their 'taklimat', briefing and strategic plan, since he assumed the throne and coronated as the SPB YDP Agong in April 2007?

This is a good barometer of HM's understanding and grasp of the administration that always do their business as "Urusan Seri Paduka Baginda".

During the tenure of HRH Sultan Iskandar Ibni Almarhum Sultan Ismail of Johor as the SPB YDP Agong, he made a point to personally fly and visit the Armed Forces at the borders and any navy vessel patroling every second day Hari Raya Aidil Fitri.

If HM SPB YDP Agong and/or HRH Malay Rulers do not play this role actively and toil themselves with administration pettiness and intricacies, then the Malay Rulers are left with the discretion to determine when is the date for Puasa, Hari Raya Aidil Fitri and Aidil Adha only.

BaitiBadarudin said...

Like diana, I would rather be Queen of the people's hearts than Queen of England; ehem, ehem ... perasaanlah saya 'ni!

My Say