Origins of the Conference of Rulers

Before the Establishment of the Durbar

The rulers of the Malay states were, in the past, absolute monarchs who wielded legislative, executive and judicial powers. They ruled their states according to their own policies, assisted by the various categories of office bearers. At the time of the Melaka Sultanate, these officials were headed by the Bendahara (a position equivalent to a prime minister in modern times).

The conquest of Melaka by the Portuguese and the Dutch in 1511 and 1641 respectively did not change the traditional structure of the Malay Sultanate. In early 1874, the British interfered in the administration of the Malay Sultanate. The sultans remained the sovereign rulers of the states but were bound by treaty to accept the advice of a British Resident, Adviser or General Adviser.

To expand their political dominance over the Malay Sultanate (Terengganu was the last state to accept a British adviser in 1919), the British centralised their administrative power by forming the Federated Malay States (which consisted of Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang) in 1896 and subsequently establish a Federal Council in 1909, whose members consisted of four Malay rulers, chaired by the British High Commissioner.

Although the British acknowledged the sovereignty of the Malay Sultanate, the Malay rulers’ role was relegated to mere ceremonial duties relating to customs and religious matters.

Even though the present Conference of Rulers was formally established under the Constitution, the name of the Conference cannot be separated from the Malay Sultanate which served as the cornerstone of the monarchy system or institution in Malaysia. As such, the early history of the establishment of the Conference of Rulers should also begin with a quick look at the emergence of the present Malay Sultanate. It is important to look at the relationships among the royal families in Malaysia today, which had given rise to an environment that eventually led to the establishment of the Conference.

The emergence and status of the Malay Sultanate are linked to the Melaka Sultanate. Although not deemed the oldest sultanate, considering that the Kedah Sultanate was founded around the 13th century, the Melaka Sultanate played a significant role in establishing palace traditions and customs which were later inherited by subsequent sultanates. Moreover, the Melaka Sultanate also played a role in establishing and strengthening many of the present sultanates.

Of the nine existing sultanates, only the Perak Sultanate has a direct link to the Melaka Sultanate as it was established from the Melaka Sultanate before it fell to the Portuguese in 1511.

The Kedah Sultanate, which once enjoyed the protection of the Melaka Sultanate, possesses royal regalia including nobat instruments presented by the Melaka Sultanate. The Selangor Sultanate, although founded by the Bugis in the 18th century, was given recognition by the Perak Sultanate which had direct links to the rulers of Melaka. Other sultanates, such as Johor, Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu, emerged after the lineage of the Melaka Sultanate died out. Clearly, these sultanates had filled the void left by the Melaka Sultanate after it fell to the Portuguese and continued the legacy of the Melaka Sultanate. The same holds true for Negeri Sembilan where its rulers had originated from Sumatra. Thereafter, the British intervened in the Malay states, starting with the Pangkor Treaty in 1874 and ended with the British agreement with Johor in 1914.

The position of the Malay rulers as the sovereign rulers remained unchanged. This was the position of the rulers according to the law, even though in reality their independence or sovereignty might not have been absolute. This principle had been declared by several different court decisions, which might have differed from the position of the Malay rulers under the Malayan Union. Nevertheless, the rulers had to acquiesce to the demands and pressures exerted by the British. Although such pressures could be questioned in the court of law, the British had the power to compel the Malay rulers to abide by their directives.

With British intervention in the Malay states, a grouping similar to a federation was formed in 1895. The grouping was known as the Federated Malay States comprising the states of Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang. Four Malay rulers sat in the Federal Council whose function was to outline the policies implemented by legislation at the state level through the State Councils. The Malay rulers retained legislative power albeit with respect to the Constitution only. The British were the ones in charge of formulating and controlling all administrative policies and their implementation in the Federated Malay States. This was not what the rulers had bargained for when they signed the treaty with the British. As a result, conflicts occurred after the Pangkor Treaty, which ended with the banishment of Sultan Abdullah.

Establishment of the Durbar

On 1 July 1896, the British formed the Federated Malay States and immediately laid down that a meeting between the Malay rulers and the British be held to identify the problems faced by the Malay states. The British named this meeting the durbar. The name originated from the Urdu-Persian word ‘darbar’ which means ‘noble court’. It also means a public gathering or conference held by the rulers of the states or
governors or British viceroys. The purpose of the meeting was to strengthen ties between the rulers and the British.

The first durbar meeting was scheduled to be held at the end of 1896 but had to be postponed because Sultan Abdul Samad of Selangor fell ill. The meeting was eventually held in Kuala Kangsar on 13 July 1897. It lasted four days and was attended by Sultan Idris Murshidul'adzam Shah of Perak, Sultan Ahmad of Pahang, Sultan Abdul Samad of Selangor and Yamtuan Besar Muhammad of Negeri Sembilan.

The British were represented by Sir Charles Mitchell (Governor of the Straits Settlements and High Commissioner of the Federated Malay States), Frank Swettenham (Resident-General of the Federated Malay States), Hugh Clifford (British Resident in Pahang), JP Rodger (British Resident in Selangor) and WH Treacher (British Resident in Perak). Negeri Sembilan was unrepresented as its Resident, Martin Lister, had passed away in February 1897.

Kuala Kangsar was chosen as the venue for the first durbar meeting as the British enjoyed a close relationship with Sultan Idris. However the good relations between Sultan Idris and the British ended in 1916, following the death of Sultan Idris. Prior to his death, the British High Commissioner often consulted with His Highness who served as raison d'etre for the formulation of various policies.

The second durbar meeting convened in July 1903 in the federal capital of Kuala Lumpur. The Governor of the Straits Settlements at the time was Sir Frank Swettenham, who was also High Commissioner of the Federated Malay States. The following is a summary by Sir Frank Swettenham regarding the two meetings. On the first durbar meeting, he wrote in his official report:

"From every point of view the meeting has been an unqualified success, and it is difficult to estimate now the present and prospective value of this unprecedented gathering of Malay sultans, rajas, and chiefs. Never in the history of Malaya has any such assemblage even been imagined. I doubt whether anybody has ever heard of one ruler of a state making a ceremonial visit to another; but to have been able to collect together, in one place, the Sultans of Perak, Selangor, Pahang and the Negri Sembilan is a feat that might well have been regarded as impossible.

"The deliberations of the Council were both interesting and useful, and there is no doubt that, in some respects, we could not have arrived at the same ends by any other means than the meeting of the rajas of the Federated States and their responsible advisers. All the proceedings of the Council were conducted in the Malay language, and I am convinced that, if ever it were necessary to introduce interpretation, no such successful meetings as those just concluded could ever be held. The sultans and all their chiefs spoke on all the subjects which interested them, without either hesitation or difficulty, and on matters concerning the Muhammadan religion, Malay customs, and questions which specially touch the well-being of Malays, it would be impossible to find elsewhere such knowledge and experience as is possessed by those present at the recent meetings."

On the second durbar meeting, he wrote:

"Again, the deliberations of the assembly, after much interesting discussion, resulted in a number of important decisions chiefly connected with matters in which the Malay population was specially concerned. This Conference was rendered notable by the fact that the rulers of all the western states were conveyed to Kuala Lumpur by train, only the Sultan of Pahang and his chiefs having to travel by sea, and also by reason of a remarkable speech delivered by the Sultan of Perak at the close of the proceedings, when His Highness gave a graphic account of British intervention in the Malay states, and the benefits which had been conferred on the country and people by the adoption of British methods of administration. He told clearly about the British entry in the states of Malaya and the benefit derived by the Malays from the British who introduced their administration. The sultan spoke freely of his own and his people's early suspicions and distrust of the white man and how they had gradually changed their minds."

Although on the whole the meeting was to increase goodwill among its members, it had no impact on administration. The durbar merely served as an advisory body. The matters discussed were limited to programmes on fishery, water sports, amateur theatre, picnicking at waterfalls, fireworks and other forms of entertainment. Despite the assertion of importance of the durbar meeting by Swettenham, there was a 6-year gap between the first and the second meetings for Swettenham was of the opinion that these meetings should not be held every year.

The second durbar meeting was more meaningful. Although Sultan Idris commended the efforts of the British at the end of the meeting, he actually expressed dissatisfaction during the meeting proper. He urged that more Malays be appointed to serve the government and that they be elected to higher offices. He also objected to the leaning towards consolidation. He did not favour a federation, and cited a Malay proverb which said that there should not be two captains on a ship; and therefore, it would be impossible for four Malay rulers to rule over one country.

He also reminded the British that the Pangkor Treaty provided that the Resident-General could only act as an adviser, that the affairs of each state should be governed by officials of the state, and that the government of a state should remain as a separate entity. But the British were not overly concerned about the issues brought up by Sultan Idris. Plans to incorporate the Malays into the civil service were only implemented in 1910, but not as a result of a durbar meeting. In 1927, the policy of decentralisation was declared although its implementation was put on hold until the mid-1930s.

The Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan had also filed an important motion recommending the use of Malay as the official language of the Federation rather than English as it would be more appropriate considering that the Malay language was widely used by both the general public and nobles alike: “Its use in daily communication and official documents would be advantageous and beneficial to the people."

WH Treacher, the Resident-General at the time, diplomatically objected to the motion. According to him, English was the language of the civil service, the language of most of the non-Malay population, the language of British India, the language of local businessmen, and also the language in Europe and America. In the end, a decision was reached in favour of the use of English.

In the years that followed, the British took steps to further strengthen the position of the federal government by forming the Federal Council in 1909. The establishment of this council had been proposed by Swettenham’s successor, Sir John Anderson, who was Governor of the Straits Settlements and High Commissioner of the Federated Malay States. The Federal Council was also composed of the four Malay rulers at the time. It was headed by the British High Commissioner. This was an attempt to assert his position as Chief Executive of the Federation, even though the Resident-General had held the post since 1896.

With the inclusion of the Malay rulers in the Federal Council, the durbar meeting was no longer held, until 1927, when the Council was restructured and the Malay rulers withdrew from the Council.

The Revival of the Durbar

The end of the First World War brought significant changes in the administration of the Malay states. The British finally forced Terengganu to accept a British Adviser. It was the last state in Malaya to sign a treaty “inviting” the British to appoint an officer to advise the Ruler.

After establishing a strong presence in the Malay Peninsula, the British attempted to unite the states in Malaya. But to do so, the Malay rulers of the Unfederated States needed assurance that their power would not be reduced after unification. To convince them, the British re-established the Federal Council. The Malay rulers withdrew from the Council. In their stead, four Malay representatives (one from each state) were appointed. However, the representative from the state of Perak, Raja Chulan, had already been a member of the Council since 1924. Subsequently, in the same year (1927), the Governor of the Straits Settlements and High Commissioner of the Federated Malay States, Sir Laurence Guillemard, introduced the decentralisation policy which, when implemented, would result in returning, in part, administrative control to the Federated Malay States.

However, the decentralisation policy was opposed by both the European and Asian business community for they feared that it might reduce the efficiency in administration. The main opponent to this policy was Sir George Maxwell, Chief Secretary (a title previously known as Resident-General) of the Federated Malay States. The relations between the Resident-General/Chief Secretary and the High Commissioner had, in general, been difficult as both wanted to establish their position as the Chief Executive of the Federated Malay States. As a result, the decentralisation policy only started to gain momentum in the mid 1930s when Sir Shenton Thomas was appointed Governor and High Commissioner.

Meanwhile, the durbar was revived and held for the first time in August 1927 in Kuala Kangsar before Guillemard’s departure from Malaya. The purpose of the meeting was to achive the political objective of the decentralisation policy, namely to establish the “Federation of Malaya”. It was believed that the durbar would help facilitate communication, not only among the Malay rulers of the Federated Malay States, but also in future between the rulers of the Federated Malay States and the rulers of the Unfederated Malay States.

However, Guillemard’s successor, Sir Hugh Clifford, who had served in Malaya a few years prior, failed to pursue the decentralisation policy in earnest. Frequently suffering from ill health, he was succeeded by Sir Cecil Clementi in 1930. During the Clementi administration, the durbar meeting received greater attention. In the very year of his appointment, the fourth durbar meeting convened in October in Singapore. For the first time, the meeting was held outside a Federated Malay State and it also the first time the rulers of the Unfederated Malay States had been invited to attend.

Clementi campaigned hard for administrative reforms and openly announced his vision for Malaya at a durbar meeting which convened in Seri Menanti on 18 August 1931. The rulers of the Unfederated Malay States had not been invited to this meeting. Clementi later informed the Federal Council and the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements of his plan to form the Malayan Union and to decentralise the authority of the Federated States.

In his opinion, a major obstacle to obtaining the co-operation of the states of Malaya was the departure of the Federated Malay States from the original purpose of their establishment, in that the four states should be placed “on the same constitutional principle” as the Unfederated Malay States. As such, it had become necessary to unravel the close ties of the federation so that “it could be expanded to encompass other political entities in the peninsula”. For Clementi, this action would promote understanding in all areas of common interest among the states of Malaya and subsequently, “foster brotherhood among the states in Malaya, each maintaining its own history and autonomy, but working together for the betterment of the Malays in the peninsula as well as the immigrants who had made this country their homeland.”

Clementi remained insistent and unrelenting in his effort to devolve more political and administrative powers to the Malay rulers and their respective state governments and in doing so, reduced the authority of the Federal Government in Kuala Lumpur. In doing so, he gained the trust of the Malay rulers, and the durbar meeting became the only platform on which the Malay rulers were able to voice out their concerns over the future of the Malays, particularly with regard to immigration control or the lack of it. However, Clementi’s actions had angered the business community and the bureaucrats. He was recalled in 1934.

His successor, Sir Shenton Thomas, made further strides to decentralise power, and under his administration, two more durbar meetings were held before the outbreak of the Second World War, one in 1937 and the last on 25 November 1939 in Klang, Selangor.

Although the durbar meeting was originally introduced as a platform for discussion, it became an institution that won the trust of the Malays and subsequently became the official voice as British policies had to be defended publicly since they represented the will of the rulers. Generally, the Colonial Office made concessions to allow such a request since from a legal standpoint the Malay rulers were sovereign rulers. As noted by Abdul Aziz Bari, “Basically, the durbar meeting portrayed a shared responsibility of the Malay rulers as protectors of the Malays.”"

Establishment of the Conference of Rulers

The Conference of Rulers was formally established in 1948 to replace the Council of Rulers of the Federated States (also known as Durbar), which first convened in Kuala Kangsar in 1897. The Council then comprised four rulers of the states of Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang. The first Conference of Rulers meeting was held on 18 February 1948 where it was attended by the rulers of all nine Malay states.

Between 1948 and 1957, the Conference of Rulers met 50 times. The contributions made for the welfare of the Malays included:
1. Establishment of the Conference of Rulers Higher Education Scholarship Fund (8th meeting, 1949);
2. Limiting the influx of labour from China and India; and
3. Use of Malay as the official language, although not as the national language.

Initially, Dato' Onn Jaafar, Dato' Panglima Bukit Gantang, Dato' Abdul Wahab, Dato' Nik Ahmad Kamil Mahmood and Dato' Hamzah bin Abdullah, being the Menteri Besar of Johor, Perak, Kelantan and Selangor respectively, played important roles during the Conference of Rulers meetings..

"This Conference is the supreme institution in the country. Although the Conference may not have the authority to enact laws or impose taxes or restrict public spending, it still exerts great influence. It serves as a liaison body between the Federal Government and the State Government at the highest levels. The meeting, attended by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the Prime Minister on behalf of the Federal Government, the rulers and the Yang di-Pertua Negeri together with their respective Menteri Besar or Chief Ministers, serves as a platform to discuss problems faced by the states, and since these meetings are held on a strictly confidential basis, they may speak frankly but respectfully. For the Prime Minister, such a meeting is an important forum to explain further the federal policies that have already been implemented and those that are yet to be implemented"

The Conference of Rulers is not only supreme but also unique as it is the only such institution in the world today.

The Conference of Rulers is also superior in several ways as certain provisions of the Federal Constitution cannot be amended by Parliament alone but must have the approval of the Conference of Rulers. These provisions include:
  1. Amendment to Article 153 regarding the special position of the Malays and bumiputera and the legitimate interests of other communi.
  2. Amendment to Article 152 regarding the sovereignty of Malay as the national and official language
  3. Amendments to other provisions.
A law altering the boundaries of a state may be enacted by Parliament, but it cannot be passed without the consent of that state (expressed by a law made by the legislature of that state) and of the Conference of Rulers. This is stated in Article 2 of the Federal Constitution.

In the history of our country, the provisions of Article 2 pertaining to altering the boundaries of a state have been enforced 3 times.
  1. Establishment of the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur in 1973, which was acquired from Selangor.
  2. Resolution of a border dispute between the states of Kedah and Penang.
  3. Establishment of the Federal Territory of Labuan in 1984.