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UrbanChat: Pomp, (Power), Pageantry

Lynda Ibrahim

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Fri, May 10, 2019  /  04:13 pm
UrbanChat: Pomp, (Power), Pageantry

The apparent humanity in their petty troubles make us feel less bad about our circumstances; yet when they're soaring high we can gawk at their pretty wings to forget our troubles. (Shutterstock/Jade ThaiCatwalk)

If you're one of those royal watchers (admit it, you're a bit of that), then it's been a busy week. First, Emperor Naruhito ascended the throne following the abdication of his father, Emperor Emeritus Akihito. Then, King Vajiralongkorn finally assumed the crown after a long mourning period following the 2016 demise of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Lastly, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex welcomed their firstborn, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. 

For all my steadfast belief in democracy and equal opportunity, I'm evidently quite a royal watcher. It's hard not to look whenever the royal pomp and pageantry walks by the media screens. It's a bit about the fairy tale, a lot about the juicy telltale that usually follows afterward, and about both the prettiness and pettiness of it all.

Japan, which quickly rose from the ashes of World War II to become Asia's first developed country, keeps room for a monarch whose lineage harks back to 660 BC. Hirohito, Naruhito's grandfather, was still considered a god, with the World War II concession speech he read over the radio marking the first time his subjects heard his voice. 

Now limited strictly to ceremonial roles, the Japanese monarchy still attracts plenty of attention. In her youth Michiko Shoda, now Empress Emerita, bedazzled the public with her beauty, literary works and being the first commoner married into the family. Empress Masako Owada, a Harvard-grad diplomat who grew up overseas and speaks a few languages, intrigued the public with her pedigree and uneasy adjustments into royal life that, among other things, demanded her to produce a male heir – a law that seems so archaic considering Japan’s emperors don't even hold nominal political power anymore. Watching her stoic smiles as she stood behind her husband during the transition ceremony, I felt like leaping through my TV to hug her. The woman was wearing diamonds I could never afford in this lifetime, yet I felt like I had to impart her some of my simple happiness. 

The lèse-majesté law in Thailand has largely kept away negative publications of the royal family, yet in this digital age, things have a way to make it into public knowledge. My Thai friends, who unequivocally loved the late King Bhumibol and still regard Queen Mother Sirikit as the most stylish queen Southeast Asia ever produced (I concur), started darting their eyes whenever I asked about the new king. From their cryptic answers, I surmised it wasn't so much about his three failed marriages, but the "colorfulness" of the life he's been found to lead (Youtube viewers might concur). After several drinks, some Thai pals once blurted out that they'd rather crown the scholarly Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, what with the 1974 law that permitted a woman to reign and all.

Though holding no executive power, the Thai monarchy looms larger in the daily Thai life than their Japanese counterpart does in Japanese society. It serves as a uniting symbol for Thais through tumultuous politics and lends its allure to foreign eyes. I thought about it all as I watched the gilded coronation procession on TV and the tense Twitter spats on whether the Siamese cat presented during the ceremony was a stuffed doll. Regardless of how some of its subjects feel privately about the new king, the Thai royal family is here to continue playing its charismatic roles.

The British monarchy is a whole different ballgame, naturally. Having imprinted legacies on modern Commonwealth countries and being related to most European royals, Queen Elizabeth II and her brood still command global attention without wielding ruling power. Maintaining that attention and relevance have proven tough in recent decades, especially after Diana's tragic death, but the Queen has struck gold as her grandkids matured. 

Prince William wedded an exquisite English rose from a self-made family, with St Andrews education no less, whose flawless homages to Diana since their engagement has many Brits feeling that Kate Middleton, not Camilla, is the future queen consort. While the Queen's uncle had to abdicate to marry a twice-divorced American, the world had changed so much in 82 years that Harry marrying the divorcee and biracial American TV actress Meghan Markle won worldwide nods and a fierce new fanbase. When the septuagenarian Prince Charles eventually ascends the throne is still subject to debate, but her daughters-in-law have unquestionably made the pomp and pageantry look up-to-date. And if the speculation about the Sussexes declining royal titles for baby Archie were true, it'd make the Windsors seem more into the inclusivity tune.  

They're imperfect, they run on privileges so departed from our orbit; precisely because of those they make such beguiling objects of wonder. The apparent humanity in their petty troubles make us feel less bad about our circumstances; yet when they're soaring high we can gawk at their pretty wings to forget our troubles. An elixir to relish, in a few brief moments, in the wretched world gone mad.