Life As A Royal: Tunku Dara Naquiah and Tunku Syazwan Kaiyisah
Back in 2013, Kiwi artiste Lorde released a song entitled Royals, and the chorus goes as such: “And we’ll never be royals, it [don’t] run in our blood.” The verse ends with a final, “Let me live that fantasy,” and frankly, that term alone best describes the ambience, or rather, the perception that has surrounded most royal families to ever be known to the public. Almost everybody dreams of becoming a royal, and watches with rose-tinted glasses at those who carry such titles, being given the royal treatment or taking the royal road in life. Stories surrounding royalty take the nation by storm and make quick headlines often (i.e. the Prince Harry and Meghan Markle wedding that hasn’t stopped trending, or the abdication of our Agong), and we can readily admit that the curiosity can never be satiated.
Hence, we attempt to alleviate, or shed some light on the lives of Malaysian royals by first speaking to Tunku Dara Tunku Tan Sri Naquiah (or Tunku Dara for short) and Dato’ Indera Tunku Syazwan Kaiyisah Tunku Kamil Ikram, or Tunku Kaiyisah.
As the daughter of Tuanku Ja’afar Tuanku Abdul Rahman, the tenth Yang di-Pertuan Agong, as well as the tenth Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan—therefore making him the longest serving ruler of 41 years—Tunku Dara is a real-life princess. She was born in the palace, as those days only allowed for a midwife. Her father, who served as a diplomat before he became a ruler travelled regularly to open missions, starting from New York, then London, Cairo and Nigeria. However, just before his posting to Japan, he was called back. “His brother, Tunku Munawir, who was the ninth Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan, passed away,” explained Tunku Dara, “and instead of giving the throne to the son who was under 18, they gave it to his younger brother. So, my father became the tenth Yang di-Pertuan Besar, and then the tenth Agong as well."
ON BEING DIFFERENT
Schooling, however, proved to be a challenge for someone from the royal brood. Similar to other royals, Tunku Dara was sent off to boarding school at the Malay Girls College (now known as Kolej Tunku Kurshiah), and there, being from a ‘privileged’ background, she was the one who was bullied, ironically. “I was bullied in the sense that I didn’t know how to do certain things such as ironing, washing the bathroom and sweeping. And they would say, ‘Oh, wow, this is a real princess, she doesn’t even know how to do this!” Tunku Dara huffed, “But I was very good in English, and I had a group of really good friends who protected me back then. Until today I’m still close to these ladies; Puan Sri Maznah Abdul Rahman, Junida Flint, Tengku Nong Soraya, Wan Azizah and Zaleha Aziz.”
THE PUBLIC SCRUTINY
One occupational hazard of being a royal was the constant public scrutiny, and as the King’s daughter, Tunku Dara was under the spotlight. It was difficult back then, because she had wanted to work, and Tuanku Ja’afar was quite wary in the beginning. Eventually, she joined a British firm—having known about their traditions more—and for the sake of avoiding a local one at which she may hear statements such as, “Oh, she only joined us because she’s a ruler’s daughter” and whatnot. From there, she was invited to become the guest of honour at modelling shows, Miss Universe pageants and the like.
THE BRIGHT SIDE
Of course there are positive sides to living life as a princess too. She now teaches protocol and social etiquette to people, including current royals, as it is a subject she has had first-hand experience in—taught by her father who often advised her on royal behaviour and decorum. She revealed some of her tips such as how to properly enter a car (derriere in first, before lifting your legs into the car), which glass belongs to you in a seated banquet (always your right), which bread is yours (on the left), leaving your centre plate as is (as opposed to lifting your side plate onto it to munch on your bread), and how you should not cross your legs in front of royalty.
Another fond memory was of how she had gone on to have tea with Queen Elizabeth herself. The family was invited into the queen’s private suite, and as they sat in the dining room, the butler poured the hot water into the teapot and left them to their own devices. The queen herself poured the tea, and had Tunku Dara pass it on. “Very simple food; sandwiches and banana cake. We had a lovely conversation, it was all very natural and unimprovised,” shared Tunku Dara.
But of course, many years have then passed since the days of Tuanku Ja’afar, and having lived that royal life from then until now, Tunku Dara has since observed the change in scene. “I wouldn’t say the royal institution is outdated, but we still need a monarchy. Countries that have monarchs are more stable, as they’ve got a stabling sort of influence over the people,” she voiced. “The respect for the monarchy isn’t so strong in the modern age, however, but I do think it’s a comforting and stabling thought.”
And although many people may think that the roles of royalty have depleted throughout the years and is steadily becoming irrelevant, Tunku Dara’s stance clearly contests this notion. Through her stature, she has successfully promoted the knowledge of protocol, social etiquette and the love of the English language to the masses—through her roles as president of KL Speakers Club, chairman of the English Speaking Union Malaysia, chair of finance and planning committee at Kolej Tuanku Ja’afar, plus being on their board of trustees and governors, and communications. Besides that, she also chairs the Tuanku Najihah Foundation, and runs a company under Syarikat Pesaka Antah.
Business and royal affairs aside, you’d find Tunku Dara sharing similar interests with most of us, preferring to sing, dance, entertain and enjoy a plate of chee cheong fun, roti canai, yong tao foo and teh tarik over weekends!
The respect for the monarchy isn’t so strong in the modern age, however, but I do think it’s a comforting and stabling thought.
— Tunku Dara Tunku Tan Sri Naquiah
Shuffling to another royal family, many years after the reign of Tuanku Ja’afar, a princess was born in the royal Pahang household, to Tengku Puteri Seri Kemala Pahang Tengku Aishah Sultan Ahmad Shah, the daughter of the previous king, Sultan Ahmad Shah, and now sister to the current king, Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, the 16th Yang di-Pertuan Agong. Or to keep it simple, this princess, Tunku Kaiyisah, is the current king’s niece. A modern-day princess.
“People these days don’t really mind royals anymore,” she said nonchalantly, “but I do appreciate people who are excited and are interested to know about us. Whether we
like it or not, the royal family has been part of our country’s history even before we gained independence.”
Growing up with a grandfather who was the then-Agong, Tunku Kaiyisah claimed that she was very lucky, having had a close relationship with him, and was spoiled by him, by way of being taken to nice places, including amazing toy stores and being bought nice clothes. “But of course, as King, he couldn’t give us too much of his time, but he knew how to treat us. And being around him so much exposed me to a lot of etiquette lessons, such as how to angkat sembah, how to speak, sit and behave properly.”
She recalled the times her grandfather would make rounds at 9pm in the kampung areas, to see if there was anything that needed to be attended to. Being young, she thought she was just tagging along for the ride, but she realised as she grew older that it was in fact an act of duty by the king, which she felt very privileged to be part of.
A RELATIVELY NORMAL LIFE
Otherwise, Tunku Kaiyisah admitted to having grown up living a normal life and going through school smoothly, even though many would romanticise her princess title and relate it to Cinderella. Different images and misconceptions aside, and despite being a good student, the only qualm she had about growing up royal was that other kids would find something to make fun of. Considering she had good grades, was head girl and active in sports, she insisted that she was favoured because of her behaviour, and not because of her title. Nevertheless, other school students found something to pick on: her name.
“The boys in the class would tease me, ‘Tong Gu Kai’, from my name ‘Tunku Kaiyisah’. That translates into ‘mushroom chicken’ in Chinese! That was rather annoying!” she laughed at the memory, and added, “I guess now I know why; I was bossy as a class monitor and prefect, I was a princess and I did well in school and they couldn’t pick on anything else!”
However, she insisted that it wasn’t because of her title, it was because she wanted to make her parents proud. “I distinctively remember my mother telling me these few things: ‘yes, you were born royal, but you cannot ever treat anybody with disrespect, be kind and help others where you can.’ She also told me that I should never be arrogant, as one would never know when the tables would turn and everything would be stripped away.”
LIFE BEYOND TITLES
She, too, got the money talk from her mother; that money does not grow on trees and one must work for it. The PrettySuci co-founder admitted to never living too lavishly, but was privy to a lavish lifestyle such as what her grandfather had: going to the palace, travelling first class, getting special treatments and staying at five-star hotels. “But all these VIP treatments, you pay for it. Anybody who works hard enough can afford that lifestyle now,” she said truthfully. The only difference, she mentioned, was that some people see the importance of respecting a royal and extending them that accord as acknowledgement for their role in the country’s traditions, customs and heritage. These people too are the ones who invite her to officiate and attend ceremonies and events, which she said humbles her.
She then divulged that the best part of being royal is being given the privilege to understand certain things in a better way, such as how the royal family was instrumental to independence, how other states work, being able to understand history better than just reading out of the books. Being given the privilege to learn customs and cultures, witness how things are done through charities and in kampungs, getting educated by other people’s livelihoods and then being able to go home to something slightly above average—it will always keep you on your toes.
She told the story of how people consider tens of thousands to be a measly amount that she can afford. “Yes, maybe I can afford it because I saved and worked for it. If my mother gave me the money she had to work for it, too. My argument is that if you work for it, then you can live as luxuriously as any royal,” she defended. These perceptions of wealth also has Tunku Kaiyisah receiving random emails from people asking for loans to pay their debts, sending business proposals and asking for help out of trouble. “I could most definitely help in a non-monetary way, by using my network and connections and social standing to lead them to the right people who could.”
Which begs the question: does Tunku Kaiyisah feel that royals are irrelevant today? Evidently not. People do think that royals would be of help. The royals, she feels, are next to the people’s representatives. People express their concerns and grievances to them as a secondary channel, another part of the solution.
“I know we don’t have a constituency to serve, but because we have this privilege of being part of royalty, it is our duty to give back to the people in any way we can. That’s what most of my family members are doing. They have all built their own Yayasan, or charity organisations, with which they help the needy and the poor,” she said.
Naturally, despite the younger generation feeling that the royals are of no importance these days, Tunku Kaiyisah maintained that these are the rules that were set in place since before our independence, and which played a part even before our country became a nation and ultimately, to what it is today. “For as long as the country believes in culture and customs, the royals will never be irrelevant. We uphold the culture and customs of the yesteryears, and for as long as the country and the world appreciates history, we will always be there, because we are part of it,” she finished confidently.
For as long as the country believes in culture and customs, the royals will never be irrelevant.
— Tunku Kaiyisah