Opinion: Meghan, Harry and the fragile future of global monarchies

By Nor Arlene Tan

It is like watching Netflix’s The Crown – the victimised couple, the racist royal in-laws, the vulturous press, the unwelcoming British public, the mysterious men in grey suits, the paedophile uncle, the cannot-be-trusted palace staff, the stoic Queen and the never-ending plot twists that carry on for next episodes.

The Meghan Markle and Prince Harry saga is the latest royal family feud for the entertainment of the reality TV-obsessed public. Like most people, the British royal family is the epitome of old-world high society: uppity accents and customs, the worship of hierarchy and heredity status, and extreme wealth accumulation through land ownership and colonialism.

Millions of viewers around the world tuned into Oprah’s interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry. Oprah was in her element giving us all the surprised, memeified facial expressions. However, I couldn’t help but read the comments by us ‘commoners’ on social media.

“Are you team Meghan and Harry or team Royal Family?” one user commented. Whichever side you support, it is best to take any grievances and complaints by the royal couple in-exile with a pinch of salt.

Some of their claims and conducts felt more out-of-touch. Such as the almost-40-year-old jobless Harry moaning about how his dad stopped financing his millionaire lifestyle while he sits on a $16 million inheritance in a 16-bathroom mega mansion.

Or Meghan making a fuss about Archie not being given the ‘Prince’ title while failing to mention that all the British royal grandchildren also do not carry the title of a ‘prince’ except for Prince William’s children — of course, for a reason so obvious that even a commoner like me would understand.

Moreover, I find one of the scenes where Meghan showed off her pet chickens like an old-fashion farmer more bizarre than cute. It is one of those upper class ‘hobbies’ that I can never fully understand.

Despite that, I do feel Meghan and Harry deserve better in their quest for happiness, especially regarding Meghan’s call for help against the racism and mental health abuse that she faced. It is hypocritical of the royal family to simply resort to gaslighting and not provide the support the couple need.

As a young woman of colour in Asia, I can identify with Meghan’s struggle. A take-no-prisoners, white colonial institution that is designed to serve the central power — The Queen — may not be a conducive working environment to begin with. I imagine the family dinners would feel more like an endless job interview with constant internal politics.

For once, I was glad that Meghan and Harry normalised the conversation surrounding racism and mental health, which unfortunately are still taboo subjects even among family members and in the workplace.

However, it is hard to empathise with either Meghan or Harry’s victimhood narrative, especially when it comes to their soured relationship with their fathers. I find it sad that they would rather vilify their fathers in public for being hurtful to them than focus on repairing the relationships. Family is important in Asian culture and unless the parents have a pattern of being neglectful or abusive, in my opinion it is important to treat our parents as flawed human beings who are still figuring out their lives.

On the other hand, I find Meghan and Harry’s alleged mistreatment against their employees exposed by the reputable newspaper The Times of London worrying and one that must be taken seriously. Though the fact that the palace’s HR department decision to bury the allegations raised concerns if the palace is a toxic, anti-workers workplace to begin with.

The more I got pulled into the Meghan and Harry rabbit hole, the more I started to wonder if there is a place for monarchs post-2021.

For its existential survival, the modern British monarchy reinvents itself as a fairy-tale symbol for young girls and a global cultural symbol of Britain. The monarchy is not just a marker of wealth and social status but also a symbol of soft power and prestige.

However, the British monarchy is not the only monarchy in the world. Except for a few nations with absolute monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Brunei, most monarchies in Europe, Asia and Africa are constitutional monarchies where they are stripped of any kind of political power.

Unlike the global fascinations towards the British monarchy, most monarchs prefer to lay low from the media and the public radar. That is partly because the more people talk about the monarchy, the more ridiculous it sounds. British-American comedian John Oliver summed up perfectly when he referred to the British royal family as “an emotionally stunted group of fundamentally flawed people doing a very silly pseudo job.”

He is not wrong, and it gets worse.

Many monarchies tend to sweep aside unsavoury stories about their own kind under the rug. If you think the complete silence by the British royal family over Prince Andrew’s child sex trafficking allegation is deafening, other monarchies have resorted to more authoritarian controls against the media and the public.

In countries such as Thailand and Malaysia, there are strict laws against those that criticise the monarchy. One can be put behind bars for merely posting anti-monarchy comments on social media. While in some of the countries in the Middle East, the monarchs have absolute control over the country’s wealth, resources and even governance.

On the other hand, most of the monarchs in Europe remain very white and colonial-minded and are still unable to move forward to embrace the diversity and progressive values of the 21st century.

Meghan and Harry may have naively assumed Oprah’s interview as a public call against the palace for the wrongs that had done to them. What they did not realise is, they may have set up a domino effect for the global community to question the relevance of monarchies in today’s world. Unlike generations before, young people today may probably laugh off at the idea of marrying a pampered, trust fund prince from an archaic, racist institution as a fairy-tale ending.

About Nor Arlene Tan

Nor Arlene Tan is a Singapore-based journalist from Kuala Lumpur covering Southeast Asia affairs. She is a correspondent for the Middle Eastern publication Arab News and the co-founder of Hidden Asia Media, a digital media content company. Fluent in English, Malay, and Mandarin, she is passionate about reporting issues on human rights and democracy, including directing the award-winning refugee documentary ‘Selfie with the Prime Minister.’