Crisis averted with King's resignation
A crisis for Malaysia’s constitutional monarchy, involving the government as well as the rulers of the country’s nine royal households, was averted yesterday with the unprecedented resignation of Kelantan Sultan Muhammad V as the king, or the Yang di-Pertuan Agong as he is officially called.
But the appointment of a new monarch in the coming weeks by the Conference of Rulers still leaves open the prospect of tensions between the sultans and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s government.
While agongs have died in office in the past, Sultan Muhammad’s decision to quit before his term expires in end-2021 has pushed the constitutional monarchy into uncharted waters.
Senior administration officials close to the situation told The Straits Times that, based on royal protocol, Sultan Nazrin Shah of Perak, who is currently deputy king, will be named acting agong until the decision on a new ruler is made in the coming weeks.
Under the rotation system, unique to Malaysia, the country’s rulers choose a king from among themselves to reign for five years. Sultan Ahmad Shah of Pahang is slated to be the next king. But the 88-year-old sultan is reported to be ailing.
The Pahang ruler can abdicate in the coming days in favour of his son, Tengku Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, paving the way for the state’s new ruler to be the agong.
It will be up to the Conference of Rulers, which will convene in the coming weeks, to decide on a new king.
Under the current rotation system, the next person in line for the position after Pahang’s ruler is Johor’s followed by Perak’s.
Administration officials added that there are preliminary plans for Tun Dr Mahathir to meet Sultan Ibrahim ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar of Johor in the state capital, Johor Baru, this afternoon.
The meeting will be watched closely because Dr Mahathir’s relations with the Johor royal household have always been rocky.
These are turbulent times for the royalty and Malaysian politics.
Prior to yesterday’s dramatic announcement, tensions were already building over the position of Sultan Muhammad, 49, following persistent speculation that the other rulers were forcing him to resign due to the general unease among them over his recent reported marriage to a Russian model, Ms Oksana Voevodina, 25.
The simmering crisis among the rulers quickly stoked concerns that a potentially messy process of abdication could have serious repercussions for Malaysia, in particular, the country’s already politically restive Malay community, who make up more than 60 per cent of the population.
Administration officials added that there are preliminary plans for Tun Dr Mahathir to meet Sultan Ibrahim ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar of Johor in the state capital, Johor Baru, this afternoon. The meeting will be watched closely because Dr Mahathir’s relations with the Johor royal household have always been rocky.
Since independence in 1957, Malaysia’s sultans have enjoyed a special role as protectors of Islam and champions of the Malay race, a position that has helped inculcate the community’s political dominance in multiracial Malaysia. Public debate over the prerogatives of the royalty, including the hefty financial burden borne by the government to support each royal household, was long considered taboo.
All of this changed after Dr Mahathir assumed the premiership for the first time in 1981. During his 22 years in power, he locked horns with the royal houses on three separate occasions.
The first brush with the rulers came in 1983 when he sparked a constitutional crisis by seeking to remove the need for the King’s assent to Bills approved by Parliament. That clash was settled with a compromise that set a 30-day waiting period for the King’s approval, which, if not obtained, would still turn the Bill automatically into law.
Seven years later, as head of the then ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno), Dr Mahathir pushed for and succeeded in establishing a code of conduct, which essentially prohibited the sultans from getting involved in politics and strictly limited their rights to rule only on the advice of the prime minister and the appointed state chief ministers or menteris besar.
The third brush came in 1991 when the combative Dr Mahathir seized on the alleged thrashing of national field-hockey coach Douglas Gomez by then Sultan of Johor Mahmood Iskandar ibni Al-Marhum Sultan Ismail.
That episode, which sparked another constitutional crisis, was resolved after the government succeeded in removing the long-held immunity the sultans enjoyed from criminal prosecution. It also led to the establishment of a special court to prosecute any head of a royal household who violated the law.
The government’s previous tense engagements with the royalty occurred when the majority of the Malays were firmly supportive of Umno. But the political landscape has changed dramatically with Umno losing its 60-year grip on power in the general election in May last year.
With the Malays deeply split, there are concerns that Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia, the country’s dominant conservative Muslim opposition party, could take advantage of the simmering tensions among royalty to further undermine the appeal of the Dr Mahathir-led Pakatan Harapan coalition government in Putrajaya.
But a more sanguine view is that yesterday’s development has shown that the Conference of Rulers is more than capable of dealing with its own problems.
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