A semblance of political normalcy returned to Malaysia last week after a period of relentless elite feuding appeared to subside, having ushered in the country’s third prime minister in the space of 18 months.
As his first order of business after taking office on Aug 21, Ismail Sabri Yaakob urged his still seething rivals to put the “Malaysian family” first during the Covid-19 pandemic, while promising to nurture cross-party co-operation.
The peace pledge was met with cynicism on social media, but the 61-year-old leader, who is a generation younger than most of the country’s feuding political heavyweights, by midweek sought to prove he meant business.
Ismail Sabri on Wednesday (Aug 25) invited the three most senior leaders of the opposition Pakatan Harapan bloc – the arch-rival of his United Malays National Organisation (Umno) – for talks.
As if that was not enough to raise eyebrows, the Pakatan Harapan head honchos led by Anwar Ibrahim – who had been vying for the prime ministership – signed a joint statement with Ismail Sabri committing to co-operate on various matters, including Malaysia’s Covid-19 response and reviving its battered economy.
Both sides later offered the same reason for declaring a temporary entente: such a pact was the explicit wish of Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah.
The king determined Ismail Sabri commanded majority legislative support, but before his final decision urged him to ensure the “winner will not win it all, and the loser does not lose it all”.
Researchers who study the evolution of Malaysia’s unique model of constitutional monarchy said the clinical manner in which Sultan Abdullah acted as a political mediator was a seminal moment in ties between royalty and civil leaders.
Popular support for his intervention will likely propel the resurgence of the country’s royal institution as an alternative power base, analysts said, as trust in elected leaders wanes.
The current crisis was brought to a head by Muhyiddin Yassin’s resignation as prime minister on Aug 16 after key allies withdrew support for his alliance, ensuring its parliamentary majority was lost.
However, the Game of Thrones -style feuding between the likes of Anwar, Muhyiddin and former prime ministers Najib Razak and Mahathir Mohamad stretches back years, arising from the fragmentation of a political landscape once dominated by Umno.
“2021 is a very important milestone in the relationship between Malaysia’s elected leadership and the rulers,” said Francis Hutchinson, coordinator of the Malaysia studies programme at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
The researcher added that Sultan Abdullah’s “prominent role” in the succession of civil leaders likely “increased the ‘soft’ power of the monarchy”.
“In addition, going forward, it is likely that Malaysia will have narrower parliamentary majorities, which will entail more political space for the monarchy,” Hutchinson said.
Despite his loss of support, Muhyiddin initially sought to stay on before eventually ceding his position once ties with the king became fraught and his allies deserted him.
It was a sticky situation but Sultan Abdullah was on terra firma.
In March last year, he stepped in to appoint Muhyiddin as premier when the 74-year-old gained the backing of a majority of MPs, having induced mass defections from Pakatan Harapan, which was then in power.
Harrison Cheng, a Singapore-based associate director of the Control Risks consultancy who closely tracks Malaysian politics , said Sultan Abdullah’s interventions “provided a template by which future crises, if any, could be tackled”.
The current king is also the sultan of Pahang, one of the nine Malaysian states that have royal courts dating back centuries.
These households are mandatorily led by a male who is a Malay and a follower of Islam.
Of these, seven rulers are styled “sultans”, like Arabic sovereigns, while the ruler of the state of Perlis bordering Thailand is a raja.
In Negeri Sembilan the monarch is appointed for life by four chieftains and is called Yang di-Pertuan Besar, or grand ruler.
The heads of the nine royal households take turns serving five years as Yang di-Pertuan Agong – the national head of state position currently held by Sultan Abdullah.
The nine rulers, along with the appointed governors of the country’s four non-royal states, make up the Conference of Rulers.
The final straw
Several researchers said Sultan Abdullah’s recent intervention earned broad public support, due in large part to deep antipathy for the Muhyiddin government.
Serina Abdul Rahman, a visiting fellow with the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said a sense of frustration had taken hold among pandemic-weary citizens, particularly in rural areas.
“Muhyiddin’s government was weak, and I think many felt the need for the royal houses to be the check and balance as there is no other higher power,” said Serina, who studies the country’s rural and ethnic politics.
Ong Ooi Heng, a Malaysian parliamentary affairs researcher, said public support for the sultan’s interventions also stemmed from a desire that the “political crisis be dealt with as soon as possible so that the government can stay focused on the Covid crisis”.
A key catalyst that turned citizens against Muhyiddin – and in favour of the king picking a new prime minister – was their disagreement over the January-August Covid-19 state of emergency.
The king blocked Muhyiddin’s request for a similar measure last October, but approved the decision in January as Covid-19 cases surged.
He subsequently asked Muhyiddin repeatedly to allow parliament sittings, and to have the state of emergency debated in parliament before its expiry on Aug 1.
Muhyiddin instead used his prerogative powers to block the legislature from reopening until late July.
When lawmakers did reconvene, the Muhyiddin government did not allow debate, saying it was not legally obliged. The king later claimed he was given explicit reassurances the matter would be debated. In a rare move, he rebuked the government for misleading him and lawmakers.
Ahmad Fauzi Abdul Hamid, a political science professor at the Science University of Malaysia, said that although the king’s words were “discreet admonitions”, the subsequent response from Muhyiddin’s office was “discourteous”.
The royal dressing down led some of Muhyiddin’s own allies to accuse him of insolence towards the monarchy, and some subsequently left the Perikatan Nasional alliance.
Ahmad Fauzi said he believed the public generally believed the king “handled the matter very well” by refusing to back down against Muhyiddin.
“Going against the Agong, whom Muhyiddin took for granted … was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as his tenure as prime minister was concerned,” Ahmad Fauzi said.
The public anger following the episode in late July was a lesson for the country’s political leaders that “however ceremonial one thinks the Agong’s role is, respect and decorum must be accorded to his function as a constitutional monarch”, the professor said.
Breaking new ground
For some analysts, Sultan Abdullah’s performance was noteworthy because of the complexity of the political struggle.
Far from being a straightforward battle for MPs’ support between Ismail Sabri and Anwar, the contest involved other players, including some from the same blocs as the main candidates.
The idiosyncrasies of Malaysian politics also complicated the matter, as prime ministerial hopefuls corral support by having MPs sign statutory declarations to cement their backing.
In some instances, some MPs pledge their allegiance to multiple candidates to ensure they end up in whatever governing alliance emerges.
Accordingly, the king ordered the 220 lawmakers to each submit a single nominee for prime minister directly to his staff.
Following that secret ballot, Sultan Abdullah interviewed each of the 114 MPs who picked Ismail Sabri to ascertain if they in fact backed the Umno politician as prime minister.
The king used a similar process last year to pick Muhyiddin, but his government was plagued by the lack of transparency around the process and questions over whether MPs were truthful when they revealed their choice to the king.
His government was labelled “illegitimate” because of how it attained power.
This time, Sultan Abdullah has said Ismail Sabri must hold a confidence vote to further demonstrate his parliamentary majority.
The additional floor test was praised by observers such as Ong, who said it was an important new precedent that left the country’s democratic system in good stead to deal with impending “multiparty competition” for power.
Cheng, the Control Risks analyst, said the king’s various requirements showed he was “very aware of the fragility of promises and declarations of support by legislators”, and knew “not to take these at face value because the country’s stability and lives are at stake”.
The king, mandated to ensure stability and continuity when there were no clearly identified parliamentary leaders, proved his consultative mettle when he held talks with the civil service, the Conference of Ruler and parties across the political spectrum to aid his decision-making during the crisis, Hutchinson said.
With the stand-off resolved, Ismail Sabri can govern until July 2023, when the current electoral term ends.
On Friday, he unveiled a cabinet that retained most of Muhyiddin’s ministers.
Some of his allies, including Muhyiddin, hope the prime minister calls fresh polls next year, although he has yet to give an indication of his plans.
If there are further instances of self-inflicted turmoil caused by the political leaders before those elections, Sultan Abdullah may need to again intervene.
The events of the last two years have shown that “the monarchy itself understands and respects its place in the political order, [which is to] act as an additional check and balance mechanism on the whims and fancies of politicians”, Ahmad Fauzi said.
The risks of royal power
The glowing reviews for Sultan Abdullah aside, analysts also underscored the downsides of the expanding political role for Malaysia’s monarchs.
The country’s royals wielded vast prerogatives in the years before independence from Britain in 1957.
They were then bound by the constitution, which gave them a limited role in the same manner as the British sovereign, with the added responsibility of being the guardians of the culture of the majority Malays and their Islamic faith.
In the 1990s, following a string of high-profile royal transgressions, Mahathir – during his first stint as prime minister – clipped the royals’ wings through a constitutional amendment.
The current resurgence of their influence dates back to about 2006, when Mahathir’s successor Abdullah Badawi was in power, Hutchinson said.
Major royal interventions since then include reigning sultans vetoing chief minister nominees in the states of Perlis and Terengganu in 2008, and the Perak sultan’s 2009 decision to decline a sitting government’s request for fresh state polls after it lost its majority due to defections.
In the Perak case, the sultan instead opted to appoint as chief minister an alternative candidate deemed to have majority backing.
That precedent, upheld in the country’s highest court, established the legal grounds for Sultan Abdullah’s prerogative powers to install Muhyiddin and subsequently Ismail Sabri midway through a term without a new election.
A major concern arising from the renewed royal assertiveness was whether the monarchs would use their “prerogative, residual and soft powers to advance their private commercial interests”, one Kuala Lumpur-based royal watcher said.
Controversies surrounding such royal business are occasionally discussed openly, albeit in a cautious manner given sedition investigations are frequently launched against royal critics.
Malaysia does not have lèse-majesté rules like neighbouring Thailand, but royalists – predominantly from Umno and the hardline Islamist PAS party – are known to file police reports over comments they deem insolent towards the sultans.
Royals from time to time have indicated they do not require such legal protection, but that has not stopped authorities pursuing cases when police reports are filed.
The Kuala Lumpur-based analyst, speaking on condition of anonymity, highlighted the subject of sultans’ outsize influence over land use in their respective states, given the monarchs are major landowners themselves.
In recent years, local media have reported such land-related controversies involving royals in the states of Pahang, Johor and Selangor.
Revered in their home state, the Johor Sultan, Ibrahim Ismail and his eldest son Ismail Idris – the crown prince – are the highest-profile royals after Sultan Abdullah and have in the past publicly sparred with elected officials, including Mahathir.
The sultan has vast business interests, including a stake in the U$100 billion (S$135 billion) Forest City property project developed by China’s Country Gardens Holdings.
Under the rotational monarchy system, Sultan Ibrahim is expected to take over as Yang di-Pertuan Agong when Sultan Abdullah’s term ends in 2024.
In comments that were not directed at any one of the monarchs, Control Risk’s Cheng said a more assertive monarchy “does have downsides, especially if the monarch is someone who cares more about self-interest than the public interest”.
Although the current king has proven himself as someone who acted in a “targeted and measured [manner] … there is no guarantee that you will always have such a person”, Cheng said.
Ultimately, the trajectory of the royals’ power accrual will be determined by elected officials, he added.
“The greater the number of issues that politicians defer to royal judgment and the more weighty these issues are, the more the monarchy accrues in terms of power of time,” Cheng said, noting that it would subsequently take decades to unwind such a transfer of institutional power.
“When you reach that point, it may be very difficult to change matters because precedents set over time would have entrenched the power of the monarchy vis-à-vis other institutions,” Cheng said.
By : BHAVAN JAIPRAGAS – SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST