Amid Malaysia’s political chaos, is the country’s king carving out a new place for himself?

by | Dec 18, 2020 | Opinion Pieces

  • Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah has had to make an unprecedented number of decisions this year, amid a global pandemic and the manoeuvres of political parties
  • While his statements and actions are seen by some as contradictory to the king’s constitutional role, it can be argued he is portraying himself as a guarantor of stability

Recent months have seen Malaysia’s king take on a prominent role in the country’s chaotic political arena. On several occasions, King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah called upon members of parliament to support next year’s budget in a bid to prevent further political instability – which was seen by many as contradictory to the monarch’s constitutional role, given how it was perceived as indirectly supporting the beleaguered administration of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin. Is the king carving out a new place for himself in Malaysian politics?

Sultan Abdullah was chosen as Malaysia’s king – or Yang di-Pertuan Agong – in January last year following the abdication of his controversial predecessor, Sultan Muhammad V of Kelantan, after a little over two years on the throne. The Malaysian king is the head of state for the federation, and a constitutional monarch – as such, he acts mostly in a ceremonial and symbolic capacity. He is elected by and from the Conference of Rulers, made up of the nine hereditary sultans that each oversee a different state. Under Malaysia’s constitution, the king holds mostly nominal powers related to the appointment of the country’s highest officials, including the prime minister and cabinet ministers. These are made based on the recommendation of his own advisers, the Conference of Rulers, and the prime minister.

Since the beginning of his rule, Sultan Abdullah has had to make several key decisions within his prerogative, including the controversial appointment of Muhyiddin in March following an internal coup that prompted the resignation of then premier

Mahathir Mohamad, and his later denial of Muhyiddin’s request to implement a state of emergency. The latter appeal, purportedly to handle Malaysia’s Covid-19 outbreak, came after an attempt by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to seize a parliamentary majority, which would have unseated Muhyiddin. A state of emergency would have suspended parliament and prevented a motion of no confidence in the prime minister.

Since former prime minister Mahathir’s resignation in January, and amid a highly unusual political context as well as a global pandemic, the king has had to make an unprecedented number of decisions. He has, in fact, tried to balance the uncertainties raised by the various crises by portraying himself as a guarantor of stability, a sorely needed commodity in Malaysia since the power and ideological vacuum left by the 2018 election. Since the country’s independence from Britain in 1957, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) had ruled for 61 undefeated years until its May 2018 loss to the Pakatan Harapan coalition led by Mahathir and Anwar. The collapse of that coalition, which saw Muhyiddin installed as premier, led to the formation of the ruling Perikatan Nasional alliance, which is clinging to power by a razor-thin parliamentary majority – and includes Umno and its allied parties.

In Malaysia, Umno, the Islamist party PAS and the Socialist Party of Malaysia are the sole parties promoting a clear form of ideology. The backbone of Umno’s entire economic and political programme is the defence of Malay interests, and its overwhelming political weight has forced other parties to position themselves in relation to its pro-Malay rhetoric. The Democratic Action Party (DAP) is a mirror image of Umno, diluting a social democratic agenda in pro-ethnic-Chinese rhetoric (and vice versa). DAP was created over 50 years ago as a multiracial, secular party but suffers from limitations as it is perceived as a “Chinese party” and is unable to govern outside a coalition.

Other parties are more recent: the People’s Justice Party (Keadilan), led by Anwar, was created some two decades ago, and the Muhyddin-led Bersatu was formed in 2016. Today, both parties lack a clear line. Until 2018, the growing popularity of Keadilan was due to its successes in breaking racial lines, but today the motivations of its leader seem to have changed as Anwar has clearly announced his intention to ally with Umno to create a Malay-based government and unseat MuhyiddinThis general lack of ideological coherence is on show regularly in the absence of parliamentary cohesion and discussion of public policies. The Malaysian political scene is out of breath, and the emergence of new leaders and ideas seems limited by the overbearing weight of older chiefs. This creates an ideal opportunity for the king to rise above.

The momentous disappearance of Umno’s monopoly as the sole guardian of Malay interests, and the partition of the Malay political scene, is a threat to tradition. The states’ royal families do not wish to see their position and privileges questioned, and it is punishable by law to challenge them. While the monarchy’s powers are highly contested by the democratic youth movement in Thailand, in Malaysia the king is carefully crafting his new role.

All things being equal, Sultan Abdullah’s position appears to be not so much interference and more an attempt to clearly state his dedication to the people’s interests. However, by constitution and tradition the king is the protector of the Malays and of Islam, de facto excluding a large part of the country’s non-Malay population: this is highly unusual in a constitutional monarchy. In this structural and conjectural mess, and the continuous fragmentation of political representation, Sultan Abdullah wishes to pose as a neutral arbitrator representing the people, all the people, above party lines and away from partisanry.

Finally, while some observers have said the adoption of the budget bill was a plebiscite for Muhyiddin’s government, one may say his position has been in fact weakened. Without the king’s unprecedented support, the bill would have probably been blocked at the first round of voting. Muhyiddin’s announcement of a general election once the pandemic is over can be seen as a way to postpone his inevitable departure. The cohabitation of government and monarchy is part of the Malaysian system, and tensions over the royal families’ political or economic interests exist even if they are often unseen, like in a typical Malay shadow play. Now, more than ever, the fate of the prime minister seems tied to the king’s goodwill.

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