Malaysia–Regal Trouble

January 29, 2017

Malaysia–Regal Trouble

Image result for Malay Sultan on Elephant

In the days of old Malay Sultans rode Elephants

ELEPHANTS once carried the sultans of Johor—a sprawling state in southern Malaysia—on tours of their tropical kingdom. Sultan Ibrahim, the present ruler, prefers the saddle of a Harley Davidson. Each year the car-collecting monarch leads a crowd-pleasing convoy through the state’s ten counties, sometimes driving motorbikes but also boats, buses, scooters and trains. Last year locals flocked to see the sultan pilot a powerful truck painted in the colours of the state flag, its leather seats stitched with threads of gold.

Image result for Sultan Ibrahim of Johor on his Harley Davidson

A 21st Century Malay Sultan rides around his state on a Harley Davidson

Sultan Ibrahim is the most charismatic and outspoken of Malaysia’s nine sultans (who reign ceremonially in their own states and take it in turns to serve five-year terms as Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the head of state of the entire country). Lately the profile of Johor’s royal family has been boosted by the extravagant success of the local football team, the Johor Southern Tigers. Owned by the sultan’s son, Tunku Ismail, the club has rebounded from a two-decade losing streak to win three championships in three years.

Image result for the crown prince of johorHRH The Tunku Mahkota Johor , Tunku Ismail Ibrahim

Yet with the scandal-hit administration of the Prime Minister, Najib Razak, growing increasingly authoritarian, Johor’s publicity-loving royals have also become unlikely voices of moderation. Against a backdrop of worsening race relations and decreasing religious tolerance, the sultan has applauded the contributions of Johor’s Chinese and Indian minorities, bemoaned his country men’s fading fluency in English and condemned the creeping Arabisation of its once moderate Muslim culture, notes Frances Hutchinson of ISEAS, a think-tank. As for the crown prince, when religious types criticised him for daring to shake hands with women last year, he resorted to the protection of an over-sized rubber glove in a parody of exaggerated piety.

Image result for Mahathir Mohamad tames Malay Sultans
HRH Sultan Ibrahim is the most charismatic, daring and outspoken of Malaysia’s nine sultans

The sultans are considered guardians of the culture and religion of the Malay majority, but have little formal authority. In the early 1990s Mahathir Mohamad, the Prime Minister at the time, succeeded in pushing through constitutional amendments which withdrew the sultans’ power to veto legislation, and curbed the legal immunity their families enjoyed. These reforms were prompted by public outrage at thuggish royal behaviour, most notably that of Sultan Iskandar (father of Sultan Ibrahim), who was convicted of assault and manslaughter and only escaped prosecution for the fatal beating of a golf caddie thanks to his immunity as head of state. (The caddie had apparently laughed when the sultan fluffed a shot.)

In the years since, the precise limit of the royals’ role has been contested. (It is a dangerous debate: under an old colonial law, those deemed to have incited “disaffection” with the royals risk imprisonment for sedition.) Observers argue that the sultans are gradually growing more active as the popularity of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the party which has led Malaysia for 60 years, slowly declines. Constitutional lawyers grumbled in 2014 when the Sultan of Selangor, a rich state near Malaysia’s capital, declined to endorse the chief minister nominated by local legislators, asking for some alternatives instead. In 2015 the Sultan of Johor provoked similar head-scratching when he appeared to order the state government to ban e-cigarettes.

Now Malaysians have begun to wonder if the sultans might be called upon to moderate—or even to oust—Mr Najib’s floundering government, which has clung to power despite claims that it allowed billions of dollars to be looted from 1MDB, a state investment firm. Last year critics blasted the government for ignoring the rulers’ apparent disapproval of a noxious new security law; meanwhile the opposition is hoping that a royal pardon will free Anwar Ibrahim, its leader, who has been imprisoned since 2015 on trumped-up charges of sodomy. In September Mr Mahathir—still politically active in his nineties, and now one of Mr Najib’s fiercest critics—presented the Agong with a petition, signed by more than 1m Malaysians, seeking the prime minister’s removal.

Mr Mahathir’s request appears to have been quietly brushed aside, which may be for the best. Royal action to oppose Mr Najib would almost certainly provoke a “constitutional crisis”, reckons Saiful Jan, a political analyst. It is anyway not obvious that defenestrating Mr Najib is in the sultans’ interests: for those who would carve out a greater role in politics, a weak government is probably a boon.

The debate reveals the desperation of Malaysia’s liberals, who are repelled by reports of vast corruption but ill-served by an opposition mired in squabbles. It also says much about the woefulness of Mr Najib’s government that many reasonable citizens would like to empower unelected figures at its expense. That the country is rehashing old debates about the role of its hereditary rulers illustrates the continuing corrosion of its democratic institutions.

2 thoughts on “Malaysia–Regal Trouble

  1. The populist Royal Highness might have other additional agenda. His Higness would certainly need the support of UMNO behind the scene tacitly agreed for his business activities to succeed for million of unaccounted of illegal money to flow in to Johore and onward into Perth Australia in the construction of mammoth as clean funds. Further Most work permits and immigration permits for Communist Chinese is in the hands of UMNO Putrajaya Government concentrated with Najib, Hence even as the guardian of Malay culture and Ugama, a theft of billions by Najib can be overlooked for the the greater benefits. Politics my dear Watson.

  2. At the core of the conflicting relationship with the Rulers is the dysfunctional relationship of the people with the govt. At the core of that dysfunctional relationship with the govt is the dysfunctional relationship between the people itself.

    We know the BN govt divide and rule, so we want to divide and rule them. But fact is, WE the Rakyat still ultimately rule, THEY are suppose to do what we want. The problem is WE have to decide what we want, our priorities and not let them distract and divide.

    Take Hadi’s PAS, now the ultimate divide and rule today by UMNO/BN. It’s clear Hadi Awang is out if his mind or the biggest liar. He blames DAP for PAS Islamic state agenda failure, but he intend to only win 40 seat, twice the number they have ever achieved – achieved with DAP. It’s no plan, they do not have a plan – for politics or governance. Yet 40% of their supporters will not vote anyone else. Hadi’s PAS is bad at what they do, but their voters are irrational – they are OUR “Deplorable”, the Trump supporters type and all it takes to bait them is the word Islam in any shape, form or meaning.

    The failure lies in the people first.

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