June 15, 2014
Weathering the storm in Johor
by Jocelyn Tan@www.thestar.com.my
For a while it looked like Johor was heading into a constitutional crisis but the storm has passed thanks to a daring Malay newspaper, the groundswell of public opinion and a Mentri Besar who was willing to listen.
IT was one of the biggest political storms to have blown over Johor and it all began with the stunning frontpage report in Utusan Malaysia. The paper’s bold headline “Wajarkah?” alongside a prominent photograph of the Sultan of Johor in his ceremonial uniform sent shock waves through the country, especially among Malay circles.
Utusan Malaysia, long seen as the champion of all things Malay, had taken the daring step of questioning the Sultan’s role in the administrative affairs of the state or as stated in the paper’s headline: “Is it proper?”
The issue in question was the Real Property and Housing Board Enactment that would have given the Sultan the final say over the operations and composition of the body that will oversee the state’s housing development.
In the following days, people up and down the country voiced their opinion on the issue and, for a while, it looked like Johor was headed for a constitutional crisis.But the state government reacted quickly and the storm passed together with the tabling of an amended version of the enactment that excluded any direct role for the Ruler. All 38 Barisan Nasional assemblymen voted for the Bill while the opposition bench, which had demanded a deferment, voted against it.
Everyone heaved a sigh of relief. Any issue involving the Malay Rulers is regarded as ultra-sensitive. Very few people want to be on the wrong side of the Rulers even though a 1993 amendment to the Federal Constitution has eased some of the dos and don’ts of commentary about the royals.
The Malay politicians in Johor shrank back from commenting on the enactment and some of them were petrified. One Johor-based Malay journalist said he had goose pimples when he saw the Utusan Malaysia headline.The Chinese vernacular papers were the first to report on the controversial Bill and this was picked up by a pro-Pakatan Rakyat news portal.
Everyone was tip-toeing on eggshells until Utusan Malaysia stepped up to the plate. The game changed after that and the other media took the cue. From then on, the issue snowballed and acquired a life of its own.
The amended enactment was a compromise of sorts – the people sent the right signals, the powers-that-be read the signals and acted on it.“It ended appropriately,” said one corporate figure with Johor ties.
Johor Palace officials have been at pains to explain that the Sultan had no role in the drafting of the Bill. Datuk Abdul Rahim Ramli, President of the State Royal Court Council, insisted that the Sultan did not ask for the word “ruler” to be added to the enactment nor did he interfere in the state administration.
The Sultan himself has personally quashed rumours that he would not give royal assent to the Bill. At a late evening meeting with representatives from The Star and another English daily on Wednesday, the Tuanku said he was ready to sign the Bill at any time. He also stressed that he had agreed to the amendments and has asked the state government to go on a roadshow to explain to his subjects and clear the confusion.
The controversy has been a baptism of fire for Mentri Besar Datuk Seri Khaled Nordin.The Johor Mentri Besar’s job has never been easy even from back then. The Johor royals are known for their big and outspoken personalities, they have clear views about the state and they are also rather business-minded.
For instance, former Mentri Besar Tan Sri Ghani Othman’s ties with the Palace were quite tense towards the end of his term and that was a chief reason why he could not continue on. Ghani’s relations with the late Sultan Iskandar Sultan Ismail was also quite choppy in the beginning and only warmed up as time went by. Ghani was not the typical politician and did not play political games, but his respect for and loyalty to the Sultan were beyond question and he would sit for hours by the hospital bed when the late Tuanku was often unwell.
The present Mentri Besar appeared to have settled into his job without many hiccups and the Sultan had even praised him during the opening of the State Legislative Assembly.
Khaled and the Sultan were classmates in secondary school although that should not be taken to mean that they are friends because the royals move in their own rarefied world.
The perception is that Khaled misread the ground when he tried to rush the Bill through.“The opinion out there was that the enactment was not consistent with the principles of constitutional monarchy. There was a sense that a line has been crossed,” said the above corporate figure.
Everyone agrees that the enactment was needed to facilitate Johor’s housing needs, especially in the area of affordable housing.And, as some have pointed out, the original enactment that gave the Sultan a big role was no different from the rules governing Johor Corporation, the state development arm better known as JCorp. The parallels are there except that JCorp deals with commercial development whereas the current enactment involved state land and also Malay Reserve Land which can be a sensitive issue.
But more than that, Khaled had overlooked the undercurrent of misgivings about land and development issues in Johor arising from the impact of the Iskandar Malaysia regional scheme.
Gossip about multi-billion ringgit land transactions have been the stuff of kopitiam chatter. Khaled did not seem to realise that the land deals in Johor were being discussed and dissected on the Internet. Almost every Tom, Dick and Harry in the state was aware of what is going on, they were talking about it in a very critical tone.
Among many nationalistic Malays, there was concern about land falling into the hands of Singaporeans and China nationals. Land carries quite a bit of emotion for many Malays – after all their national bumiputra status comes from the word itself.
The Malay blogs had been abuzz about a Singaporean billionaire owning a piece of land along a strategic stretch of the Causeway that has national security implications. All this provided the backdrop to the groundswell of opinion over the problematic enactment. Rightly or wrongly, many people inside and outside Johor were already uneasy about what was happening and the enactment sort of tipped the scale of public opinion, the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Some have unfairly blamed Utusan Malaysia for instigating the uproar. One Barisan assemblyman has even demanded that the paper apologise to the Palace. Utusan Malaysia group editor-in-chief Datuk Aziz Ishak is an intense and serious-minded journalist but he is at heart a Malay nationalist.
There is little doubt that his paper got the greenlight from “up there” to pursue the issue. But the paper has earned renewed respect for rising to the occasion – to defend national interests and also to protect the good name of the constitutional monarchy.
Some have even blamed Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad for fuelling the issue. The former premier had penned a cryptic piece entitled “Jual Tanah” in his Che Det blog on May 30. He did not name names but everyone knew where he was coming from.
A week later, he wrote a more forthcoming piece on the Federal Constitution where he said: “There is already a feeling of disrespect for the royals. This may lead to other forms of disrespect. Although, by and large, the Malays are for the institution of the monarch, when their ability to defend is eroded, they might forego their adat (customary norm).”
Many more said they would have been shocked if Dr Mahathir had kept quiet. After all, this man had dared to bell the cat, so to speak. He had clipped the wings of the monarchy in 1983 when he was struggling to make his mark, and again in 1993 when he was at the height of his power and popularity.
“Tun Mahathir wanted to make the concept of constitutional monarchy very clear. He was not against any particular sultan. His argument was that if the royals respect their own role, the people will respect them,” said publisher Juhaidi Yean Abdullah.
Every monarch wants to be loved and to be known as the people’s sovereign. It was easier in the old days before the era of the Internet where almost everything and every one is regarded as fair game. It is something that those who hold public office have to note.
Khaled was very stressed out and taken aback by the uproar. At a war room meeting a night before the Bill was tabled, the Mentri Besar had insisted that even if there were no revisions, it did not mean that the Sultan would be in charge.
Johor is a modern state but Johoreans have a very strong sense of the powers of the monarch. What happened was a test of the Malay psyche of Johor. There has always been this tension between the concept of daulat (royal sanctity) and derhaka (treason) in Malay society and the contestation between the two concepts was put to the test when Utusan Malaysia took up the issue. But these age-old concepts are also being challenged by public opinion on the role of a constitutional monarchy and the desire for transparency and accountability in the affairs of state.
There is a much more informed and sophisticated society out there which is not afraid to be heard. And that was why it responded to Utusan Malaysia’s daring move.