Perception and Royal Reality in Malaysia

The King is Dead. Long Live the King, so to speak

Malaysia has gone into mourning for the Sultan of Johor, Mahmud Iskandar Almarhum Sultan Ismail, who died Friday at 77. He was buried in an elaborate ceremony on Saturday. In Malaysia's oddball rotating kingship, which allows each of the country's nine sultans to wear the king's hat for five years, Iskandar became Malaysia's Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, or king, in 1984, relinquishing the title in 1989.

Najib Tun Razak, the prime minister, cut short a visit to India to extend his condolences and issue a statement: "On behalf of the government and people. I express sadness and extend condolences to Her Royal Highness Sultanah Zanariah and her children as well as the royal household on the demise of His Royal Highness the Sultan of Johor."

The massive Iskandar development project in Johor across from Singapore was named for him.

Muhyiddin Yassin, the deputy prime minister, said that Iskandar's death "is a big loss to the people of Johor, and also of Malaysia, because of his priceless contributions during his lifetime."

But it is difficult to see just what those priceless contributions were. Despite the encomiums, the Johor sultan embodied just about everything that was ill-starred about Malaysia's system of royalty.

Both The Star, owned by the Malaysian Chinese Association, and the New Straits Times, owned by the United Malays National Organisation, issued respectful obituaries. To most Malaysians, the New Straits Times said, "the Sultan will be remembered for his mercurial ways, as well as his inadvertent role in the constitutional crisis of 1993 which dramatically ended the legal immunity of the country's nine hereditary monarchs."

Iskandar's role in the constitutional crisis was hardly inadvertent but it was certainly mercurial. In fact it was integral to it and it stemmed from his brutal beating, along with members of his staff, of a field hockey coach. And although the end of legal immunity was pushed through 17 years ago, today Malaysian royalty pretty much act any way they want without facing arrest. Several have left huge gambling debts in London casinos to be picked up by Malaysian state governments. Recently there have been incidents reported of fistfights between rival royals in Malaysian night clubs.

In recent months, in fact, UMNO, the country's leading political party, has led a charge to report to the police anyone who dares criticize the royalty. Several critics have been charged with sedition.

Iskandar was one of the worst of Malaysia's sultans, a violent, often brutal and impulsive man who seemingly knew no bounds to his behavior. He was lucky to be a sultan at all. He was ignominiously dismissed as the Tunku Makhota, or prince regent of Johor, by his father, Sultan Ismail Ibrahim, in 1961 after he reportedly chained two policemen into a dog kennel for a day after they displeased him. He was later reported to have attacked a young couple with Mace after they allegedly offended him. In 1972, he was charged for Macing two men because their car had had overtaken his on the highway.

He regularly patrolled Johor roads with a red light and siren on the top of his Rolls Royce and a shotgun strapped to the dashboard, pulling over speeders and ordering them to perform enjut ketampi, the Malay term for squat jumps, until they fell over. Any driver who inadvertently passed the sultan's car on Johor's roads or obstructed him was subject to exorbitant fines. His staff was petrified by him. Once, at a diplomatic reception for example, he was seen to simply hold out his glass when it was empty and drop it as a terrified servant raced across the room to catch it before it shattered on the marble floor.

In 1971, he got into real trouble by shooting and killing a trespasser whom he took to be a smuggler walking near his private helicopter. He was charged with manslaughter but his father intervened, as the sultan did repeatedly at other times, and granted him a pardon despite his disapproval of his actions. Iskandar's family wasn't much better. His eldest son, Tunku Ibrahim Ismail, shot a man dead in a nightclub but was also pardoned.

There was considerable speculation in Kuala Lumpur that despite the fact that the kingship rotated on a set basis, his fellow sultans would block him because of his behavior. But they elected him Agong in 1983. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad promptly fomented a constitutional crisis by ramrodding through a series of actions in the Dewan Rakyat, or Parliament, that removed the power of the royalty to veto legislation, along with closing other loopholes within the Malaysian constitution.

That didn't slow down the sultan much. In 1987, after he became the Agong, he allegedly clubbed a caddy to death at the Cameron Highlands golf club for laughing when the sultan missed a putt. He also was said to have maimed the caddy's brother, who suffered a mental breakdown from seeing the incident and had to be restrained in a mental hospital.

Although the killing was given wide currency among Kuala Lumpur's political and social circles, Iskandar was never arrested. It remained out of the government-controlled press. It so distressed the retired Tunku Abdul Rahman, the country's first leader after independence, that he publicly condemned the assault without naming Iskandar. The Tunku, however, also pointed out that as a sultan, Iskandar was immune from prosecution.

In 1992, following Iskandar's departure from the kingship, his son, Tunku Abdul Majid Idris, assaulted the goalkeeper of the Perak hockey team after Perak won a match with a penalty stroke. The goalkeeper lodged a police report against the son, who ultimately was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison. The charges were dropped on grounds of immunity. Later the sultan himself was involved in the other field hockey controversy that finally made Malaysia say enough. He called a local coach to his palace over a minor dispute. He and his bodyguards assaulted the coach, who had to seek medical attention for injuries to his face and body. The coach also filed charges. This time, the press reported on both incidents.

Despite the fact that the sultan had won Mahathir's approval by firing Mahathir's nemesis, Tun Salleh Abbas, the highly respected lord president of Malaysia's highest court, which brought an end to the independence of the country's judiciary, the assaults were enough for the prime minister. He led a campaign in the parliament to remove legal immunity from prosecution for the royalty that passed resoundingly.

Iskandar reportedly finally calmed down in later years, and lived a life largely out of the public prints. None of his misdeeds made the Malaysian press after his death. One blog cheerily said he would "always be remembered as Malaysia's unconventional King. He preferred to drive his own car or pilot his own helicopter. He also loved sports, especially golf and was not afraid to lose in a game."

Or a caddy. He was called "a King with the common touch."

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