One of Malaysia’s Most Illustrious Sultans Dies

Raja Azlan Shah, who became one of Malaysia’s most distinguished jurists before assuming the sultanship of the state of Perak, has died of asthma-related causes at age 86. Born in 1928, Azlan Shah ruled as Malaysia’s ninth king, from 1998 to 1994.

After an illustrious legal career followed by 30 years ruling as the Perak Sultan, Azlan Shah, in the eyes of many Malaysians, damaged his reputation with a controversial 2009 decision that went against parliamentary procedure to deny the opposition Pakatan Rakyat a chance to rule the state of Perak, awarding leadership instead to the Barisan Nasional, the ruling national coalition.

When the late Karpal Singh, the national chairman of the Democratic Action Party chief, suggested the Sultan’s decision could be questioned in court, Karpal was charged with sedition. He was convicted and was appealing the verdict when he was killed in a car accident last month.

Raja Azlan Shah seemed a considerable cut above his fellow sultans, the nine families who rotate the country' kingship among them. Originally fifth in line for the succession to the Perak sultanship, Azlan Shah was trained as a lawyer in the UK, holding a series of government jobs and later serving as a judge. He was elevated to the Lord Presidency of the Federal Court, Malaysia’s supreme court, at the age of 37. At that time he was the youngest top jurist in the Commonwealth. He was awarded numerous honors for his service as a judge.

For various reasons, Azlan Shah’ brothers all forswore the sultanship, leaving him to take over the position in 1984, which he held until his death. He is survived by wis wife, former teacher Bainun Mohamid Ali, a commoner from Penang. When he became Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or king, she became the first ever commoner queen in the history of Malaysia.

The sultanships originally were set up by the British, who basically chose village chieftains and elevated them to royalty during the colonial period as an easy way to gain the affections of the Malay populace. They remain an odd appendage to democracy today, supported by government funds, useful for political purposes and little else. State governments have had to bail several out of huge gambling debts in London casinos. One, the late Sultan of Johor, was believed responsible for two murders but was never prosecuted because of his position. Numerous lesser members of the royalty have been involved in barroom scrapes and squabbles, but have managed to avoid prosecution.

Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad excoriated the sultans in a 1993 speech in which he demanded that the parliament strip them of their immunity before the law. In the speech, he accused them of giving away parts of the country to the British, oppressing the people, breaking civil and criminal laws, misusing the money and property of the government and pressuring government officials. He introduced a rule to allow commoners to criticize the Sultans including the king without fear of the Sedition Act other than questioning the legitimacy of the monarchy itself. It was passed overwhelmingly by the parliament, apparently without outcry.

Somewhere, however, without reference to law, the ability to accuse the monarchs without fear of the sedition act disappeared. Bloggers and other commentators faced the threat of prosecution for calling attention to the escapades of the Sultan of Johor after his death.

Although there are other examples of backing away from criticizing various sultans for fear of prosecution, the most cogent refers to Azlan Shah’s decision to oust the Pakatan Rakyat chief minister of his state in 2009 and sanction the appointment of a member of the United Malays National Organization as the new chief minister. In the 2008 general election, the Pakatan Rakyat, led by opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, shocked the Barisan Nasional by winning majorities in five of Malaysia’s contested 12 states, including Perak, one of the most tightly contested races in the election. The opposition won 31 of the 59 seats to 28 for the Barisan, giving the opposition the right to form the government.

In the ensuing weeks, however, UMNO stalwarts led by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak managed to persuade three members of the opposition to defect and become independents, reducing the statehouse to a 28-28 tie amid widespread rumors that large amounts of money had changed hands.

In the wake of the defections and the 28-28 tie, Pakatan Rakyat asked for a snap election to determine which coalition should rule the state. The sultan, however, awarded the state to the Barisan Nasional and refused to allow a vote. The opposition appealed the decision to a high court in Kuala Lumpur, which ruled in the opposition’s favor.

However, Malaysia’s courts are notoriously open to government influence. Accordingly an appellate court reversed the decision made by the High Court on the grounds that the high court had wrongly interpreted the Perak State Constitution, which gives absolute discretionary power for the Sultan to withhold consent to dissolve the state assembly.

The Court of Appeal said the Sultan was correct to refuse dissolution of the assembly and direct the opposition chief minister to resign. The five-man Federal court in 2010 declared an UMNO member the rightful chief minister. The decision was one of many that have earned Malaysia’s judiciary a reputation for hewing to the political will of the national ruling coalition rather than deciding cases on the merits, particularly political ones.

Karpal Singh was charged in 2009 with sedition for saying the removal of the opposition chief minister,

Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin as Perak chief minister by rhe Sultan could be questioned in a court of law. He was acquitted of the charge by the High Court in 2010, only to have the government appeal the case to theappellate court, which found him guilty in April.