Behind Malaysia’s Royalty Challenge, A Long History

The issues behind the fight for primacy between Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Johor royal family have to do more with reducing the family’s rich gravy train than regal supremacy, according to sources in Kuala Lumpur.

Presumably the squabble stems from the argument by the Johor crown prince, Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, over the right to name the state’s chief minister. Osman Sapian stepped down last week under pressure from both the royal family and the government. Ismail tweeted that his father, Sultan Ibrahim Ismail, has the right to name the new menteri besar.

But the issues go far beyond that, back even to Mahathir’s earlier stint as prime minister, when he staged a years-long campaign to limit the royalty’s power, at least partly because of the antics of the then-Johor sultan. It is power that the sultans regained during the years of rule by former Prime Minister Najib Razak, who saw in the royalty a useful foil to keep the opposition in line.

Under the Barisan Nasional government headed by Najib, the family, which campaigned openly for him, were allowed into major projects including the Forest City land development across from Singapore, were selling sand to Singapore for the island republic to reclaim and expand its land base, and seized a large mangrove island called Pulau Kukup.

Mahahir ends sweet deals

When the Pakatan Harapan coalition came to power, headed by Mahathir, the mining of sand, illegal because of the damage to the environment, was stopped. When the royalty, headed by Sultan Ibrahim, continued the mining, the Royal Malaysian Customs Department impounded barges operated through a company named Benalec, headed by a royal crony named Daing A Malak Daing A Rahaman, and stopped the transfer. The sultan is also said to have had a financial interest in the Chinese government-backed high-speed rail project from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore that Mahathir cancelled.

In addition to the seizure of Pulau Kukup, the royal family also permitted encroachment on another national park, allowing a mainland Chinese company to build a golf course in in it. After a major public outcry, the sultan returned Pulau Kukup to the state.

“The Sultan and his son, well known for land grabs, have found that they cannot do what they did any more and this has compounded the problems with the Mahathir regime,” said a well-wired political analyst. “Since the new government came into power, they find they don’t have the same access.”

Tribal Chieftains Bought Off

Nine of Malaysia’s 13 states are headed by sultans descended from tribal chieftains bought off by the British during the colonial period. They rotate the kingship between them every five years. Among them, the Johor royalty are unpopular even with their fellow royals because their actions draw attention on the others who are also finding it difficult to do business like they used to prior to the new reform government.

Among the nine, the Johor royals have had an unsavory reputation stretching back decades to Mahmud Iskandar Almarhum Sultan Ismail, who died in 2010 and whose violent and unpredictable character brought him into conflict with Mahathir during his first incarnation as premier from 1981 to 2003. Iskandar once had his own army and police force in Johor. The airport in the state is the only one not run by the Airport Authority of Malaysia. It is run by the royal family.

In 1983, in a fiery speech Mahathir took on the sultans’ royal power for the first time, pushing an amendment to the constitution through to allow a veto by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or king, to be over-ridden by a parliamentary vote.

Many of the sultans, although revered by Malays as defenders of Malay rights and Islam, have been brutish, incompetent and spendthrift with the public purse. And although legal immunity was stopped 26 years ago, the royalty today still act pretty much any way they want without facing arrest. A couple have reportedly left huge gambling debts in London and Las Vegas casinos to be picked up by Malaysian state governments.

No Bounds on Behavior

But Iskandar 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 offended him.

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. In 1972, he was charged for Macing two men because their car had had overtaken his on the highway.

Although the leery sultans did vote to allow Iskandar to take his place as the Agong, or king, in 1987, 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 at the time, 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.

Another Son Arrested

In 1992, following Iskandar’s departure from the kingship, another son, Tunku Abdul Majid Idris, assaulted the goalkeeper of the Perak state hockey team after Perak defeated Johor state on 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. Iskandar reportedly finally calmed down in later years and lived a life largely out of the public prints.

But Iskandar’s progeny weren’t much better and they still aren’t. His eldest son, Ibrahim Ismail, now the sultan, savagely beat a man who offended him at the Red Baron night club in the Johor Bahru Holiday Inn ,then molested his girlfriend.

His grandson, the current crown prince, Tunku Ismail Idris Abdul Majid Abu Bakar Iskandar, 35, inherited the family propensity toward violence. In 2008, he and his bodyguards beat up a son of the Negri Sembilan royalty, Tunku Nadzimuddin, in a nightclub at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. A friend of Tunku Nadzimuddin, Shamshudhuha Ishak, a lawyer, filed a police report accusing Tunku Ismail's bodyguards of assaulting him and knocking out two of his teeth.

The following September, Tunku Nadzimuddin lodged a complaint against the police and the attorney-general’s chambers for not responding to the police report that he had made earlier for a RM50 million monetary settlement over the alleged episode. In a press interview, Tunku Nadzimuddin claimed that he had been roughed up again by Tunku Ismail and his bodyguards after a friend of Tunku Ismail called Tunku Nadzimuddin saying he wanted to apologize.

When Nadzimuddin went to see Tunku Ismail with Shamshudhuha, the two were assaulted again by Tunku Ismail's bodyguards. Shamshudhuha was beaten unconscious, while Tunku Nadzimuddin was threatened by Tunku Ismail with a pistol pointed at his head. The two were led to a hotel room where they were confined. The police later arrived after Tunku Nadzimuddin called for his mother. The Johor royalty denied Tunku Nadzimuddin's claims.

There is no statute of limitations on criminal cases and there is talk that Mahathir may resurrect the case.