Criticizing Malaysia's Kings

At least one blogger has been arrested and at least 25 police reports have been filed across Malaysia over online postings insulting Sultan Mahmud Iskandar Almarhum Sultan Ismail, who died Sunday at the age of 77, according to local media.

That included a 29-year-old who blogged under the name ‘Aduka Taruna' and who was arrested in Kelantan and hauled to Kuala Lumpur for investigation. He later apologized and the blog has been deleted. Police are searching for a second anonymous blogger who posted a video clip of the sultan in which the blogger deleted the former king's words and substituted his own. A task force has been established to seek to trace insults to the dead sultan, The Star reported.

In earlier years, Iskandar reportedly killed two people, including a golf caddy whose head he bashed in with a golf club, and then maimed the caddy's brother. He was also reportedly responsible for wide range of other public outrages. See our story, Perception and Royal Reality in Malaysia.

Johor Police Deputy Commissioner Mohd Mokhtar Mohd Shariff vowed that the police would "find those responsible and bring them to the court of law." In past months, police have threatened to use sedition charges against many who have criticized the royalty. The threat apparently has deterred a wide number of bloggers and other news outlets that usually pick up Asia Sentinel stories from using the Jan. 25 story on the sultan's death.

Information, Communication and Culture Minister Rais Yatim found it necessary to seek to quell the outpouring of scorn for the Johor royal family, saying it was against Asian lifestyle, laws and the 1Malaysia concept, which Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak is promoting to attempt to reduce racial tension, according to The Star.

"We have things to do. Nothing can be gained from running down someone who just died," he told local media "Very seldom do we find Asians lambasting a former head of state, especially the late Sultan of Johor who was once the Yang di-Pertuan Agong," or Malaysian king. Under Malaysia's Constitution, the country's nine sultans rotate the kingship between them every five years. Iskandar was named Agong in 1984 and relinquished the crown in 1989.

The sultan's death – and the coronation of his son, appears to have set of an extraordinary outpouring of relief that Iskandar has passed from the scene, and raised concerns about the conduct of his son, Ibrahim Ismail Almarhum Sultan Iskandar, 51, on allegations that he had beaten people in nightclubs and committed other offences including shooting a man in a nightclub after an argument during the 1980s. The charge was dismissed because of the then-prince's immunity. Ibrahim was also involved in two other separate assault cases. In another 2005 case, a young woman reportedly was assaulted by Ibrahim after he accused her of two-timing him.

Nonetheless, The Star quoted associates of the newly crowned sultan as saying he is "regarded as a caring person who will ensure no one is left out in the develop­­ment of the state."

In response to the Jan. 25 article in Asia Sentinel regarding the late sultan's behavior, letter-writers said they had been forced to duck-walk in nightclubs by members of the Johor royal family, that they lived in fear of being on the Johor roads with any of the sultan's family, that hotels cleared their cocktail lounges of waitresses when the sultan or his brood came in for fear that bodyguards would kidnap them and drag them out.

Despite the behavior of the Johor family and other sultans as well, the local media continue to ignore almost all of the allegations. That is partly because the United Malays National Organisation, seeking to keep the loyalty of ethnic Malays, has made criticism of the royalty an issue with which to bludgeon the opposition whenever possible. In particular, the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition criticized a decision last year by the Sultan of Perak to dismiss the opposition government in the state and instead appoint an UMNO chief minister. The case is still on appeal in Malaysian courts. However, UMNO members have filed hundreds of police complaints against Karpal Singh, the Democratic Action Party's senior leader and a lawyer who took the case to court, and others.

That is a far cry from February 1993, in the wake of beatings of sports figures by Iskandar and Ibrahim, when former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad led a charge to revoke royal immunity from arrest and prosecution, delivering a fire-breathing speech in the Dewan Rakyat, or Parliament, that accused the royals of selling out the country to the British and quoted Tunku Abdul Rahman, the country's first prime minister, as saying the royals could even get away with murder if they wished although he did not name Iskandar.

Mahathir's speech can be found here: Criticizing Malaysia's Royals

"In this situation," Mahathir said, "the Rajas not only continue their habits that the People dislike and are uneasy with but also matters that are hated by the People. If this trend is not stopped, the feelings of the People towards the Raja will boil over and become so bad that at a point of time in the future, the People may no longer be able to control their feelings."

Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia – which admittedly occasionally contains erroneous information – details a long list of offences by the recently crowned Johor Sultan, including that he had run up RM26,700 worth of traffic tickets before public embarrassment forced him to pay them. The entry can be found here: Ibrahim Ismail of Johor