Malaysia’s Incoming Agong: Changes Coming
New monarch stirs apprehension in political circles
On January 31, Malaysians are about to get an extraordinary king to serve the next five years as Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or “He Who is Made Lord.” Commoners must refer to themselves in addressing him as “panchal yang hina” – “I, who am dust under your feet.” He intends to prove it, if his public statements are any guide.
He is the Sultan of Johor, Ibrahim Ismail Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar Al-Haj, who rules a prosperous state of 3.5 million people directly across the Johor Strait from Singapore, with his own private army in unprecedented parallel to state government, who has had the power to order a popular chief minister fired, who can and does order people out of a state he regards as his despite Malaysia’s Westminister government framework, and who is partnering profitably in virtually every major project in the state.
He has appointed as his adviser Abdul Razak Baginda, a well-connected military affairs consultant who played an integral role in one of Malaysia’s most notorious scandals, the US$1 billion purchase of French submarines which were useless in shallow peninsular Malaysian waters but which allegedly earned then-defense minister Najib Razak and the United Malays National Organization 140 million euros in kickbacks. Razak Baginda was also the boyfriend of the jilted Mongolian party girl and translator Altantuya Shaariibuuruu who was brutally murdered by Najib’s bodyguards in 2006. Razak Baginda was initially named but quickly released in the case. Asia Sentinel’s series of stories on the affair won the Society of Publishers in Asia award for excellence in investigative reporting for 2012.
According to news reports, Sultan Ibrahim, now 66, is also thoroughly determined to ignore Malaysia’s Constitution and arrogate to himself a wide range of powers including control of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Agency, by statute an independent government agency. So far, not a single person from Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim downward – politicians, the Malaysian Bar, the political opposition, the country’s pundits – has voiced a single word of opposition to Ibrahim’s public statements. All are said to be horrified but afraid to speak up.
Wearers of the king’s hat
Malaysia is a parliamentary democracy and traditionally the sultans, who rotate federal power every five years, play a largely ceremonial role as head of state and defender of Islam although their influence has increased as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the political turmoil that has shaken the country over the past decade. To his credit, in 2016, as Asia Sentinel reported, he raised a considerable fuss by demanding that the country slow its adoption of Arab cultural customs and a fundamentalist approach to Islam.
"If there are some of you who wish to be an Arab and practice Arab culture, and do not wish to follow our Malay customs and traditions, that is up to you,” he said, adding: "I also welcome you to live in Saudi Arabia. That is your right but I believe there are Malays who are proud of the Malay culture.”
Appetite for power
There is deep concern that Ibrahim will transfer his appetite for power to the national stage. In an interview with the Straits Times of Singapore, he said as much, vowing not to be a puppet and promising to “go after all the corrupt people,” a big job in a country which according to Transparency International “has been declining for years as it struggles with grand corruption in the wake of the monumental 1MDB and other scandals implicating multiple prime ministers and high-level officials.”
The government-operated national energy company Petronas, the Sultan said, shouldn’t come under Parliament. It should report to him. He also said he should have the power to take over judicial appointments. “If it comes to the Agong, it means you are not under the influence of anybody from the executive. Even Petronas shouldn’t be under Parliament, report directly to me,” he told the Straits Times.
Part of the reason Malaysians are afraid to speak up is that, according to news reports, the government has purchased Pegasus spyware developed by the Israeli cyber-arms company NSO Group, which can be covertly and remotely installed on mobile phones running iOS and Android. Governments around the world have routinely used spyware to surveil journalists, lawyers, political dissidents, and human rights activists. Individuals who have spoken to Asia Sentinel about the sultan prefer to stay away from telephone and computer contact out of fear that Malaysia’s Special Branch police intelligence unit will soon be reporting to the Sultan. Even such apps as WhatsApp and Signal reportedly can be penetrated.
In a country of Ali-Baba corporate ownership, Sultan Ibrahim is Ali to some of the country’s most influential Babas including, among others, Chinese tycoons Vincent Tan, Danny Tan, Lim Kang Hoo, Patrick Lim Soo Kit, Siew Ka Wei, Peter Lim of Singapore, BTS of Thailand, and flailing Chinese national developer Country Garden, which is in deep trouble with its US$100 billion Forest City development just across from Singapore, which aims to house 700,000 people on more than 3,300 hectares on four reclaimed islands upon completion in 2035. He is also the partner in the Johore-Singapore Rapid Transport System, the Kuala-Singapore fast train project with YTL, which may or may not save Country Garden’s massive project by providing convenient public transport to the financial district.
In the Malaysian corporate world, in order to win acceptance under the country’s New Economic Plan, which sought to increase ownership by Bumiputeras from 1971’s 2.4 percent to 30 percent of national wealth, any Chinese businessman – nicknamed the Babas in Straits slang – with any sense at all granted an apparent share of corporate ownership to an Ali – a Malay Muslim. (Never mind that in the children’s Arabic legend Ali Baba famously outsmarted the 40 thieves and got all the gold). Most companies in Malaysia thus usually had a smooth-talking, well-dressed but powerless Malay as corporate president on the payroll to say the magic words "open sesame" if they wanted to get along with the government.
Today, Ibrahim has reversed that relationship. He is the most powerful Ali in the country, with the Sultan of Selangor said to be not far behind. Government-approved projects in Johor don’t move unless Sultan Ibrahim gets a piece. A good example is a report on Murray Hunter’s blog for December 16, written by Hussein Abdul Hamid describing a transaction over a parcel of land intended for the proposed Rapid Transit System between Johor Bahru and Singapore, which was transferred to the Johor Sultan’s ownership two days after he lifted his objections to its realignment in August of 2017, which curved over the Johor Strait.
"It disrupts the city skyline, and we are talking about a permanent fixture here,” he said according to the story. “Go back to the drawing board and review the overall plan." The parties also have to consult me. Whatever (new plan) is presented to me, it will have to be logical, economical, and sustainable for the benefit of not only Johoreans but all Malaysians and Singaporeans," he had said.
A day later, Putrajaya scrambled to address the Johor ruler’s concern, according to the story. The then minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Abdul Rahman Dahlan promised to seek an audience with the monarch, culminating in a November 2017 announcement by the Land Public Transport Commission (Spad), which has since been absorbed into the Transport Ministry as the Land Public Transport Agency (Apad). In the announcement, Spad said it had sought an audience with the Johor ruler on Sept 19, and taken into account his feedback on the realignment.
Many ingredients in the pot
In 2016, the Sultan was identified as a substantial shareholder in several real estate and other ventures within the massive Iskandar Malaysia Development Region, covering 2,200 sq. km and including the city of Johor Bahru and three surrounding towns. The project, started in 2006, is three times the land area of Singapore itself, with a population of 5.3 million, and is designed to take advantage of the state’s strategic location just across the now-narrowing strait. Government planners hope Iskandar can take advantage of Singapore’s commercial and economic success in a way that Batam, Indonesia’s closest island, has never been able to do, providing advanced residential, business, education, and tourism opportunities. Forest Hills, struggling badly, is a major part of the development. Those are only a few of the Sultan’s holdings.
Ibrahim’s family’s antics in Johor led former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad (1981-2003, 2018-2020) to stage a years-long campaign to limit the power of all nine sultans. Moving onto the national stage in January, if Sultan Ibrahim Ismail Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar Al-Haj, “panchal yang hina” keeps all of his promises, life guarantees to be exciting. Mahathir, who turns 99 next July 10, may be tempted to make another run at power to try to rein him in.