The investiture this week of Pahang Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shaw as Malaysia’s 16th Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or King, shines a light on one of the world’s most unusual royal institutions, with the county’s eight sultans and one Raja rotating the kingship between them every five years.
The institution is based on nine old Malay states that came together with two of the Straits Settlements, Melaka and Penang, (and later with Singapore, which was expelled in 1965), Sabah and Sarawak to form the Federation of Malaysia. Official histories of the royal families have been shaped to show the monarchs as heroic and legendary.
Malaysian royalty is technically a constitutional monarchy. Yet the monarchy is at the apex of an ancient Malay class-based authoritarian feudal system with all its artefacts, ceremonies, customs, and language. To some degree, Malaysia can still be seen as a patriarchy rather than a democracy.
There is occasional criticism of royal behavior. Mahathir during his first stint as prime minister used public sentiment to limit their powers in the 1990s. However, there is very little public questioning the legitimacy of the royal institution today, even though considerable government expenditure is required to maintain the monarchy.
The Malay monarchy is embedded deep within the Malay psyche, giving them patriarchal authority. The sultan is head of Islam in each respective state as well as defender of Malay and indigenous rights. The rise of Ketuanan Melayu narratives after the New Economic Policy was introduced has strengthened the monarchy’s position even more.
There is a degree of absolute power in the hands of the monarchs that doesn’t devolve to other constitutional royal families. They can appoint a chief minister from their respective state assemblies without their picks being tested. They have used these powers to appoint the chief minister they want over the candidate from the largest party or coalition in the state assembly. Terengganu in 2008 saw a political impasse when the sultan insisted that Ahmad Said be chief minister over UMNO’s choice Idris Jusoh. In Perlis in 2009 the Raja refused to swear in Shahidan Kassim as chief minister and swore in Md Isa Sabu instead. In Selangor 2014 in what was called the Kajang move, the Sultan refused to appoint then-opposition leader Anwar Ibraham’s wife Wan Azizah as chief minister, picking Azmin Ali even though he didn’t have apparent support from the majority of assembly members. In Perlis 2018 the Raja swore in Azlan Man as chief minister, even though the ceremony was boycotted by assembly members who supported Ismail Kassim.
This also extends into advice from the chief minister where in 2009 the Perak Sultan refused then chief minister Nizar Jamaluddin’s request to dissolve the assembly after three members of his government defected.
In addition to appointing the chief minister, Sultans also have the right to appoint top civil servants. In 2011 the Sultan of Selangor confirmed the appointment of Muhammed Khusrin Munawi as Chief Secretary even though the then Chief Minister Abdul Khalid Ibrahim and his executive council opposed the appointment. The Agong delayed affirmation of Tommy Thomas as Malaysia’s Attorney General and the Chief Justice for more than two months.
Bakri Musa was critical on the role of the Agong in the transition after GE14 which left Malaysia without a government for a number of days when the swearing in of Mahathir as Prime Minister was delayed.
The monarchy’s influence over the political arena extends well beyond appointments. The government had to back down on ratifying the Rome Statute when the Johor Sultan argued that the treaty on crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes would undermine Islam, the Malays, and the monarchy.
The monarchy has enormous informal power. Sultans hold regular weekly meetings with their executive councils, providing an opportunity each week to give views on the running of the state to the chief minister and executive councilors. Insiders have told Asia Sentinel that Sultans are generally very forthright on what they think is best for the state.
Sultans make regular visits to federal and state government departments, agencies, universities, schools, colleges, police and military stations, mosques, and organized events around their states meeting with politicians, civil servants, academics, police, military personnel, and people generally. Most also hold both formal and informal sessions at the palace where state business is often discussed in small informal groups. They ensure civil servants know their line of thinking, which sometimes is much more powerful than directives given by the state executive.
The majority of members within the civil service are very loyal. In each state a select group of civil servants, academics, medical doctors, police, military form what is called by insiders as the “A Team”. These groups are very fond of royalty. Each member personally knows the sultan and his family members on a close personal basis. These “A Teams” network through common alumni such as the elite Malay College in Kuala Kangsar which extends nationwide with people who share the same sense of purpose.
The Sultans are also patrons of traditional Malay martial arts or silat organizations in which members have cross-memberships with Malay rights organizations such as Perkasa, and Perkida. Organizations like Perkasa were opposed to the ratification of the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) on the basis that it would threaten Malay rights.
Section 44 of the constitution places the Agong beside the Senate and House of Representatives with responsibility for legislative power. Some loyal groups see the Sultan as the absolute law, more trustworthy than politicians who come and go. Article 153 of the Constitution gives the Agong the power to safeguard the position of the Malays (and indigenous peoples). A strong sense of Malay identity maintains the traditional feudal cultural environment which has a long history.
This is a continuation of the long-standing social contract between the Sultan and the Rakyat (people), something that existed long before the formation of Malaysia. This can’t be seen at a national level but is extremely important at the state level.
Thus, in the eyes of many government servants, loyalty to “Tuanku” overrides loyalty to the democratically elected government.
The Agong is also the Commander in Chief of the Malaysian Armed Forces. Sultans hold military ranks, are ceremonial commanders of military regiments, chancellors of universities, and patrons of various organizations.
Traditionally Prime Ministers have been lenient with the monarchy. The first Prime Minister was a member of the Kedah Royal Household. Both Najib Razak and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi tended to be subservient and allowed the monarchy a lot of business concessions.
Anwar Ibrahim has placed importance on building his relationships with the royal households since his release from jail last year. He also wants the Federal Court to declare null and void the Federal Constitution provision that allows bills to be automatically passed as law in 30 days, without the King’s assent. Mahathir brought in this provision to curb Royal power in 1994.
The Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) actively watches social media for any criticism of the monarchy. The Sedition Act which Pakatan Harapan promised to abolish is being used as a proxy lese majeste. Islamic preacher Wan Ji Wan Hussin recently had his jail sentence increased on appeal for criticising the Sultan of Selangor seven years ago. Ahmad Abdul Jalil was arrested for allegedly ridiculing the Sultan of Johor through social media. Constitutional Law Professor Abdul Aziz Bari was pressured to resign his university position and received death threats after he made comments about the monarchy. The police generally intimidate anybody who discusses the monarchy by hauling them up for questioning as the recent Fadiah Nadwa Fikri case shows.
PKR parliamentarians are still calling on the police to investigate alleged seditious comments in the press discussing royalty. The Pakatan Rakyat Government is planning even more draconian legislation that will provide even harsher penalties for criticism of the monarchy.
The monarchy is the nexus between the state Islamic apparatus and the Special Branch and has been able to push back criticisms of JAKIM and calls for reforms. After the Mahathir era, the monarchy should be able to return to the understanding it has with the Special Branch, particularly with the numerous people they have nurtured into the force’s rank and file.
How much power and influence the institution will yield will greatly depend upon the nation’s social and political evolution. A lot will depend upon how future Royals conduct themselves behind the scenes and present themselves in public.
Murray Hunter is a development specialist and a longtime resident of Southeast Asia. He is a frequent contributor to Asia Sentinel.