Malaysia’s Departing King Leaves Seeds of Political Crisis

Malaysian Sultan Muhammad V’s shocking, unexpected abdication as Malaysia’s ruling monarch on Jan. 6 has been greeted not only with widespread dismay but also with relief from analysts who felt the resignation, just two years into a five-year reign, had averted a potential crisis.

Prior to his abdication, speculation had been rife that Malaysia’s eight other rulers would force the 49-year-old Agong off the throne due to his apparent marriage to a Russian beauty queen.

Yet while Muhammad’s departure eliminated the immediate risk of scandal, his precipitous departure may yet herald long-term problems for Malaysia. The selection of his successor—normally near-automatic under the country’s rotating monarchy system—is clouded by uncertainty.

What’s more, the king’s abdication highlights a growing rift between Malaysia’s monarchy and its government, led by 93-year-old Mahathir Mohamad. The unforeseen change in ruler has the potential to deepen this divide. And while it may further strain a monarchy shaken by its first-ever abdication, Mahathir and his dream of a ‘new Malaysia’ could end up the real losers.

40 years of feuds

Mahathir, who headed a near-authoritarian regime in Malaysia between 1981 and 2003 before coming out of retirement to win an upset election victory last May, has never been particularly popular with the sultans. The first commoner to lead the Malaysian government, he stripped the royal household of several powers in his previous term, removing the royals’ immunity from prosecution and their right to veto new legislation.

The royals, in turn, have frequently criticized Mahathir, even conveniently ‘disinviting’ him to Muhammad’s 2016 installation as Sultan. Having quit the United Malays National Organization he once headed— which has traditionally enjoyed close links with both the monarchy and the country’s Malay ethnic majority—and joined forces with the opposition, Mahathir is arguably a greater threat to Malaysia’s rulers than ever.

In this context, Muhammad’s abdication is particularly ill-timed, especially given the candidates to succeed him. Ordinarily, the Sultan of Pahang, Ahmad Shah, would have been chosen as king. Malaysia’s nine sultans take turns to sit on the throne for five-year terms, and the state of Pahang was next in the rotation.

The matter was complicated, however, by the illness which had prevented Ahmad from ruling his own state for the past two years. In an effort to preserve Pahang’s position in the rotational monarchy, Ahmad stepped down in favor of his son Abdullah on Saturday. It remains possible, however, that the Council of Rulers could pass over the freshly-minted Sultan of Pahang and hand the kingship to the Sultan of Johor, Ismail Ibrahim—whose family has been embroiled in a bitter conflict with Mahathir for decades.

Mahathir removed the royals’ legal immunity after a violent altercation between Johor’s monarch and a local hockey coach. The prime minister has criticized Sultan Ibrahim himself for courting Chinese investment in Johor, prompting Ibrahim to retort that Mahathir is seeking to divide Malaysian society through racial politics.

The mud-slinging continued just days before Muhammad’s abdication. Mahathir wrote a blog post warning that Malaysia’s royal families are not above the law. The sultan’s son, Crown Prince Tunku Ismail, quickly shot back, begging the government to “please stop fighting among each other… please stop politicizing every issue."

Litany of squabbles

Though Mahathir snapped that Tunku Ismail “does not understand the concept of a federation,” a steady stream of disputes and controversy has indeed blighted the first seven months of Mahathir’s administration. Since coming to power last May, one of Mahathir’s key priorities has been aggressively prosecuting his predecessor and one-time protégé, Najib Razak.

The investigation into Najib’s alleged role in the 1MDB corruption scandal has certainly made national and international headlines, but has also forced Mahathir to fend off accusations that the charges against Najib are motivated by a political vendetta, allegations which Mahathir himself buttressed by referring to his fight against Najib as “personal” and saying that he felt “betrayed” by his former ally.

Then there is the internal wrangling caused by Mahathir’s remarkable reconciliation with Anwar Ibrahim, another former protégé who has suffered his share of Mahathir’s wrath. In 1998, Anwar was Mahathir’s anointed successor, but after the two men fell out over financial policy, Anwar called Mahathir insane and unfit to rule the nation, while the prime minister had his former friend sacked and imprisoned for sodomy in a case widely condemned as a sham by rights organizations across the world.

In a surreal twist, in exchange for having supported his old mentor in last May’s elections, Anwar is once again Mahathir’s heir apparent. Some of Anwar’s die-hard supporters, however, have yet to forgive the prime minister, while Anwar himself is reportedly losing patience as the PM waffles on his promise to hand him the reins after two years. Meanwhile, Mahathir and Anwar’s coalition is splitting into two factions.

The recent resignation of Anwar’s daughter and rising political star, Nurul Izzah, from her party and federal government roles was a particularly public setback, highlighting the fault-lines in a coalition which seemed shaky from the start.

This infighting has stymied progress on essential reforms. Only 4 percent of the administration’s campaign pledges have been achieved, while a number of key initiatives have been abandoned. The economy, meanwhile, has stalled, hitting low-income-earners the hardest. Mahathir’s choice to scrap the Goods and Services Tax has left Kuala Lumpur increasingly reliant on oil revenue at a time when prices are volatile.

Unsurprisingly, the premier’s approval rating has plunged 20 percent as voters grow disillusioned with the administration’s ability to carry out its promised reforms. The PM is particularly struggling to hold onto support from ethnic Malays, only 45 percent of whom now back the premier.

Against this backdrop, any fresh feud with the monarchy—traditionally regarded as the supreme guardian of Malay tradition—may prove particularly unwise for Mahathir. Among growing concerns over his coalition’s stability, the prime minister may judge that he has enough battles to fight, even if his old sparring partner from Johor takes the throne. Mahathir clawed his way back to the premiership as a firebrand, purporting to reject the status quo, but it seems that old-fashioned political pragmatism may now be the order of the day.

Rachel Willis operates an environmental risk consultancy advising clients in Southeast Asia. Illustration courtesy The