Malaysia’s Sultans Return to Power

The long-running political crisis in Malaysia’s Selangor state has shone a spotlight on what was thought to be an unlikely political phenomenon, the resurgence in power of the country’s nine sultans.

In particular, two of the sultans have refused to bend to parliamentary power. They are Sultan Sarafuddin Idris Shah of Selangor and Tunku Ismail Idris of Johor.

Tunku Ismail was batted back earlier this year in his bid to gain control of the regulation of land development in his home state. However, he remains involved in massive land reclamations that subvert Malaysian laws and pose an environmental dilemma for Singapore and he has not decreased the pressure. He is said to be 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 named for the current sultan’s late father, Almarhum Sultan Iskandar.

In Selangor, Malaysia’s richest and most populous state, Sultan Sarafuddin Idris Shah, also has extensive business interests. He is involved in many business deals with his partners Ong Beng Seng of Singapore and Syed Yusoff Syed Nasir, his old friend. They are building the Four Seasons Residences in KL City Center next to the iconic Twin Towers, Hard Rock Hotels and other projects, either together, mostly, or the Sultan on his own.

He has stepped into the middle of a controversy generated when opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim attempted to replace a rebellious chief minister, Khalid Ibrahim, with his wife, Wan Azizah Ismail. However, Parti Islam se-Malaysia, one of the component parties in Anwar’s Pakatan Rakyat coalition, has staged its own rebellion, refusing to go along with Anwar’s plans, instead asking the sultan to name a PAS member to the job.

The resultant impasse has stretched on for weeks as Sarafuddin has insisted on the prerogative of picking his own choice. On Sept 8, he said he would weigh names put forward by all three opposition parties, but would not limit possible candidates to those put forward by the coalition. The prolonged political mess has nearly wrecked the opposition, resulted in what appears to be a growing split between PAS fundamentalists and moderates, and, according to one source could result in a fundamentalist PAS government in one of Malaysia’s most moderate states.

That is a far cry from the 1980s and 1990s, when former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad , in a bitter political struggle, broke the absolute power of the nine sultans, seeking to reduce them to figurehead status. They have been largely content to rule their fiefdoms, some of them running up astronomical gambling debts in London casinos that they demanded their own state exchequers to pay. But during the reign of the current prime minister, Najib Tun Razak, they have begun to reassert their sway.

“Even the Sultans were afraid of Mahathir because he took them on in 1983 and 1992/3 and curbed their extravagance and powers,” said a Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst. “After Mahathir left, the sultans were kept in check until they saw that (former Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) was a weak leader.”

In 2008, the normally quiet Sultan of Perlis objected to Badawi’s choice of chief minister and appointed his own, as did the Sultan of Terengganu. In 2009, the late Raja Azlan Shah, the sultan of Perak, stepped into the middle of a political crisis in that state after the opposition won a majority in the statehouse in the 2009 general election, only to have Najib attempt to take the state back by wooing three opposition members, reportedly with offers of cash, into the Barisan Nasional fold, causing the state government to collapse.

Azlan Shah then refused the request of Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin, the opposition chief minister, to dissolve the state assembly and call for new elections. Instead, the Barisan Nasional (BN), with support from the three defecting assemblymen, now independents, formed the new state government.

“Given the lack of strong political leadership in Malaysia – where Najib’s silence and all too frequent travels overseas make it appear as if we have an absentee PM – people are carving out little fiefdoms, be it Perkasa, Mahathir, Isma, right wing NGOs, Malay Chambers of Commerce, and of course, some of the Sultans,” said a business source with close connections to the United Malays National Organization. :”Even the quiet Sultans are flexing their muscles a little bit, at the moment, demanding or putting in business proposals and getting them.”

The sultans of Malaysia have always been a strange graft onto the political system, in effect created by the British during the colonial period when they elevated a bunch of minor Malay chieftains into power as a means of controlling the country. Nine of Malaysia’s 13 states are constitutionally headed by the traditional rulers.

State constitutions limit eligibility for the thrones to male Malay Muslims of royal descent. Seven are hereditary monarchies based on male primogeniture. Malaysia’s kingship, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, rotates among the nine with each serving a five year term.

Outside of Malaysia, and even inside the country, they have often been privately derided as a bunch of inbred freeloaders although rural Malays regard them as spiritual leaders and protectors of Islam despite the fact that many have broken a wide variety of laws and spend their time in casinos in the UK. Mahathir clearly regarded them as a bunch of ingrates. In a flame-throwing February 14, 1993, speech in Malaysia’s parliament, he accused them, among other things, of giving away parts of the country to the British, oppressing the people, breaking civil and criminal laws, misusing the money and property of the government and pressuring government officials.

He pushed through a measure that included a rule to allow commoners to criticize the Sultans, even the Agong, without fear of the Sedition Act other than questioning the legitimacy of the monarchy itself. It was passed overwhelmingly by the parliament, apparently without outcry over Mahathir's rather tough treatment of the country's nine monarchs.

In the past decade, however, the Barisan Nasional has seen it convenient to regenerate the power of the sultans to use them as a cudgel against the opposition despite the legislation pushed through by Mahathir. When the late Carpal Singh, then the national chairman of the Democratic Action Party, merely discussed whether it was legal to sue Azlan Shah in the courts to get his decision reversed, scores of UMNO members filed complaints and led rallies against him for insulting the sultan. Karpal Singh was facing sedition charges when he was killed earlier this year in a car accident.

Mahathir’s bill controlling the sultans has never been repealed. Nonetheless, the country’s courts, which have long bent to the political will of the ruling national coalition, have never declared the use of the sedition laws against opposition members to be illegal.

In the political vacuum that has come into being with the weakened national coalition, which lost the popular vote for the first time since 1969, the United Malays National Organization, the leading party in the coalition, has found it expedient to rehabilitate the sultans for political uses. That in turn has resulted in opportunities for the sultans to rebuild their power base.

“There is only so much wealth and so many titles to go around and now, the loud ones believe that you have to be louder to get what you want. Hence, the flexing of muscles by the natural claimants to power - the Sultans - and the minions in Umno,” according to the Malay businessman.