Malaysia's Royals At It Again

A bit more than a year ago, as a war of words raged over the Sultan of Perak's controversial decision to in effect award the speakership of the state assembly to the United Malays National Organization instead of dissolving the body for new elections, UMNO took the cause of the sultans to heart.

Over the next couple of months, any time criticism was raised over a decision that plainly kept the statehouse in the hands of the ruling national coalition and that probably would have been ruled illegal in a court system not beholden to UMNO, an army of party hacks filed police reports against the critics, alleging they had insulted Malaysia's royalty.

Malaysia has an eccentric system of kingship, with the country's nine sultans rotating the crown among them every five years. As the Perak statehouse squabble grew in intensity, a move – which didn't succeed – was even bandied about to give the sultansthe same protection against lese majeste as that enjoyed by the Thai king. Tengku Zainol Rashid Tengku Yahya, head of the Kedah family association, told reporters at the time that a move would be made "soon"to reverse laws allowing the sultans to be criticized that were pushed through by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. Some 250 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) got together to express loyalty to the Malay rulers.

"If immunity is restored, the issue of mocking the Malay rulers will probably not arise," Zainol Rashid told reporters.

So what to make, then, of a continuing, bitter squabble for power in the Kelantan statehouse, where members of the royal family, fighting for months over who will succeed the ailing Sultan Tengku Ismail Petra, are being investigated for murder and mayhem. At least onemurder occurred when a palace guard was shot four times and killed.

It probably means it will be awhile before UMNO will use the sultans as a cudgel to beat up on the opposition. Certainly, the widening publicity over the Kelantan palace squabble has left Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak with little to say. On May 8, Najib was quoted as saying that despite charges of kidnapping and other crimes, the best way for the problem to be resolved was through consultation and negotiations among the parties involved.

"We hope the health of Kelantan's Sultan Ismail Petra Sultan Yahya Petra will be given utmost priority in findinga proper solution," he told reporters.

On May 7, according to Agence-France Press, lawyers representing the ailing Kelantan sultan claimed he was being held against his will in a local hospital and applied to have him released as details of a royal power struggle unfolded. The 60-year-old Tengku Ismail apparently had been prevented from going to Singapore for treatment for long-standing heart problems that had kept him in the hospital for nine months. Other reports indicated that the sultan's first wife, the Raja Perempuan, tried to get to the Kelantan hospital where he had been forcibly installed by rival factions of the family in defiance of his orders to take him back to the palace, but had been stopped by police wearing balaclavas. She later managed to escape from them to get to her husband's side, where she spent the night on the hospital floor. She told the Malay Mail that the police had allegedly abused her and "pulled me like a cow" in an attempt to take her to the police station.

According to AFP, the country's top policeman, hospital officials and the government were accused of conspiring to confine the sultan to the hospital on the orders of the sultan's eldest son and regent, the Tengku Makhota Muhammad Faris Petra, after the aborted attempt by the sultan's consort and his third son to take him to Singapore.

"We take the view that the sultan is in hospital under restraint. He should not be restrained," said lawyer RajaAziz Addruse, adding the ruler was "very conscious and lucid."

The Tengku Makhota and his younger brother Tengku Muhammad Fakhry, the sultan's third son, have been at each other's throats since last September, when the latter was removed from the state's succession council, which determines who becomes the next ruler of Kelantan.

The current controversy follows a huge flap almost exactly a year ago, when a teenaged Indonesian-American model, Manohara Odelia Pinot, escaped from her Kelantan prince husband, Tenku Muhammad Fakhry, and the Sultan's guards by fleeing the Royal Plaza Hotel in Singapore. She later told reporters she had been abused, tortured and subjected to sexual abuse in the prince's Kelantan redoubt. The story stayed on the front pages of Indonesian newspapers and on television for days and made Manohara a celebrity in Jakarta. She told a horrific tale of intimidation and torture including having her breasts sliced with a razor, being forced to endure drug injections and other abuse.

In the current controversy, police reportedly have questioned Fakhry and 10 others including his royal bodyguards in connection with the shooting of the guard, Ramli Mohamed, at the Kelantan state palace. The Malay Mail reported that the police believed the shooting of Ramli was part of a conspiracy to assassinate the crown prince, Fakhry's brother.

The Kelantan controversy is only one of a continuing series of embarrassments up to and including murders and losses of fortunes at international gaming tables by members of the nine royal families. One of the most spectacular was the late Sultan of Johor, Mahmud Iskandar Almarhum Sultan Ismail, who died earlier this year at 77. Iskandar was almost singlehandedly responsible for Mahathir's decision to end legal immunityfor the sultans in 1993.

He was dismissed as the prince regent of Johor, by his father, Sultan Ismail Ibrahim, in 1961 after he reportedly chained two policemen into a dog kennel for a day after they displeased him. He was later reported to have attacked a young couple with Mace after they allegedly offended him. In 1972, he was charged forMacing two men because their car had overtaken his on the highway. In 1971, he shot and killed a trespasser walking near his private helicopter. He was charged with manslaughter but his father intervened, as the sultan did repeatedly at other times, and granted him a pardon despite his disapproval of his actions. Iskandar's family wasn't much better. His eldest son, Tunku Ibrahim Ismail, now named the sultan, shota man dead in a nightclub but was also pardoned.

There have been plenty more cases as well, including fist fights in nightclubs between rival gangs of royal families. In several instances, state governments have had to bail out royal families which have run up huge gambling debts in Las Vegas and London despite the Islamic prohibition against gambling. The Malay rulers by order of the constitution are guardians of the Islamic faith.