Malaysia’s Sultans Seek to Get Their Own Back

When Malaysia’s Conference of Rulers stunned Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi by rejecting the government’s choice for the position of Chief Judge of Malaya (the old name for the country is still used) recently, it was at least partly a payback for 20 years of resentment on the part of the country’s royalty against the government.

The position of chief judge, the judiciary’s third-ranking post, has been vacant for seven months, since Siti Norma Yaakob, the previous occupant, retired earlier this year. The vacancy isn’t because there aren’t candidates. All eight of the sitting federal court judges are qualified, as well as judges from either the Court of Appeal or the High Court.

However, sources in Malaysia’s legal community say, an unnamed candidate who was picked over three more senior judges caused the sultans to balk, reasserting their power for the first time since 1983.

Prior to 1983, the agong, or king, the nominal head of state, had the power to veto certain types of legislation in the parliament. Mahathir pushed through legislation that took away the king's veto power. Later in the 1980s, he backed other legislation that took more power away from the sultans.

The government has maintained a studied silence on the impasse due to the threat of a constitutional crisis. Karpal Singh, the chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party, has jabbed repeatedly at Badawi, asking in parliament why the vacant post hasn’t been filled.

“I have had no satisfactory answer,” he said in a statement. “In the last sitting of parliament, I was told that the matter was in process. I wish to know whether there is any difference of opinion between the Conference of Rulers and the government.”

The nine hereditary sultans, who rotate the king’s crown between them every five years, are largely a vestigial appendage left by colonial rule, written into the federal constitution when the British left. The nine, who make up the Conference of Rulers, are supposed to be consulted on certain government appointments, including the judiciary. Until the current impasse, they have been regarded as a rubber stamp for government decisions.

But several new conditions have suddenly come to the fore, including the questioning by police of Raja Petra Kamaruddin, a member of the Selangor royal family, over his weblog, Malaysia Today, on allegations that he had insulted Islam and the government. The sultanates took the inquiry as an insult to them. Raja Petra roared back with a vitriolic attack on the former chief minister of Selangor, the federal district surrounding Kuala Lumpur, charging him with a series of financial misdeeds and other issues.

During his rule, Mahathir, by far the strongest public figure to emerge from Malaysia since independence, was largely unassailable. And as the country has modernized, the sultans’ presence in everyday life is largely confined to the kampungs, or villages, outside urban areas. They are venerated in much the same way European royalty is venerated, but they have little political power.

But Mahathir retired in 2003 after 22 years in power. His successor, Badawi, has been beset by a series of setbacks that were complicated by having Mahathir baying at his heels, especially over the cancellation of some of the former prime minister’s pet projects. The gentlemanly Badawi is increasingly regarded as tired, weaker than Mahathir and somewhat inattentive to his job. According to one poll, he is down 21 points his approval ratings, falling from 91 percent to 70 percent since November 2004, partly as a result of Mahahir’s attacks. Polls show that minorities, especially Chinese, which make up about 25 percent of the population, are increasingly disenchanted because of Abdullah Badawi’s inability to quell rising Malay nationalism.

Against that backdrop the royal families have been growing restive, especially as Malaysia’s delicate ethnic situation has continued to deteriorate.

At one point, with Mahathir continuing his attacks, Badawi is said to have appealed to the Johor sultanate to back him in the cancellation of a new bridge to Singapore, a cherished Mahathir project. The bridge was stopped.

Raja Nazrin, the crown prince of Perak, a graduate of Harvard and Oxford, has been particularly active. He has delivered a series of speeches advocating democracy and liberalism and has won the adoration of Malaysia’s fierce blogging community – particularly with a speech to the First Malaysian Student Leaders Summit earlier this year, in which he called for racial unity and said the country “needs a future generation of leaders with unquestionable loyalty,” a reference to the fact that Malays rule the roost under the complicated racial division of the country.

The impasse over the judicial appointment has become the fulcrum of this discontent. The prime minister reportedly has met with Perak Sultan Azlan Shah in an attempt to resolve the matter. It appears increasingly likely that Badawi will be forced to back down on his candidate, who hasn’t been named publicly. The names of candidates are protected under Malaysia’s draconian Official Secrets Act, and even Malaysia’s gossipy lawyers are cautious about naming the choice and daring a stint in jail.

Ahmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdul Halim, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who is due to retire in October, would only say that he expects the post of chief judge to be filled before the end of the year. Meanwhile, the post of the Court of Appeal president - the judiciary's second highest official is also vacant following the death of Malek Ahmad two months ago.