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 a heroic and legendary personification of the monarchs. Published genealogies purportedly trace the Royal Households back to Alexander the Great and the Prophet Muhammad.
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 NEP 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 Johor Sultan ordered the state assembly to ban e cigarettes in 2015 and unilaterally banned vaping in Johor in 2016.
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 councillors. Insiders have told the writer that Sultans are generally very forthright on what they think is best for the state.
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