Who the next King?: Watching the throne across the Causeway

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Sultan Muhammad V abdicated following his recent two-month leave of absence.

NEVER across the Causeway has a royal talking point touched even the lips of Singaporeans, too, to who will be the new Malaysian King.

Since the recent dramatic abdication of King Sultan Muhammad V, the spotlight is now on the Conference of Rulers, which will decide on January 24 to who of the nation’s nine hereditary rulers will become the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong.

Under Malaysia’s rather unique system of constitutional monarchy, nine sultans, each overseeing a different state, take turns to be king for five-year stints. These nine royals form the Conference of Rulers, along with four state governors who attend but cannot vote.

Going by the rotational system, the Sultan of Pahang state, Ahmad Shah, is next in line although the sultan is ailing according to local media, a rumour the palace has strenuously denied.

Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar and Sultan Nazrin Shah of Perak, who is currently the deputy king and is carrying out the functions of the king until a new one is elected, are the next two names in the rotational system.

Primarily, the functions of the king are largely ceremonial, he also serves to safeguard Islam in for various senior government roles including that of prime minister.

THE ROYAL TWITCH

Journalist Rahman Alias from Kuala Lumpur says that under the constitution, there are only three instances in which the ruler who is next on the list can be denied the position: If the royal is a minor. If the Conference of Rulers by secret ballot resolves that he is unsuitable by reason of infirmity of mind or body or any other cause to exercise the functions of king, or if he declines to take the position. The ballot would then move to the next ruler on the list.

According to lawyer and constitutional expert Surendra Ananth, there is no time frame for when a new king must be chosen. He says: “Legally speaking there is no time cap. Practically speaking it should be done as soon as possible as there are a number of discretionary and non-discretionary functions of the [king] under the constitution, such as the appointment of a number of constitutional offices, dissolution of parliament and so on.”

Another political journalist Raymond Teo, also from Kuala Lumpur, is of the opinion that it is “not likely that the Conference of Rulers will break from tradition…Sultan Ahmad Shah may most probably assume the [king] post”.

He also feels that the sudden abdication would not pose a threat to the Pakatan Harapan government’s stability. He explains: “There is no constitutional crisis, it is an internal issue that is resolved by the royal rites. The Conference of Rulers will soon meet to elect the next Agong. In the meantime, the Deputy Agong [Sultan Nazrin Shah, from the state of Perak] will perform the functions of the Agong, and so this will not impact the government’s day-to-day operations.”

NO GOVERNMENT SAY

But the influential Kadir Jasin, media adviser to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, made a pertinent point when he says that the elected government would have no say in who became the next king.

“This is strictly a matter for the rulers to decide,” he told This Week in Asia.
However, he suggested the path for the royal household of Pahang to attain the kingship was made “complicated” by Sultan Ahmad Shah not being well.

Online, too, some have suggested Sultan Ahmad Shah could abdicate, allowing his son, a sports-loving royalty, with international connections in football and hockey and who is popular with the grassroots, to be king.

But political observer Janice Yap from Penang says one other theory is that Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Ismail, who passed up the opportunity to be king in 2016, would now be handed the role by his peers. She adds: “The Johor Sultan and (Prime Minister) Mahathir are believed to have a fractious relationship, and his appointment could be a cause for concern for the premier’s eight-month-old administration.”

The pair are scheduled to have a closed-door meeting on Thursday at the Johor Palace, according to reliable sources.

But Kadir, the prominent Mahathir adviser, brushed off concerns. He said similar questions had been raised in the 1980s – during Mahathir’s first stint as prime minister – when Sultan Ibrahim Ismail’s father Mahmood Iskandar was the king. Then, too, questions had arisen about Mahathir’s relationship with the royal household of Malaysia’s southernmost state.

“But all the speculation turned out to be wrong. They [Mahathir and Sultan Iskandar] had a good relationship,” Kadir said.

CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENTS

For the record, Tun Mahathir has twice put in place constitutional amendments to limit the monarchy’s power: The first in 1983 when he forced it to give up the right to veto new laws by withholding assent and again in 1993 when he ended its immunity from prosecution following complaints of errant behaviour.

On January 2 this year, Mahathir said in a blog post that monarchs were not above the law. Sources said the remarks were aimed at the Johor royal family.

Sultan Muhammad V, 49, created history with his resignation after weeks of speculation claiming he would abdicate. No official reason was given, although this is the first time in Malaysia’s modern-day monarchy that a king has stepped down.

In the royal statement, he conveyed his thanks to the other Malay rulers who chose him as the Yang di Pertuan Agong in December 2016, and to the Prime Minister and the government who co-operated in overseeing the country. The Oxford-educated 49-year-old had taken a two-month leave of absence in November and was due back in office on January 1, but questions later arose over whether he had returned.

Muhammad V took the leave of absence on medical grounds. Foreign media reports said he had married a Russian beauty queen while he was away from the national office – though neither he nor the palace ever confirmed this.

The youngest Agong elected, Muhammad V’s tenure was marked by several clashes with Mahathir. He was also the ruler who handed democracy icon and prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim a royal pardon in May, wiping clean his record of multiple charges of sodomy and corruption and releasing him from prison.

Now the biggest tongue-wagger on both sides of the Causeway will be the choice of a new ruler who will perform the duties as the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong.