Malaysia’s tug of war: Najib versus the Sultans

Photo: Sham Hardy/Wikimedia Commons

By Zofia Reych

As the Malaysian economy continues to slow down, and as the 1MDB scandal keeps adding to the pressure on Prime Minister Najib Razak’s government, the strained nature of Najib’s relationship with Malaysia’s traditional rulers is becoming increasingly apparent.

In the most recent development, Johor’s crown prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim made unexpected claims that both his and his father’s phones were bugged by the police. Allegedly, Bukit Aman’s Special Branch was keeping tabs on the Johor royal family, but Inspector General Khalid Abu Bakar denies the accusations which he calls a “misunderstanding”.

The crown prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, formally titled Tengku Mahkota, made his statement as part of a football related interview posted via the Facebook fanpage of Johor’s team, The Southern Tigers.

The prince acts as an advisor for the Football Association of Malaysia’s president, and is known for his passion for the sport. In a semi-joking manner, he expressed how surprised he was to find out about his being bugged. “I’m not dangerous. I have never killed anyone except for Malaysian football,” he said, although it is not clear what prompted the revelation.

The controversy surfaced only a few weeks after an online video from the grand opening of the Forest City Project involving Najib Razak and the Sultan of Johor went viral. Social media users pointed out that in the video, Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar refrained from shaking prime minister’s hand, and that the symbolic gesture represented his lack of support for the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) controversy mired Najib.

“I could only shake my head when I saw it on social media,” said the prime minister. But the public’s reaction is the best proof that the government-palace relations are not great.

With Johor’s extensive development plan, including the Forest City Project, the state has the potential to become one of the country’s most affluent regions.

Following a series of unprecedented statements by Malaysia’s traditional hereditary rulers, the Sultan of Johor said earlier this month: “It is not proper to limit or abolish the power of the King or the Sultan in examining and giving their Royal Assent for laws.” The monarch referred to the amendments to the Malaysian constitution made in 1993.

As some comentators point out, Najib’s rule is not only marked with financial controversy, but also a lack of strong leadership necessary for the success of Malaysia. In such political climate, the traditional rulers of Malaysia could have a shot at regaining some of the powers curbed under the rule of the previous prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad. Apart from the right to veto new laws, the lost prerogatives also included legal immunity of the royals.

The monarchs started speaking out more openly after the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, lost their strong position in the 2008 elections. Although this opened the door to a more firmer stance by the royal families in each of the Malaysian states, it also means that the monarchs’ situation is unlikely to change as no party holds the parliamentary majority of two-thirds required to make constitutional amendments.

Out of the 13 Malay states and federal territories, 9 are constitutionally led by a Sultan. Once every five years, the constitutional heads of all Malaysian states convene as the Conference of Rulers to elect the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, effectively the Malaysian King and the country’s head-of-state, whose power is largely ceremonial. The Malaysian constitutional monarchy reflects the British system, with the additional feature of the federal structure.

Since 2008, the royals have been increasingly flexing their muscle. Both the Sultans of Perlis and of Terengganu rejected the government-appointed chief ministers for their own states, and instead chose their own. The ruler of Perak opposed the request to dissolve the state assembly, while the ruler of the most prosperous state of Selangor was involved in a long term conflict with the government over appointing a new chief minister.

These altercations, however, had a small political impact compared to when last year the Conference of Rulers, including nine Sultans, decided to step in over the 1MDB crisis.

In October, the rulers issued an official joint statement calling for a swift and transparent investigation over the astronomical sums allegedly found in Najib Razak’s accounts. The money was to be transferred directly from the state owned development company, 1MDB, to Najib’s pocket.

The Conference of Rulers’ announcement followed the closure of the internal investigation into the 1MDB case, as Najib Razak called off all officials involved in the probe.

This time, the Sultans’ involvement was not only aimed at regaining their prerogatives, but mostly on the principle of protecting the people which, traditionally, was the sultans’ role.

The Malaysian ceremonial leaders are largely supported by the rural Malay majority, which sees them as warrants of the traditional customs and Islamic values. Losing their mandate might accelerate the end of Najib’s administration that was called for by 58 official figures in a petition released in March.

So far, Najib maintains a strong grip on the country but many hope that the pressure of public opinion combined with the royals’ discontent will help bring about his resignation. Although the prime minister is traditionally appointed by the King, on the basis of his parliamentary majority, it is largely a formality. The head of state has no power to dismiss him.

For now, Malaysia remains led by a discredited politician with no strong parliamentary opposition and a counterbalance of traditional rulers whose powers were taken away two decades ago, and not without reason.