Who is Malaysia’s new King?

Photo: Rtv Kelantan/ CC BY 3.0

The Sultan of Kelantan has been proclaimed the new Agong of Malaysia, following a selection process which almost broke from the years of solid tradition in the country’s unique rotational monarchy. He is reported to be a deeply religious and gentle man, but is he the steady hand the nation needs as it steers through turbulent times?

By Argee Abadines

Dressed in gold-coloured traditional Malay formal wear, Sultan Muhammad V has been formally installed as the Agong of Malaysia for the next five years. The nationally televised ceremony at the Istana Negara (National Palace) was filled with dignitaries such as Prime Minister Najib Razak, Najib’s wife Datin Seri Rosmah Mansor, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Cabinet ministers and their deputies, MPs, senators, senior government officers and diplomats.

A 21-gun salute boomed in celebration after he signed the instrument of proclamation at the Balairong Seri (throne room) and the new monarch was quick to begin his duties, inspecting an honour guard of the 1st Battalion Royal Malay Regiment. The new leader holds the official title of Yang di-Pertuan Agong (He Who Is Made Lord). But who is the man behind the pomp and circumstance?

Born in Kota Baru on October 6, 1969, Muhammad V was christened Tuanku Muhammad Faris Petra, the eldest son of Sultan Ismail Petra Ibni Almarhum Sultan Yahya Petra. He became Sultan of Kelantan in 2010, at the young age of 42, after succeeding his father who was incapacitated after a stroke. Before getting divorced, he was once married to Tengku Zubaidah Tengku Norudin, a member of the Pattani royal family.

He has been a well-loved and visible ruler of the Kelantan region, throwing himself into community activities such as 10km walkathons in Kota Baru. He even organised his own similar event in 2011, drawing over 21,000 participants and catapulted it into the Malaysia Book of Records.

The People’s Sultan

And he has many fans. Described as a man of generous and sincere heart, he has provided homes to flood victims and shown a deep sense of humility. As the local figurehead he once made an unannounced visit to one of the areas affected by the 2014 floods and helped with the relief operations without any royal entourage. He even launched a Royal Disaster Fund to help those affected.

He is known as a simple man who avoids regal dress, preferring to wear traditional Malay attire as he travels around the state doing his social work. He often refers to himself as kita (we) when he meets with the public and has frequently visited the Orang Asli settlements in Gua Musang and Jeli. According to Kelantan’s Mentri Besar Datuk Ahmad Yakob, Sultan Muhammad V was a champion of the poor and non-Muslims in the state.

He also seems popular amongst government officials and other rulers. Malaysia’s International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed congratulated Sultan Muhammad V saying, “The Tuanku seems at ease sitting with local people, a quality which the people always remember.” Meanwhile, Johor Ruler Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar congratulated Sultan Muhammad V and declared that “Malaysia will continue to make great strides under the reign of Sultan Muhammad V.” There is more on Johor’s Sultan later.

An educated choice

The new Agong has already proven himself to be a man of the world with a deep interest in religion and the outdoors, having studied first at the Alice Smith International School in Kuala Lumpur. On graduation, he took up diplomatic and Islamic Studies at the United Kingdom’s University of Oxford before travelling to Berlin and London to continue his education. He is also the chancellor of Universiti Malaysia Kelantan.

As his studies suggest, Sultan Muhammad V is a devout Muslim and will make a very credible figure as the symbolic head of Islam in Malaysia.  Kelantan’s Grand Imam of the Council of the Religion of Islam and Malay Custom, Muhammad Hana Pizi Abdullah said, “We, the mosque goers are close to his majesty whose heart is with the mosque and Islam. It is a well-known fact that the sultan spends considerable time in the mosques and religious functions hence it’s easy for the people to get close to his majesty.”

As evidence of his humility, one of his key programmes in Kelantan is Qiam With Me, an annual Ramadan event. After prayers and a religious lecture the Sultan presents zakat donations to the less fortunate, creating an unintentional but respected tourist attraction. Meanwhile, in a parallel with the late and much-revered Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the Sultan has personally attended to the development needs of Kelantan, including the construction of an airport and a fishing town in Tok Bali.

But when you dig deeper you see he also has a much racier side to his character; although he is known for his gentle and relaxed nature he has a passion for extreme sports such as off-road driving particularly 4-wheel drive expeditions and archery. He is also known to be a sports shooting enthusiast .

The role of the Agong

Being Malaysia’s King means Muhammad V is also the nominal chief of the military and, to the Malay majority, the supreme upholder of Malay tradition. So how does a local leader rise to the top of the pack? Malaysia has nine hereditary state rulers, each of which is eligible to take the leadership on a rotational basis. It is the only country in the world to have this kind of rotating system.

Sultan Muhammad V ascends to the throne as one of Malaysia’s youngest constitutional monarch, and as a divorcee, the first without an official consort. His ascension was agreed by a special conference where he had to be backed in an electing vote by at least five other rulers. There is an expected pattern to these elections and everyone understands their place in the line.

However, reports say this time around the sultans almost broke with this long-standing tradition and Johor’s leader, His Majesty Ibrahim Ismail was the popular choice.  He declined the invitation saying on his official Facebook page he, “respects and understands the rule of succession by rotation and wishes to abide by this.” This unusually public comment came after others speculated the true reason was his attitude towards current Prime Minister Najib.

A political player?

And politics is an important point to consider in the next five years of the Agong’s reign. He not only appoints top Islamic clerics but can ask for information in the possession of the Cabinet without refusal. This gives him a considerable understanding of the internal affairs of Malaysia and allows him to act as a check and balance to ensure the country is following the right path.

In fact, if he and the Prime Minister are in agreement then they may together dissolve parliament. And earlier this year notorious troublemaker Mahathir Mohamad went as far as asking the previous Agong to remove the Prime Minister altogether. Mahathir later said he “could not get a positive answer.” Perhaps the new ruler may feel more ambitious.

In these turbulent times of political unrest the constitutional monarchy is a stable and enduring part of the Malaysia’s culture and history. If only the politicians showed the same wisdom for the needs of the people that the new Agong seems to treasure.