Malaysia has a new king, now will politics finally take a back seat?

“I, with all my ability, will at all times preserve Islam, and stand firmly for fair administration and peace in the country,” he said as he read the oath of office.

While Malaysia’s king is limited by the constitution and traditionally seen as more of a ceremonial ruler who is above politics, recent turmoil has prodded the monarchy into a more active stance.

Malaysia’s new king sounds early warning to lawmakers: ‘I’m with the people’

Fresh skirmishes have been shaping up as Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s administration pushes ahead with a corruption crackdown that has snagged the families of his former mentor-turned-nemesis, Mahathir Mohamad, and long-time close associate Daim Zainuddin.
Ahead of his ascension, Sultan Ibrahim, whose family’s assets are estimated to be worth US$5.7 billion according to a Bloomberg report, gave advance notice to Malaysia’s politicians that there will be no room for the sort of shadowy power plays that have all but consumed the country’s attention in recent years.

“There are 222 of you in parliament. There are over 30 million [Malaysians] outside. I’m not with you, I’m with them,” the ruler said in an interview with Singapore’s The Straits Times published in December.

Malaysia has endured an unprecedented period of political turmoil since 2020, when a political coup caused the downfall of then-prime minister Mahathir’s government and led to two regime changes in as many years.

The desire for a more powerful monarchy to stabilise the political situation in the country must be tempered

Oh Ei-Sun, political analyst

The institution of the monarchy played a pivotal role in smoothing over the fracas that left a rudderless government grappling with the twin health and economic crises caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

But observers have also cautioned that expanding the role of the king could tilt the balance of governance in Malaysia, which has been a constitutional monarchy since gaining independence from Britain in 1957.

“The desire for a more powerful monarchy to stabilise the political situation in the country must be tempered with the time-tested practice of constitutional monarchy, with a more symbolic and not substantive role for the monarch to play in the country’s socio-polity,” said Oh Ei-Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs think tank.

Sultan Ibrahim previously declared his support for the fight against corruption, while also making clear that he wants the government to pursue certain infrastructure projects during his rule.

A model of the Forest City development is seen in the Johor Bahru showroom of Chinese developer Country Garden last year. Photo: Reuters
He is a major backer of the troubled Forest City mega-project in his home state of Johor, and his daughter is a significant shareholder in a rail firm that has joined a conglomerate looking to put in a bid for the planned Singapore-Kuala Lumpur high speed rail link.

Anwar’s administration needs the monarch’s backing to bolster flailing support among the country’s ethnic Malay majority, who typically hold the king in high regard. But the business interests of a ruler who owns a fleet of private jets and more than 300 luxury cars could present a challenge.

Stabilising force

Malaysia’s monarchy is unique, rotating as it does every five years among the heads of the royal families ruling nine states on the Malay Peninsula.

The federal constitution names the king as the country’s head of Islam and the highest commander of the armed forces. For the most part, the monarch is required to exercise his powers on the advice of the prime minister.

The king’s consent is needed for a prime minister to take office – a formality when parties win clear parliamentary majorities. But in recent years the monarch has been required to direct political affairs after a public vote proved inconclusive.

In 2020 Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah, the previous king, was forced to step in to determine who had the strongest claim among a split parliament. He eventually picked Muhyiddin Yassin.
Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah, Malaysia’s previous king, speaks during an interview at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur last month. Photo: Reuters

Muhyiddin’s time at the top was short-lived, however. He resigned 17 months into his tenure as his popularity plummeted following a rare rebuke from the king over his handling of emergency powers invoked in an attempt to clamp down on the spread of Covid-19.

The vacancy meant Sultan Abdullah again had to summon MPs to conduct a secret ballot, which returned a slim majority in favour of Ismail Sabri Yaakob of former ruling party Umno as Muhyiddin’s successor.
The king had to step in one final time to choose a prime minister after elections in November 2022, when he appointed Anwar to the post on the condition that he form a unity government that included both allies and former rivals.

Cease and desist?

In a rare interview with local and international media just days before his rule ended on Tuesday, Sultan Abdullah chastised the country’s political elites for their ceaseless bickering, which he said threatened Malaysia’s stability and economic competitiveness.

Sultan Abdullah urged the public to allow Anwar and his administration to see through their term, a sentiment earlier expressed by Sultan Ibrahim.

The statements by the former and current kings are as good as endorsements for Anwar and his government, political analyst James Chin said, adding that it paves the way for the anti-corruption crackdown to continue.

‘Stop creating so many problems’ for Anwar, key ally urges Malaysia politicians

Royal backing provides security for Anwar, at least “for the next year or so”, Chin said, as it gives the prime minister’s rivals few options to push back against him.

“Moreover, you have a new king coming in who is on quote saying he is all for political stability and wants Anwar to be given the chance to complete his term,” he said.

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