The return of Malaysia's sultans

As faith in the country's democratic institutions take a hit, citizens look to unelected figures reporters, Kuala Lumpur

Updated: November 22, 2017 04:31 AM GMT

Workers put up a Malaysian flag in Kuala Lumpur. Some Malaysians are wondering if the country's sultans have a greater role to play if Prime Minister Najib Razak continues to blunder. (Photo by Manan Vatsyayana/AFP)

When a laundry business in Malaysian recently put up a sign saying for Muslims only, few expected the owner and indirectly the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak would get a royal dressing down from the Sultan of Johor.

It came about after the Muslim-friendly launderette was defended by Zamihan Mat Zin, a Islamic preacher from the powerful Islamic Development Department (Jakim) under the Prime Minister's Department.

The charismatic Johor ruler Sultan Ibrahim, known for his bluntness, had harsh words for all — those promoting the race-baiting business practices as well as those showing insufficient will to counter a trend that is dividing the nation.

The way [the preacher] spoke was very arrogant and haughty, as if he is the only one who is right in scorning the other races. I consider him to be an empty tin without a brain, said the sultan said in a speech that was uploaded on his official Facebook page last month.

This [rules on Islamic behavior] will never end ... if everything is to be forbidden, then my advice is — it will be better to live alone in a cave instead of living in a community, he said.

In October, Sultan Sharafuddin Idris Shah of Selangor decreed that the accreditation of the preacher be revoked over a sermon in which he called Chinese unclean but he criticized the Johor Sultan's stance against the Muslim-only launderette.

This had occurred as debate about the royals themselves and their powers continues to be dangerous. A colonial-era law exposes those deemed inciting disaffection with the royals with imprisonment for sedition. Prominent opposition figures including former premier Mahathir Mohammad, now in his 90s and a fierce critic of Najib, are among those most at risk.

Early in November, Sultan Sharafuddin called for an investigation of Mahathir under the Sedition Act 1948 or any related law for a speech he made that the sultan believed could be construed as belittling the Bugis community that Najib hails from.

Malaysia has nine sultans, who reign ceremonially in their own states and take it in turns to serve five-year terms as Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the country's head of state.

Of late they have periodically inveighed against overzealous Islamic authorities forbidding various practices on religious grounds to the point of impracticality pointing out that it would become impossible to live in a community.

The royalty has never been so influential. Worsening race relations and incidents of religious intolerance have suddenly given the long-considered guardians of the culture Islam, a chance to wrest back formal authority they lost in the 1990s when constitutional amendments removed their power to veto legislation and also their legal immunity.

That came about following outrage over the shocking behavior of some, most notably the case of Sultan Ibrahim's father, Sultan Iskander, who was convicted of manslaughter but escaped prosecution for the fatal beating of a caddie thanks to his immunity as head of state.

Given the state of Malaysian politics, the conditions are right for the royals to become the country's voices of moderation and gain a measure of political authority. Najib has a scandal-tainted administration reeling from a series of scandals and he is increasingly becoming authoritarian. Meanwhile talk of a stricter form of Islamic law being included in the South-East Asian nation's statutes is currently being debated.

Since Najib took over as prime minister from his predecessor Abdullah Badawi in April 2009, the sultans have grown more active as the popularity of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which has led Malaysia for 60 years, wanes.

In 2014, the sultan of Selangor declined to endorse the chief minister nominated by local legislators, asking for some alternatives instead. Then in 2015 the sultan of Johor caused confusion when he appeared to overtake the powers of the state legislature and ordered the banning of e-cigarettes in his state.

The launderette controversy gave the sultans' 'Conference of Rulers' an opportunity to issue a statement criticizing excessive actions by individuals and groups in and outside government that they said were destroying national harmony and the form of Islam practiced in Malaysia must emphasize respect, moderation and inclusiveness.

Now Malaysians are wondering if the sultans might yet have a role to play if Najib continues to blunder and cling to power.

Last year Najib's government ignored the rulers' concerns over new security laws that grant the prime minister dictatorial powers under certain conditions.

The government's conservative Islamic tilt under Najib isn't about to change now especially as he continues to woo Islamic hardliners to his camp in a dangerous divide-and-rule political roulette and as the opposition remains disunited.

While it is unclear if the sultans are seeking to carve out a bigger role in directing Malaysia's future as UMNO's influence declines, the widespread adulation these unelected figures received reveals that ordinary people do not believe they have a say in their future even with a chance to force change through the ballot in general elections due by August next year. That's another definition of a failed nation.

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