Malaysia’s king is country’s steady hand amid political turmoil, raging COVID-19 pandemic
Over the last 18 months, he has not shied away from taking decisive action as Malaysia grappled with multiple crises.
KUALA LUMPUR: King Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah’s ascension to the throne in January 2019 happened amid unforeseen circumstances.
He was elected by fellow members of the country’s royal families following the sudden abdication of the previous monarch - the first time this had happened in Malaysia’s history.
The country’s nine rulers serve as king for a five-year term under a rotational system.
While the manner of his appointment was unexpected, his two-and-a-half-year reign so far has been nothing short of extraordinary.
The 62-year-old monarch, who is also ruler of Pahang, has been called upon to resolve two bouts of political impasse amid a COVID-19 pandemic which has taken thousands of lives nationally.
This week, he accepted the resignation of Mr Muhyiddin Yassin as prime minister, and appointed successor Mr Ismail Sabri Yaakob, ending weeks of political uncertainty as the ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition descended into infighting.
Once again, he wielded his constitutional powers to navigate Malaysia through politically troubled waters, as people reeled from the COVID-19 caseload, lockdowns and economic crisis.
POLITICAL VACUUM AFTER FALL OF PAKATAN HARAPAN
The king’s central role in Malaysian politics first came to the fore after Dr Mahathir Mohamad's abrupt resignation as prime minister in February 2020.
Following a coup within Pakatan Harapan which triggered Dr Mahathir’s resignation, the ruler met with each Member of Parliament (MP) to decide who among them commanded majority support to form the next government.
It was within his prerogative to appoint a prime minister who he believes commands the majority, under Article 43 (2) of the Federal Constitution.
After granting a royal audience to the MPs, and subsequently party leaders, the king picked Mr Muhyiddin.
Mr Muhyiddin formed a government with a razor-thin majority, and his tenure was plagued by difficulties in containing COVID-19 and dissent by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party within his ruling coalition.
When UMNO threatened to withdraw support for Mr Muhyiddin in late last year, the king urged lawmakers repeatedly to quit politicking and support the prime minister in ensuring that the 2021 national budget would pass.
In October 2020, Mr Muhyiddin recommended that a state of emergency be proclaimed, as Malaysia faced rising COVID-19 infections. However, this was initially rejected by the king.
The ruler eventually declared a state of emergency from Jan 12 until Aug 1, as the healthcare system was said to be at a breaking point. During this period, no parliamentary sessions or elections could be held.
In June, the rulers said there was no need to extend the state of emergency, while calling for the political temperature to cool down amid signs of dissent in the ruling coalition and repeated criticisms by the opposition on the government’s handling of the pandemic.
In a rare rebuke in July, the king spoke out against Mr Muhyiddin's government over its handling of emergency laws, saying they had been revoked without his consent and went against the Constitution.
After UMNO declared that it would no longer back Mr Muhyiddin and the latter’s attempt to reach out for bipartisan support in order to survive a no-confidence vote failed, he stepped down on Monday (Aug 16).
Once again, all eyes were on the king as he initiated the process to select a new prime minister.
The king, together with his deputy Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah, then held an audience with all political party leaders on Tuesday.
This time, he asked each MP to submit a candidate of choice via email, fax or WhatsApp.
He also summoned all 114 lawmakers to the palace to verify their stand.
After convening a special meeting of the Malay rulers on Friday, the king appointed UMNO’s Mr Ismail Sabri as Malaysia’s ninth prime minister.
"His Majesty expressed his views that with the appointment of a new prime minister, the political turmoil can end immediately and all MPs can set aside their political agendas and unite in handling COVID-19 for the sake of people and the country,” said a palace statement.
The king reiterated that the people should not be burdened by endless political turmoil at a time of a health and economic crisis, the statement added.
EVENTS CALLED FOR KING’S EXTRAORDINARY INFLUENCE: EXPERTS
Experts interviewed by CNA said that recent events in the country have turned the spotlight on the role of the monarch, beyond his nominal powers.
As a constitutional monarch, the king, as head of state, acts mostly in a ceremonial and symbolic capacity. His powers are mostly related to the appointment of the country's officials and acting based on the recommendations of the government, in line with the Federal Constitution.
However, Malaysian constitutional and human rights lawyer Andrew Khoo noted that the role of the monarch has always included a more consultative element in relation to the government of the day. This is similar to how things are like in the United Kingdom.
“There is the ceremonial and symbolic role, which is what we see, but there has always been a deeper, less public, consultation and advisory role. It has been there right from the beginning,” Mr Khoo said.
He explained that in the country’s history, there has been controversy over the role of the head of states due to friction between the sultans or governors and the government, including in states such as Kelantan, Perak, Sabah and Sarawak.
“So in some ways, this issue is not new in Malaysia. It is just that in the last three years, not just 18 months, there have been issues that have brought the role of the monarchy as head of state to the fore once again,” added Mr Khoo.
Dr Serina Rahman, political analyst and visiting fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, told CNA that the pandemic, coupled with an unstable government, gave the royalty space to be more vocal.
The king and the royal houses are currently seen as the only remaining institution of sense that can act in the interests of the people, she said.
“He seems to be conveying what the people want to hear: that the politicking stops and the politicians work to solve the health crisis and work for the people,” said Dr Serina.
“From the outset he has maintained this point. The desperation of the people and the perceived disinterest by the political establishment with anything but their hold on power - has left the people with nowhere else to turn but to the royal establishment,” she added.
Dr Serina added that his royal rebuke of Mr Muhyiddin, which was among the factors that led to the latter’s resignation, was unprecedented but the move was welcomed by the people.
“These put him and the royal establishment in good stead as the clear check and balance of a government deemed to be on the wrong track,” she added.
Mr Khoo echoed similar sentiments, citing actions such as the government’s move to remove emergency ordinances without the king’s consent had placed the monarch in a position where he had to respond to political developments.
He added that this was in accordance with, and within the scope of the provisions of the Constitution.
“What appears to have happened is that the politicians have been less than fully frank and honest in their dealings with the sovereign, which has forced the sovereign to clarify the situation,” he pointed out.
In a statement issued on Wednesday after the king met party leaders, he reminded the party representatives that in order to maintain harmony, victorious MPs should reach out and cooperate with those who lose, and all should work as a team.
“In other words, the winner does not win everything while the loser does not lose everything,” the statement read.
The royals also called for “new politics” as the country needed leadership to tackle the pandemic and recover the economy, according to Mr Anwar Ibrahim after the Tuesday meeting.
Political analyst James Chin, a senior fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute of Southeast Asia, told CNA that the king may be seeking a unity government, where all the core political parties in Malaysia will be part of the administration, irregardless of which side of the political divide they stand.
“I suspect the king wants all the key political parties, including opposition parties like DAP (Democratic Action Party) and PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat) to be in government,” he said.
“If they are not in government, any of these big parties could stir up trouble again. Remember, Muhyiddin fell because the biggest party in his coalition, UMNO, withdrew support for him,” said Prof Chin.