KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s constitutional monarchy has been rocked by the sudden resignation of Sultan Muhammad V on Sunday (Jan 6), the first time a sitting king has abdicated.
On Monday, the Conference of Rulers decided to elect a new king on Jan 24. In the meantime, Sultan Nazrin of Perak, the deputy king, will serve as acting head of state.
Despite the uncertainty over who will take over in the coming weeks, those interviewed by Channel NewsAsia said people’s respect for the monarchy is unlikely to be affected.
Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs noted that Malaysia does not practice a dynastic monarchy at the federal level, but rather a rotational one.
“As such, the people’s respect is for the institution rather than the individual king. So the abdication of one king will be followed by the coronation of another, who will continue to enjoy such respect,” he said.
“The Agong is certainly revered due to the sacredness of the monarchical institution in Malaysia,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a fellow with the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
However he cautioned that it may be difficult to gauge the popularity of the Malaysian kings as they tend to avoid the public spotlight especially on political matters.
Ooi Kee Beng, the executive director of the Penang Institute added: “His abdication was probably not a surprise to the royal houses. The uncertainty now is about who the next Agong should be.
“I very much doubt this will mean instability for the country, perhaps for the (king’s) office itself, not much more.”
The former king had officially notified the Malay rulers on his abdication through a letter sent to the Secretary of the Conference of Rulers, said the comptroller of the royal household in a statement on Sunday.
“His Majesty hopes that all Malaysians will continue to stay united, tolerant and in agreement in shouldering the responsibility to safeguard the country’s sovereignty so that Malaysia will remain in peace and harmony,” said the statement.
Sultan Muhammad V also expressed his appreciation to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the government for their cooperation in governing the country.
Dr Mahathir said on Monday that the government hopes a new king will be elected as soon as possible.
Deputy Prime Minister Wan Azizah Wan Ismail said that she was saddened by the resignation, but added that the decision must be respected.
Rumours of the abdication were circulating online last week, although Dr Mahathir said he did not receive official word on the matter.
MAN OF THE PEOPLE
In his brief reign, the former king - who took the throne on Dec 13, 2016 - will be remembered for granting a full pardon to prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim in May last year.
Anwar was then serving a five-year sentence for sodomy.
Permatang Pauh lawmaker Nurul Izzah Anwar on Sunday thanked the former king for giving the full pardon.
“May Malaysia no longer continue having political detainees,” she said on Twitter.
In August, Sultan Muhammad V also cancelled an official birthday ceremony in conjunction with his birthday, as well as a royal tea reception.
The funds for both events were channelled to Tabung Harapan Malaysia, a fund set up by Putrajaya to solicit public contributions in order to reduce the country's RM1 trillion (US$239 billion) national debt.
The monarch, who studied at the Oxford Centre of Islamic Studies until 1991, also offered to take a 10 per cent cut on his salary and emoluments.
Social media users expressed shock and sadness over the resignation.
“I am saddened by Agong's resignation but I will remember him as first to swear in opposition leaders, the Agong that ruled during the political change of power,” wrote Facebook user SB Lim.
Daniel Lim Ban Ho, another Facebook user wrote: “His Majesty took a decision for pay cut and no Royal birthday celebration ... I respect my King. May God protect him.”
In a brief Facebook post, former prime minister Najib Razak also paid tribute to the former king. "We Malaysians pray for his health and that he is protected by Allah. Long live the King!" he said.
NOT WITHOUT CONTROVERSY
Abdicating just two years into his five-year term, the former king is not without controversies.
As head of state, he presided over the historic transition of power when Pakatan Harapan (PH) unseated the Barisan Nasional government after the May 9 general election last year.
But the process was marred with delay and uncertainty.
Dr Mahathir was expected to be sworn in on May 10 in the morning, but the ceremony was delayed until late afternoon.
No official reason was given by the palace.
READ: Dr Mahathir Mohamad sworn in as Malaysia prime minister
Subsequently, the palace refuted allegations that the former king had delayed the swearing in process.
"Istana Negara strongly refutes any allegation that His Majesty The Yang di-Pertuan Agong XV Sultan Muhammad V delayed the appointment of Tun Dr Mahathir as Prime Minister," a statement then said.
In June, the PH government faced delay in the swearing in of Attorney-General Tommy Thomas. There was backlash from the public that he was a not a Malay-Muslim candidate.
The former king gave his consent only after a two-week delay, following lobbying by the PH government.
He then said in a statement that the appointment would continue to preserve the special rights and privileges of the Malays and Bumiputeras, as well as the status of Islam as the federal religion.
In the lead up to his resignation on Sunday, there were rumours of the former king marrying a former beauty queen.
According to online reports in November last year, the 49-year-old monarch recently married 25-year-old former beauty queen Oksana Voevodina, who held the title of Miss Moscow in 2015.
Mahathir said then that he did not have official confirmation of the wedding.
The rulers kicked off a special meeting on Monday at the Istana to discuss the next steps.
In Malaysia's constitutional monarchy system, the election for the king is held on a rotational basis every five years.
The Conference of Rulers must meet to elect a new king no later than four weeks once the position falls vacant.
According to the rotation in place, the Sultan of Pahang would be next in line. This is followed by the Sultan of Johor.
The Malay Mail, quoting Perak assemblyman Abdul Aziz Bari, said the rulers are expected to adhere to the rotation list and elect Pahang’s Sultan Ahmad Shah as the next king.
The federal government does not have a say in the selection process.