JOHOR BAHRU: COVID-19 has coincided with the waxing of power in the institution of royalty in Malaysia.
It started in February 2020 when a newly crowned Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah was confronted with a political impasse after then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad resigned, leading to the breakdown in the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition.
The king was suddenly kingmaker. His assent made Muhyiddin Yassin Prime Minister.
The king has also played the role of arbiter when he granted Anwar Ibrahim an audience in October 2020 but declined his appeal to form a new government.
And he was also the voice of caution in turning down PM Muhyiddin Yassin’s initial request for a State of Emergency but acceded to it in January given the surge of COVID-19 infections nation-wide.
The Agong again took centre stage in June amid a deteriorating COVID-19 situation and brewing concerns over whether the State of Emergency could be used to sidestep parliamentary debate and entrench the ruling coalition’s power.
As he did in early 2020, he once again carefully consulted with lawmakers and representatives from all political parties, and thereafter with the Conference of Rulers, before coming to a decision.
The Agong declared that Parliament had to be reconvened immediately, and shortly after, the Conference of Rulers released a separate announcement that included their resolution that the State of Emergency should not be extended.
READ: Commentary: Will Malaysian king take PM Muhyiddin’s government to task for huge COVID-19 mess?
The Agong then reinforced his decision by summoning the Speaker of the House and the Senate president to discuss the reopening of Parliament.
In a constitutional monarchy such as Malaysia, the royal institution acts in a manner beyond politics.
When the government is strong, the royal institution has become more of a figurehead or is made so. Under Mahathir’s first prime ministership, the constitution was amended to remove royal powers of legislative veto and immunity, while restrictions on the costs borne by the state for their upkeep were imposed.
During times of weak governance, the political vacuum gives royal houses space to be more vocal, as in 2015 when the Conference of Rulers urged for a swift resolution to the 1MDB scandal.
The Agong and the royal houses are currently seen as the only remaining institution of sense that can act in the interests of the people.
This is also partially because royalty derives its authority from history. Traditionally a deeply feudal society, many Malaysians have an ingrained respect for royalty and see the rulers as a necessary check-and-balance on the government in power and an authoritative voice on sensitive, religious issues.
READ: Commentary: Malaysia PM Muhyiddin’s hand could be forced as pressure mounts for COVID-19 accountability
When rising Islamism saw some assert that Christmas greetings were haram in 2018, the Sultan of Johor spoke out against such extreme views and wished Malaysians Merry Christmas. The Agong similarly conveyed Deepavali greetings in 2020.
MALAYSIA’S DETERIORATING SITUATION
The role of the Agong could come into sharper focus as Malaysia sails through some of its bleakest days in the weeks ahead.
Daily death rates breached 150, with numbers in the intensive care unit hovering at about 900, and half needing breathing assistance as of Sunday (Jul 15). The youngest victim of COVID-19, a 38-week-old baby, was buried this last week. A number of pregnant mothers have also died.
Hospitals, especially in the Klang Valley, remain full. Some COVID-19 patients are either turned away or checked into hotels that have been converted into quarantine facilities.
Malaysians have suffered job losses, wage decreases and entire industry closures. Some have been evicted because they cannot pay rent. Others struggle to service their debts and feed their families.
The Polis Diraja Malaysia reported an average of two to three suicides a day in the first five months of 2021 – almost double the number from 2020 and 2019.
Since the first MCO, non-governmental organisations and citizens groups have mobilised aid, with a new wave of renewed efforts arising in the white flag movement to help those who fall through the cracks. Others created an online app to map everyone who needed help, and the location of the nearest food banks.
Ruji Rabu, an evolution of Undi Rabu, a movement that raised funds to sponsor Malaysians to vote in their district during the 14th General Election, now distributes cash to those in need.
Amid shining examples of how Malaysians are uniting to help each other, there is deep despair. People just want things to go back to pre-COVID “normal”.
WAITING TO SEE IF CONCERNS CAN BE ADDRESSED IN PARLIAMENT
Malaysians are waiting to see if next week’s Parliament session can move the needle on the country’s situation.
They want Parliament to exercise pressure so the economy functions for everyone, not just the big players and factories.
They want to see more transparency in aid disbursement amid concerns about plans to tap into the National Trust Fund. And on a far simpler level, many rural Malaysians just want the 10km travel curbs to be removed.
Aid for small, medium and microbusinesses (SMEs) have not stopped over 100,000 businesses from closing since the first MCO. The SME Association of Malaysia estimates that around 50,000 more will close if the current lockdown is extended.
READ: Commentary: Resurgent pandemic sparks unemployment crisis among Malaysia’s most vulnerable workers
The Malaysian government has disbursed financial aid packages since COVID-19 but ground feedback suggests that those in dire need have trouble accessing help because of administrative hurdles or a lack of information.
The government has also launched a RM21 million Bakul Prihatin Negeri national food bank initiative aimed at helping 1.68 million Malaysians.
Large stocks of rice and other household needs have been sent to towns and villages but residents in parts of rural Johor are concerned with how their personal registration details will be used.
LIGHT AT END OF TUNNEL?
In theory, the Agong does not hold much power. Malaysian kings are bound by restrictions in the constitution – they do not have a blanket ability to force a sitting government to take a certain course of action or change its leadership.
But the Agong could play a tie-breaker role in a current dispute between Parliamentary Speaker Azhar Azizan Harun and the Pakatan Harapan presidential council, when the latter has expressed concerns that the interim parliamentary sitting will be reduced to a mere ministerial briefing with no room for debate, hence going against the Agong’s decree.
The political establishment knows that the Agong will be monitoring Parliamentary proceedings and could make a subsequent declaration on whether they meet the interests of the people, and are trying to ringfence what he might say.
Attorney-General (AG) Idrus Harun recently highlighted how the Agong remains a constitutional monarch bound by the advice of Cabinet even in a State of Emergency. Similarly, former Chief Justice Abdul Hamid Mohamad pointedly stated that any action from the Palace conflicting with the AG’s advice could be legally challenged.
To be sure, the reopening of Parliament will not magically resolve Malaysia’s problems or erase the pandemic overnight. Questions over how vaccination can be ramped up, vaccination expenses and how much longer the people must wait for the economy to reopen may not be answered in a week.
While there is a general sigh of relief that the Agong has been able to compel a parliamentary sitting, there has been little change on the ground.
But for now, it seems that the royal houses have fulfilled their role as a check-and-balance to the government in power. For some, that flicker of hope in dark times may be enough.
Dr Serina Rahman, Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, writes from Johor where she’s in lockdown with the rest of Malaysia.