Malaysia’s constitutional monarchy is in the midst of a rare upheaval after the surprise abdication of Sultan Muhammad V, the country’s king, or the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, as he is officially known. On January 6, the 49-year-old sultan became the first royal ever to resign from the federation’s throne.
A statement issued by the palace offered no official reason for the monarch’s decision to quit after serving just two years of a five-year term that was slated to expire in 2021. Prior to the announcement, speculation had been mounting about the monarch’s status after he took a two-month leave of absence on medical grounds.
During that period, reports spread that the sultan had married Oksana Voevodina, a 25-year-old Russian beauty queen, in Moscow, although this was never officially confirmed or addressed by the palace. Reports suggest the country’s other hereditary rulers were uneasy over the union and the possible royal coronation of Voevodina.
Malaysia’s constitutional monarchs have a ceremonial role and are bestowed as the heads of Islam in their respective states. A total of nine Malay royal houses comprise the Conference of Rulers, which convenes to elect among themselves a Yang di-Pertuan Agong, a largely symbolic head of state who typically serves a five-year term.
“This is the first time Conference of Rulers have moved against one of their own,” said James Chin, political analyst and director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. “There are a lot of rumors about why but we will never find out as they are likely to keep quiet to protect the institution,” he told Asia Times.
The New Straits Times, an English-language broadsheet, reported last week that the Conference of Rulers had held a “rare and unscheduled” meeting, which stoked speculation about the future of Muhammad’s reign. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said he no clue about the status of the sultan, though admitted that he too had heard rumors.
Though past rulers have died while at the helm of the country’s unique rotational monarchy, Muhammad’s abdication, whether forced or voluntary, has cast the constitutional monarchy into uncharted waters. Despite serving less than half a term, the sultan’s tenure will be remembered as one of the most historic.
Apart from being the first ruler to abdicate and the first to ascend the throne as a divorcee without an official queen consort, he presided over the country’s first change of government after the long-ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition was defeated in an election last May, ending it’s more than six-decade grip on power.
When the Pakatan Harapan coalition emerged victorious, Muhammad chose to give first audience to Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, wife of veteran politician Anwar Ibrahim and then-president of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the largest party in the coalition. That prompted brief but ultimately unfounded speculation that he may refuse to install Mahathir, the coalition’s prime ministerial candidate.
Harapan leaders reiterated their wish that Mahathir, who served previously as head of government from 1981 to 2003, be returned to the premiership during several press conferences in the hours following their historic win. Mahathir was sworn in by the sultan after hours of meetings with the coalition’s leaders, formally beginning his second stint in office.
Muhammad also acceded to the coalition’s choice of Tommy Thomas as Attorney General in June after sources reported that the palace had initially opposed his nomination and preferred that a Malay Muslim fill the powerful post. Thomas is ethnically an Indian.
Anwar, who is expected to succeed Mahathir, was credited with persuading the sultan to change course during private discussions.
Following his resignation, ex-premier Najib Razak expressed his gratitude to the sultan for his service. Muhammad’s final decree to Malaysians as ruler was to “continue together in maintaining unity, tolerance and join hands in bearing the responsibility for this sovereign country so that Malaysia remains peaceful and harmonious,” according to reports.
While the royal abdication has come as a surprise to many, especially those in the politically restive Malay Muslim community who account for around 60% of the population, few expect the move to pose a threat to the ruling coalition’s stability or impact the government’s day-to-day operations.
Heads of six of the nine Malay royal households reportedly assembled at the national palace today (January 7) to decide a date for the election of a new royal ruler. Based on royal protocol, a vote must be held within four weeks of the throne becoming vacant.
Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah, who was acting king during Muhammad’s two-month leave, is expected to continue in the role until a new monarch is selected.
Sultan Ahmad Shah of Pahang, who is 88 and reportedly in poor health, is tipped to become the next Yang di-Pertuan Agong. Some believe Pahang’s ailing ruler could abdicate in the coming days in favor of his son, Tengku Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah, 59, who would then go on to claim the federation’s throne.
The decision ultimately rests with the Conference of Rulers, which also has the power to vary the order of succession.
Malaysia’s sultans are known for their antipathy toward Mahathir, who pushed through constitutional amendments during his first premiership to curb their powers, stripping them of legal immunity from criminal prosecution. In a recent blog post, Mahathir wrote that all Malaysians, including royal figures, were bound by the laws of the land.
“There is no provision which exempts anyone from the rule of law. For the rulers, there is a special court, but the laws are the same as the laws applicable to ordinary citizens. The rulers too must respect the laws,” he wrote. “It is disturbing to see blatant breaches of the law being perpetrated in the mistaken belief that immunity has somehow been accorded.”
Though Mahathir’s blog post did not make specific reference to any offense, analysts will closely watch the appointment process for signs of discord between the sultans and the two-time prime minister, which would potentially pose another headache for the country’s eight-month-old ruling coalition.
“As Sultan Muhammad V stayed clear of domestic politics, he was regarded as a safe pair of hands,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore. “It is plausible to suggest that the Sultan abdicated for personal reasons. He may want a quieter life with his new wife, without being subjected to continued public scrutiny.”
“His personal life became the talk of the town when he discreetly tied the knot with a much younger Russian model. Other than that, public opinion of the Agong, apart from reverence, was rather anodyne,” he told Asia Times, adding that the development was not likely to have an significant political impact since the ceremonial head of state wields no executive power.
The outgoing ruler “will be remembered for presiding over a historic change in government from Barisan to Pakatan, which has taken place during his reign,” said Mustafa. “If the next Agong has a history of being more politically active, such as the Sultan of Johor, this could generate some tension with the Mahathir administration.”