Malaysia's Sultan of Johor Ibrahim Ismail in a 2018 image. Image: YouTube

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is once more at daggers drawn with the royal family of the southern state of Johor, with the two sides jousting over issues ranging from the powers of hereditary sultans to whether they can be prosecuted in international tribunals.

The tussle reprises Mahathir’s earlier challenge to royal authority, a political power play that helped to define his previous premiership spanning 1981-2003. Whether the nonagenarian leader is willing to openly clash with traditional sultans during his second tenure in power could have implications for stability in the months ahead.

Faced with vocal opposition from the Johor royal house, Mahathir’s Pakatan Harapan coalition government recently reneged on plans to accede to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). In the wake of the policy reversal, the prime minister alleged a plot by critics of his administration to pit the country’s constitutional monarchy against his government.

Johor’s influential ruler, Sultan Ibrahim Ismail, spoke out against Harapan’s plans to ratify the international treaty on war crimes and genocide by claiming the move would contravene the constitution, which affords special treatment to the country’s monarchs and their families and the setting up of a special court to prosecute them should the need arise.

“Anyone who touches on the rights and powers of a monarch or state government has violated national laws and can be considered traitors,” Johor’s sultan said in a speech last month. His son, Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, echoed those views and maintained that Rome Statute ratification required the consent of the country’s nine royal houses.

Sultan of Johor Ibrahim Ismail. Photo: Facebook

In a strongly worded speech on April 5, Mahathir said the decision against joining the ICC was made in response to widespread confusion over the nature of the agreement. “We understand that this is a political move. The whole idea is to get the royalty in Malaysia to go against this government. That is the motive,” he said.

“[Opposition politicians] have been able to create confusion in the minds of the people, that this law negates the rights of the Malays and the rights of the rulers,” he said. “Because of this confusion, and the confusion also among the rulers, we have made a decision that we will not recognize the Statute of Rome.”

The 93-year-old statesmen said the decision was made “not because we believe it is going to be bad for us” and angrily accused “one particular person who wants to be free to beat up people and things like that” as the cause of the confusion. “If he beats up people again, I will send the police to arrest him, I don’t care who he is.”

Mahathir is widely believed to have been referring to the crown prince, who has become a top critic of his administration. Decades-old animosity runs deep between Mahathir and the Johor palace. Assault cases involving the Johor royal family in the 1990s gave impetus to constitutional amendments introduced during Mahathir’s first tenure as prime minister.

Parliament voted to amend the constitution in 1983 and 1993, removing the rulers’ immunity from prosecution and their ability to pardon themselves and their families. Moreover, amendments stripped them of the ability to assent to legislation passed in parliament. Analysts believe Johor’s royals hold a personal grudge against Mahathir for championing those amendments.

Crown Prince of Johor Ismail Sultan Ibrahim. Photo: Facebook

“It is also an undisputed fact that the Johor royalty and Mahathir have a historical antipathy towards each other although they have tried to cultivate a civil working relationship,” said Mustafa Izzuddin, a political analyst at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Institute of South Asian Studies.

“The Johor monarchy is the most vocal of the state monarchies and therefore, anomalous to monarchical rule in Malaysia. More than being opposed to Harapan’s policies, the Johor royalty are looking after their own interests and what they believe to be in the best interests of the state of Johor,” he told Asia Times.

While Sultan Ibrahim thanked the government for withdrawing from ratification, Tunku Ismail challenged authorities to take action against him after Mahathir said the 34-year-old prince was not above the law. “If I have to go down for upholding the constitution, the Malay Rulers, and Islam, by all means. You know where to find me,” he tweeted.

The volte-face marks the second time Malaysia’s reform-oriented coalition has abandoned pursuit of a rights-related treaty because of conservative pushback. It also previously reneged on signing a United Nations treaty against racial discrimination in December after an ethnic Malay backlash fueled by concerns that their constitutionally privileged status would be eroded.

Saifuddin Abdullah, Malaysian’s foreign minister and a member of the ruling coalition’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) political party, claimed the government abandoned Rome Statute ratification to prevent a coup d’état by the “deep state,” a term he said referred to an apparatus that is not democratically elected.

Liberal groups criticized the government for backing down and not doing enough to counter apparent confusion with facts. Shad Saleem Faruqi, a constitutional-law expert, was among those who argued that the treaty would not impact Malay rulers or the king, referred to as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, who is a formal rather than functional head of state.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad salutes a royal guard of honor during the opening ceremony of the parliament in Kuala Lumpur on July 17, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

“The treaty has no impact on State Rulers as Their Majesties do not have any role in the army, the police or the execution of foreign policy. Neither are Islam or the Malay position threatened in any way other than in some people’s fertile imagination,” he wrote, adding that opposition claims “appear to be based on advice that is motivated by politics, not law.”

Sparring between the two camps has continued after the April 9 resignation of Johor’s chief minister Osman Sapian, a Mahathir ally and PPBM member whose departure many speculated had been sought by the palace. The crown prince confirmed as much, admitting in a tweet that it was his father who decreed that Osman be shown the door.

“Don’t forget, the power to appoint the chief minister is the sultan’s absolute right,” Tunku Ismail added. Mahathir contested that claim, maintaining that the role of appointing the new chief minister lay with PPBM – the largest party in the state – and not with the royal household, claiming Malaysia would otherwise “no longer be a democratic country.”

Malaysia’s constitutional monarchs do have powers to appoint a chief minister, though legal experts say those powers are not unfettered. Constitutional requirements stipulate that an appointee must be a member of the state legislative assembly and be deemed to command the confidence of that elected body, where Harapan at present holds a comfortable majority.

“The Sultan of Johor and other Malay rulers are furious because Mahathir and his government decided to ratify the Rome Statute without consulting them,” said Kartini Aboo Talib Khalid, an associate professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, who described the episode as “detrimental to federal and state relations.”

“The fact that Johor has stood up to oppose Harapan’s policy is a signal that most Malay rulers are not happy [with the government],” she believes. By calling into question the Malay rulers’ respect for democracy, Kartini claimed Mahathir was trying to “divert attention from the poor performance of his cabinet” in a bid to unite ethnic Malays.

Newly appointed Malaysian King Abdullah Riayatuddin in a file photo. Image: Facebook

Awang Azman Awang Pawi of the University of Malaya’s Academy of Malay Studies shared similar views. “This is a matter of Harapan’s failure to communicate well with the people and the Malay Rulers,” he told Asia Times, adding that he believed the Johor palace was speaking out against the government on behalf of the country’s nine royal houses.

While some initially saw the dispute over the appointment of Johor’s new chief minister as a potential flashpoint, fears of a constitutional crisis subsided when PPBM assemblyman Sahruddin Jamal was sworn in by Sultan Ibrahim on April 14, after the ruler gave his consent on the appointment.

Mahathir’s PPBM “is likely to have had a discussion with the Johor royalty beforehand so as to avoid a clash after the announcement is publicly made,” Mustafa of NUS told Asia Times, adding that the two camps eventually came to a political compromise and agreed on Sahruddin, whom both sides deemed amenable.

As the Harapan coalition prepares to mark its first year in office next month, the reform agenda it sought to implement has given impetus to an opposition that now appears to have a royal house among its ranks.

As far as Mahathir and his supporters are concerned, royalty wading into political waters risks undermining the country’s constitutional democracy. A persistent royal challenge to government policy could also cause ripples of instability in the months ahead.

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