Malaysia’s outgoing king wants govt stability, bigger role for monarchs

Malaysia's King Al-Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah reacts during an interview at the National Palace, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 3, 2024. (Reuters photo)
Malaysia’s King Al-Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah reacts during an interview at the National Palace, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 3, 2024. (Reuters photo)

KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia’s King Al-Sultan Abdullah has called for government stability, warning that the country risked losing investors and falling behind its competitors due to prolonged political turmoil.

In a rare, wide-ranging interview with local and foreign media this month, Al-Sultan Abdullah – who will step down from the throne on Tuesday – also proposed future monarchs play a larger role representing Malaysia in international affairs.

The monarchy plays a mostly ceremonial role in Malaysia and is largely seen as above politics.

But political instability during Al-Sultan Abdullah’s reign has seen the monarchy’s influence grow, with the king wielding rarely used discretionary powers to appoint the country’s last three prime ministers.

The heads of Malaysia’s nine royal families take turns to be king every five years, under a unique system of monarchy.

Al-Sultan Abdullah, who ascended the throne in 2019, will return to lead his home state of Pahang, while Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar of Johor will be crowned the next king in a coronation ceremony on Wednesday.

In unusually frank remarks, Al-Sultan Abdullah expressed disappointment with Malaysia’s warring political parties, saying that frequent changes in government administration and policies could jeopardise economic progress.

“Foreign investors want to see a country that’s stable, that they can invest in and maximise their returns on quickly. If we are always changing governments…this will cause delays.”

“We need to remain competitive otherwise we will be left behind…we cannot afford to have an unstable government.”

Al-Sultan Abdullah expressed hope that Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s administration would last its full five-year term so that it can carry out much-needed reforms, including an overhaul of Malaysia’s subsidy programme.

As part of a smaller spending plan for 2024, Anwar, who is also finance minister, has announced a shift away from blanket subsidies to a system that mainly aids lower-income groups.

Malaysia subsidises petrol, cooking oil and rice among other items and has seen that expense climb to record levels in recent years due to higher commodity prices.

Al-Sultan Abdullah’s public comment that he hopes Malaysia will see a full-term government come after Anwar’s administration this month accused several opposition and ruling bloc figures of a plot to topple the government.

Some opposition and government coalition leaders have denied involvement in the alleged plot, media reported.

‘Bigger role for king’

Malaysia’s sultans are widely respected in the majority Muslim country, as the royals act as the custodian of Islam.

A constitutional monarch, the king largely acts upon the advice of the prime minister and the cabinet, but he does have some discretionary powers, including the authority to appoint a premier that he believes command a parliamentary majority.

Al-Sultan Abdullah has had to exercise the power three times to resolve political uncertainty – most recently in 2022 when he appointed Anwar following an election that ended in a hung parliament.

Al-Sultan Abdullah said the monarchy should be strengthened and proposed for the king to represent Malaysia abroad in matters that did not conflict with government administration, such as climate change advocacy.

“We all try to act within the limits of the constitution. And the rulers must also know their roles…so that we can be closer to the people,” he said.

His incoming successor Sultan Ibrahim has also expressed a desire to be a more active monarch.

More outspoken than other rulers, Sultan Ibrahim has expansive business interests from mining to real estate, particularly in his southern home state of Johor, just north of Singapore.

He told Singapore’s The Straits Times in November he plans to revive a stalled high-speed rail link project between Malaysia and the city-state, with a border crossing through Forest City – a $100-billion China-backed land reclamation and development project in which the sultan has a stake.

He also proposed for Malaysia’s state oil firm Petronas and its anti-corruption agency to report directly to the king.

Prime minister Anwar has downplayed concerns over Sultan Ibrahim’s statements, saying that all opinions can be discussed but not while ignoring the federal constitution, state media reported.

As king, Sultan Ibrahim will also have the power to grant clemency to convicted offenders, and could rule on an application by jailed former prime minister Najib Razak for a royal pardon.

Najib is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence after being found guilty for corruption linked to the multibillion-dollar 1MDB scandal. He has consistently denied wrongdoing and remains a popular political figure. 

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