Change of Malaysia's King comes after brewing disquiet

Sultan Muhammad V (right) preparing to deliver an address in Kuala Lumpur as Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad looks on, on July 17, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - While there has been public debate over Sultan Muhammad V's conduct as head of state since Pakatan Harapan (PH) won the landmark May 9 election, the idea of the Kelantan ruler ending his reign prematurely was unthinkable, as no previous Agong had ever abdicated.

But discomfort had been growing among some of the other Malay rulers over the damage the royal institution had suffered in that time.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had complained in June that Sultan Muhammad had not abided by the rule of law in delaying his installation as Premier and the appointment of a new Attorney-General.

The historic change of government on May 9, which ended Barisan Nasional's unbroken six-decade rule since independence, had generated much public debate about the role of the royalty in Malaysia's democracy.

At the same time, the PM's media adviser Kadir Jasin also claimed that RM257 million (S$84.8 million) had been spent by the Agong during his 16-month reign.

But the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was the secretive Nov 22 wedding to Russian beauty queen Oksana Voevodina.

Sultan Muhammad had taken November and December off ostensibly to recuperate after medical treatment. Instead, reports of his private marriage ceremony spread across global news pages and tabloid newspapers.

The 25-year-old Miss Moscow 2015 reportedly converted to Islam - the official religion of Malaysia and all its monarchs - earlier last year, but salacious stories and images of her modelling career and appearances on reality television tarnished Sultan Muhammad's image among conservative Muslims, who make up the vast majority of his home state Kelantan.

Such indiscretions and disagreements with the government are not uncommon, but the regularity of these royal controversies were particularly alarming, given the royals' history with Tun Mahathir.

During his first period in power from 1981 to 2003, Dr Mahathir was repeatedly able to gain public support to clip the wings of the royals. In the early 1990s, his government passed laws that removed some royal immunity and the need for their assent to gazette new laws.

According to official sources, four of the nine state monarchs had begun to discuss how to resolve the matter early last month, including the rulers of Perak, currently the deputy Agong, and Perlis, one of the more senior royals.

Just days after Perak's Sultan Nazrin Shah's stay at the National Palace as acting Agong ended on Dec 31, the Conference of Rulers - which gathers three times a year - held an unscheduled meeting.

It was soon after the meeting last Wednesday that rumours swirled that Sultan Muhammad had been asked to step down in a week or face an embarrassing resolution to remove him. But it was not clear then if those pushing for his abdication had the necessary majority of at least five.

Despite the rulers meeting again unofficially without the Agong over the rest of the week, Dr Mahathir said last Friday that he had no indication over the Sultan's status, and had heard only the same rumours as others.

However, Sultan Muhammad's announcement on Sunday that he would return to Kelantan points to the likelihood that he knew the writing was on the wall and that enough of his peers wanted him out.

While creating the vacancy was done without triggering a crisis, it remains to be seen whether filling it will be as smooth. The Conference of Rulers is meeting on Monday morning, and while it has four weeks to elect a new Agong, the royals may want to resolve the matter much sooner to avid prolonged public disquiet over their affairs.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.