KUALA LUMPUR - The delay in appointing the head of Malaysia's judiciary threatens to be the latest in a series of battles between the influential Malay royals and the 11-month-old Mahathir Mohamad administration that is struggling to maintain support from the crucial ethnic majority.
Sources told The Straits Times that the Prime Minister submitted the government's pick to replace outgoing Chief Justice Richard Malanjum early this month but has yet to receive the King's consent for the candidate.
Tan Sri Malanjum retired last Friday (April 12), leaving the post vacant.
"They have kept mum, passing back the message that they are no rubber stamps," said a source close to a senior monarch, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Prime Minister Mahathir has not commented on the matter, merely saying last Friday that "I already have a candidate".
But the previous day, he made a stinging criticism of monarchs wanting "absolute power", warning that "they may put their own interests before their states".
Sources close to the issue believe the delay in naming the next Chief Justice is less to do with the choice of candidate and more about the government's prickly relations with the royals.
In May last year, the appointment of the new Pakatan Harapan government's choice of Attorney-General, Mr Tommy Thomas, was delayed over concerns that a non-Malay and non-Muslim would be the government's top lawyer and public prosecutor. Royal assent was only gained after Parti Keadilan Rakyat president Anwar Ibrahim, who is supposed to succeed Tun Dr Mahathir as PM, met the then King, Sultan Muhammad V of Kelantan.
An aide to the Prime Minister told The Straits Times that "there is no way the next CJ is non-Muslim", although he did not reveal who the candidate was. It is speculated that for the first time, Malaysia's top judge could be female as one of three candidates proposed to the King is a woman.
Another official explained that factions have arisen within the country's Council of Rulers - made up of the nine royal houses - due to the sudden resignation of Sultan Muhammad V as King in January, resulting in disparate views.
"There seems to be camps among the royals so it will be more difficult to reach a consensus to fill important roles like (that of the) CJ," he said.
A stand-off over judicial appointments could worsen already tense relations between the Pakatan Harapan government and Malaysia's constitutional monarchy.
Earlier this month (April 5), the government was forced to reverse plans to ratify the Rome statute following weeks of heated public argument with the Johor sultanate which claimed the accord on genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crime of aggression, would undermine Islam, the Malays and the monarchy.
Most recently, Dr Mahathir and Johor's Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar had a war of words over who had the final say in appointing the Johor Menteri Besar, who heads the state government.
Continued silence from the King - appointed by rotation among the nine rulers - could have repercussions for the entire judiciary.
Mr Malanjum is the first of the country's top four judges who are due to vacate their post after reaching the retirement age of 66. The King can approve a six-month extension of service after judges hit the retirement age.
The president of the Court of Appeal - the second highest-ranked judge - Ahmad Ma'arop turns 66 next month, the same month Chief Judge of Malaya Zaharah Ibrahim's extension expires. Meanwhile, the Chief Judge of Sabah and Sarawak Wong Dak Wah will be 66 in August.
Should the rulers remain silent, Malaysia's judiciary could be entirely rudderless within weeks.
"This is just the judges. We have to replace the Inspector General of Police in May," a government official said.