KUALA LUMPUR - Johor ruler, Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar, on Thursday (June 16) voiced his frustration over the federal government's unfulfilled promises and allocation of federal funds, saying the southern state was treated like a "stepchild".
He also handed over his official duties to Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Ibrahim in order to "take a break" for an unspecified duration.
While officiating the first sitting of the Johor state legislative assembly following the elections in March, Sultan Ibrahim criticised the federal government for not fulfilling its promises to broaden the Senai-Desaru Expressway and North-South Expressway. He also cited its failure to adequately maintain key federal infrastructure in the state, including the Customs, Immigration and Quarantine building.
The ruler added that Johor's allocation of federal funds is starkly disproportionate despite contributing almost RM13 billion (S$4 billion) annually to government revenue.
As at 2020, Johor was the fourth largest gross domestic product (GDP) contributor for Malaysia, behind Selangor, Kuala Lumpur and Sarawak. With four million people, it has the second largest population, behind Selangor with over five million people.
Johor received RM4.6 billion in development funds in Budget 2022, which is 6 per cent of the overall development budget. The state contributed 9.5 per cent of Malaysia's GDP in 2020, based on latest data.
"I feel that Johor is being treated like a stepchild even though we are among the top contributors to the national economy," said Sultan Ibrahim.
"If this trend continues, Johoreans may agitate for secession from Malaysia," he added. "Perhaps Johor can be more developed if we stand on our own."
Sultan Ibrahim claimed that the Federation of Malaya agreement - formulated for the Malayan Union in 1948 - allows Johor to secede should any terms be breached. However, the Malayan Union later made way for the formation of Malaysia in 1963.
Dr Oh Ei Sun, a senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said there is no provision in the federal Constitution - the highest legal document in the country - that allows for secession.
"In any case, such frustrations about being neglected are also voiced by some other states in efforts to obtain more appropriations from the federal side," he told The Straits Times.
Politicians from Borneo states Sabah and Sarawak have also spoken about secession and disproportionate allocation. Penang, another major state economy, last year complained about receiving only 1.3 per cent of the development budget despite contributing nearly 7 per cent of the GDP.
While it was the first time Sultan Ibrahim has talked about secession at the state legislative assembly, other members of the Johor royal family had made similar comments in the past.
In 2015, Tunku Ismail said Johor had the right to secede from Malaysia, while his younger brother Tunku Idris posted a purported image of the original Federation of Malaya agreement on his Instagram page, and warned of secession.
Sultan Ibrahim was on the last day of his official duty before going on a break.
"The Crown Prince is appointed as the Regent starting today. I want to rest for a while," he said. He added that Tunku Ismail will continue to be actively involved in the running of Johor Darul Ta'zim football club, one of Malaysia's leading clubs.
A source from the Johor palace said the Sultan is going for a holiday for a month.
Tunku Ismail was also made regent in late 2019 for several months. His latest regency comes less than 18 months before the Johor ruler is scheduled to become the country's next king after the current monarch, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah, completes his five-year term in January 2024.
Malaysia's kings are rotated among the nine royal households.
Dr Oh said the new regency term is part of efforts to groom the Crown Prince.
"In any case, Sultan Ibrahim remains Sultan, and would become king if he still stays as Sultan when his turn comes," he said.
- Additional reporting by Shannon Teoh