KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's police chief said Tuesday (Dec 12) that Tun Mahathir Mohamad will be hauled up over an alleged insult against the Bugis community, just hours after Selangor's palace confirmed that awards conferred on the former premier and his wife had been returned following an escalating flap over his October "Bugis pirate" statement.
Repeated criticism by the Sultan of Selangor, who is of Bugis descent, has been damaging for the opposition pact - already being accused of being anti-Malay and Islam - now led by Dr Mahathir.
Just as others of lesser stature before him, Malaysia's longest-serving leader had to hold his tongue after a month-long row with one of Malaysia's nine revered Malay kings.
But his act last week of returning the two awards unbidden - given in 1978 and 2003 by the Selangor Palace - followed in turn by Tun Siti Hasmah Ali, also sent a signal that the 92-year-old will not bend his knee to the royals in his quest to unseat Prime Minister Najib Razak.
In a country where engaging in a war of words with a sovereign is akin to treason and deeply unpopular among the Malay majority, the move is the strongest unspoken statement of protest, although Dr Mahathir, whose 22 years in power saw royal powers being limited, responded to such a suggestion by saying "I don't know, that's your conclusion?" in a press conference on Tuesday.
But Ms Siti was more forthright in a video statement, saying: "I am a Selangor native and received these high awards from the state, but due to the recent incidents, I felt I needed to support my husband by returning these awards."
During the "Love Malaysia, end kleptocracy" rally in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, on Oct 14, Dr Mahathir had repeated allegations of graft against Datuk Seri Najib, and called him a descendent of a "Bugis pirate".
The remark sparked outrage from the Johor and Selangor palaces as well as the Bugis community both in Malaysia and Indonesia.
In an interview last week, Selangor Sultan Sharafuddin Salahuddin told The Star that Dr Mahathir had an inferiority complex and his "anger would burn the country".
"Yes, you can see I am a very angry man," Dr Mahathir responded with laughter, when asked to comment on Tuesday.
The Pakatan Harapan chairman may not put much stock in royal relations, but analysts note that his colleagues do, especially as they struggle to win support from Malays - ironically the problem Dr Mahathir was supposed to solve for the opposition.
ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute senior fellow Wan Saiful Wan Jan told The Straits Times "the views of the Rulers are important, even at a time when some people are beginning to question the relevance of the institution".
"Tun Mahathir has a history of bad blood with the Malay Rulers. It is not surprising that his actions or comments can be used against him. The problem for him is, while the Sultan can attack him openly, he cannot respond," he said.
Pacific Research Center principal adviser Oh Ei Sun told The Straits Times: "The royal rebuttal was unexpected, but Dr Mahathir is not apologising (for his 'Bugis pirates' comment), he is making a point about how he was on the receiving end of racial attacks, but not being allowed to retaliate."
But Dr Mahathir is not out of the woods yet. The police investigation will drag this issue on, perhaps, even up to the general election due by August.