News analysis

In Malaysia's Covid-19 crisis, even revered royals not spared from public fury

The King, like all key institutions in Malaysia, has come under unprecedented pressure. PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - Monday (June 7) marked the second year running that the Covid-19 pandemic has forced Malaysia's King to forego birthday celebrations that customarily last a week and include the pomp and grandeur of military parade and investiture ceremonies.

But instead of praise or gratitude, some Malaysians have sarcastically expressed faux sympathy for Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah, one of nine hereditary state rulers who rotate as the Agong or Supreme Ruler of the federation and are revered not just as symbols of sovereignty but guardians of Malay culture and Islam.

"Bad enough that the YDPA hasn't received his vaccine but to also delay his birthday celebration twice? This country has gone to the dogs," said Twitter user BurhanPlays, referring to Yang di-Pertuan Agong or the King, who reportedly received his Covid-19 jab after he was given some doses of the vaccine by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The claim was rejected by Health Minister Adham Baba, while the Palace remained silent on the matter.

In the past, it was rare to even joke about the monarchy for fear of recrimination. But amid growing desperation over the prolonged coronavirus crisis that has forced Malaysia into yet another lockdown, what were previously normalised privileges for royalty are now seen by many as extravagances at the expense of the public.

"The King, like all key institutions in Malaysia, has come under unprecedented pressure. At a time of heightened political contestation and crises, Malaysians have looked to him and the other rulers to provide a degree of national unity, continuity and stability," S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies deputy head of policy studies Ariel Tan told The Straits Times.

BurhanPlays' post made reference to controversial reports in April that Sultan Abdullah of Pahang received 2,000 doses of Sinopharm's Covid-19 vaccine, which has yet to be approved by the Malaysian authorities, from UAE and then offered it to friends and family.

The Queen, Tunku Azizah Iskandar, posted on her Instagram account to say she had received both her Covid-19 vaccine doses despite the matter not being reported, unlike the jabs received by other rulers and royal consorts. The post has since been deleted.

When asked separately if Palace chefs received the vaccine, the Queen replied, "Dengki ke (jealous)?", which sparked widespread fury on social media over what netizen Dafrosty called "candid arrogance after jumping vaccine queue", in a tweet that was shared over 23,000 times, while the hashtag #Agong trended on Twitter.

The phrase "dengki ke" has now become a popular meme, and one of Malaysia's foremost political graphic artists, Mr Fahmi Reza, was detained in April under the Sedition Act after creating "This is dengki ke" playlists on Spotify and Apple Music. It featured cover images of the Queen and were filled with songs that contain either "jealous" or "dengki" in their titles and lyrics.

Last week, grassroots opposition figure Iswardy Morni was charged with sedition for insulting the King after broadcasting a video that has been viewed over 100,000 times where he accused the King of not acting to protect his subjects from dying of Covid-19.

Anger also deepened last week after a report revealed that a 41ha mining concession - about half the size of Singapore's Botanic Gardens - just 3km away from Chini Lake was awarded to a company owned by members of the Kelantan and Pahang royalty, despite the Pahang state government's pledge to rehabilitate the Unesco Biosphere Reserve.

Amid the furore, the Islamic Development Department published posts telling Muslims that insulting the rulers is forbidden as they are "God's reflection on earth", inviting brickbats for its defence of the monarchy.

But perhaps the most lampooned faux pas was when state news agency Bernama posted pictures of Tunku Azizah and the cupcakes she served to medical front-liners. Critics referenced the popular phrase "let them eat cake" attributed to Marie Antoinette, France's last queen before its revolution at the end of the 18th century. Others pointed out that the Queen's Van Cleef & Arpels necklace, purportedly worth RM250,000 (S$80,300), could aid front-liners better.

"#DengkiKe openly demonstrated the condescension of the royalty towards the rakyat (population). #DengkiKek shows that they will need more than crumbs to rehabilitate their selfish, arrogant image. We have been talking about our lives, dignity, and safety. They have not been listening," said communications consultant Lainie Yeoh.

Such vitriol has perhaps not been seen since the early 1990s. Repeated episodes of physical assault by Johor's royal household prompted Parliament to remove their immunity from prosecution, with MPs making open accusations of criminal acts that went unpunished due to their then immunity from prosecution.

But this time, the rulers appear to have heard the call of their subjects. After Malaysia's deadliest Covid-19 month in May - which recorded nearly half of the all-time toll of 3,000 - Sultan Abdullah has taken the rare move of summoning leaders of all major political parties for audiences in the coming week in an effort to refocus on defeating the pandemic.

Selangor Sultan Sharafuddin Salahuddin Shah - whose own son and nephew are embroiled in a controversial development project involving a forest reserve in their state - also expressed shock on Tuesday (June 8) at the disproportionately low number of vaccine doses the most economically important state has received.

But analysts point out that while the royalty were perceived to be tone deaf during the unprecedented crisis, the sovereigns have little constitutional power to interfere in the handling of the outbreak.

Cultural expert Eddin Khoo dismisses the notion that Malaysia is anywhere close to a revolution as most formal power now resides with politicians.

The co-founder of Pusaka, a non-government organisation that works to protect local traditions, told The Straits Times: "The pandemic isn't being called the great leveller for nothing.

"Now everything is strewn on the street and out of frustration and anxiety with the failure of the political apparatus on both sides of the divide. People are beseeching what they deem to be institutions of moral authority, their symbolic 'final refuge', to do something."

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