The Mahathir Mohamad administration appears to have fired a decisive shot across the bow of the Johor royalty this past week, with the palace seemingly making a hasty retreat after alleged land-grab exposes and tax evasion tainted the ruler of the southern state's self-styled image as a caring monarch.
Political insiders told The Straits Times that while only one such attack came directly from the Prime Minister's Office, it was a concerted campaign that could end the escalating feud that has seen the mercury rise for months. It has been a war of attrition that has eroded the standing of both the government and the Johor monarchy among the Malay majority who see the rulers as guardians of their interests.
The heated battle between Prime Minister Mahathir and the Johor royals flared up over the selection of top officials for Johor last month. It came hot on the heels of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government backing out of plans to sign up to the International Criminal Court early last month following sustained claims, led by Johor's Crown Prince, Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, that the move would open up the Malaysian King to prosecution for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
"The exposes are tactical manoeuvres by the PM and his advisers to send a clear and strong signal to the Johor palace that Tun Dr Mahathir means business," said risk consultancy KRA's director of strategy Amir Fareed Rahim.
The first salvo was fired on May 3, when details of how a 4.5ha parcel, earmarked for the now postponed Rapid Transit System (RTS) link to Singapore, was transferred to the Sultan of Johor while the Umno-led Barisan Nasional was still in power were leaked in local media.
The next day, it was further revealed that the state government handed the plot to the Johor monarch just two days after he consented to a new RTS alignment in November 2017. Johor's Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar swiftly issued a statement claiming ignorance that the parcel was in his control and saying he would return it on the condition that the government resumes the RTS project.
The Crown Prince hit back in a series of tweets, claiming "character assassination". "How much land has the Johor Sultan given to the public and government all this while? Millions gifted to the government? Good works are not shared," he said.
This week, there was another leaked document that was widely shared on social media. Concerning 63ha of plantation land, it states that "the Johor government... agrees that this land be given to" Sultan Ibrahim, less than two months before last year's general election.
The document jogged memories of Tunku Ismail telling voters not to topple the Najib Razak government just weeks before the polls last year. He had said: "Don't change the boat if the engine is not broken, don't even change the skipper."
On Monday, Dr Mahathir's media adviser A. Kadir Jasin also weighed in, saying: "We ask the new police chief to reopen investigation papers and for the Inland Revenue Board to see how much tax Mados has paid." He was invoking an open secret, especially in Johor's business world, in referring to the private firm controlled by the state royalty that is involved in property, timber and sand mining.
There has since been no riposte from the southern royals - a week of deafening silence from the usually vociferous Tunku Ismail.
It remains to be seen if the truce will hold, but insiders and analysts believe the Premier has more bullets to fire. This is despite PH not being in control of the two-thirds parliamentary majority needed for constitutional amendments to reduce the powers of the rulers, as Dr Mahathir did in the 1980s and 1990s.
Sources told The Straits Times there have also been proposals to reopen a 2009 case of alleged assault by Tunku Ismail on a Negeri Sembilan prince. Another proposal that would hurt the nine Malay royal houses would be to enact laws to make public the royal expenditures and their business interests.
But going to such lengths is a high-risk strategy for the Mahathir government, as the ire of Malays could be aimed at either party, at a time when PH is trying to win the support of Malaysia's majority community.
Singapore Institute of International Affairs senior fellow Oh Ei Sun believes there is no need for the government or the Johor royals to take things that far, and that a truce is in their mutual interest, saying: "The Sultan has wide business interests that (have) already been hurt by this affair. So, unless there is great appetite from his brother rulers to push back against Mahathir, there is everything to lose and only pride to gain from a protracted battle."