Malaysian King's 'advice' over PM Muhyiddin's budget raises a stir

Malaysia's King, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah (left), with Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in Kuala Lumpur on Oct 28, 2020.
Malaysia's King, Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah (left), with Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin in Kuala Lumpur on Oct 28, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - The call by the Malaysian King for federal lawmakers to approve the upcoming budget has raised a stir, with some questioning whether he has overstepped his constitutional limit.

Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah on Wednesday (Oct 28) called on MPs to "give fulsome support" for Budget 2021 that will be presented in Parliament next week (Nov 6).

In a statement issued by the national palace, he also called on lawmakers to cease undermining the stability of the government as the country battles an explosion in the number of new coronavirus cases.

"Sultan Abdullah advises MPs to give fulsome support to Budget 2021 for the people's wellbeing and continuity of their lives, as well as to recover the nation's economy which has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic," the statement said.

The King had earlier met Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who discussed with him the contents of the budget for next year.

Constitutional lawyer Gerard Lordesamy wrote that it is not the constitutional role of the sovereign to advise MPs on the matter as the prime minister is answerable to Parliament.

"That is the core of our parliamentary democracy. A health pandemic is not a valid reason to weaken the basic structure of the Constitution," he wrote on Wednesday in the Malaysiakini news site.

"It is equally irresponsible for a prime minister who is plagued with political issues from within his own ranks and also externally to hide behind the Crown to save himself by resorting to constitutional juggernauts and somersaults," Mr Lordesamy added.

But others say the King has not overstepped his constitutional role as the context of his intervention must be taken into account.

Sultan Abdullah had on Sunday (Oct 25) rejected Tan Sri Muhyiddin's request for the King to invoke a national emergency. If approved, it would have been the first national emergency since May 1969, following deadly race riots 51 years ago.

An emergency decree would allow PM Muhyiddin to push through the annual expenditure without a parliamentary vote.

By parliamentary convention, the failure to pass a supply Bill to fund the government is akin to a no-confidence motion. In this case, the event would result in the collapse of the Muhyiddin administration.

The opposition had vehemently opposed the emergency proposal as a ploy by the prime minister to avoid having his thin majority in parliament tested.

Barisan Nasional secretary-general Annuar Musa said on Thursday that the message from the ruler was just an "advice".

"Advice is advice and we hope it is adhered to but it is not illegal... to take a different position as it is their right," Tan Sri Annuar told reporters. "But we do hope His Majesty's call is given a serious consideration."

Sunway University political scientist Wong Chin Huat said while the "royal advice" would likely help Mr Muhyiddin avoid outright defeats in the second and third reading of the budget, the King's intervention is unusual.

This is because one of Parliament's key functions is to scrunitise and approve the budget, he said.

"Opposition MPs and government backbenchers may table motions to make changes to specific measures (in the budget). If the government arrogantly ignores the Opposition, the government may be defeated in such motions in the committee stage," Dr Wong told The Straits Times.

"This will cast doubt - though not at all confirming it - whether the PM still commands the majority of majority members. The only honourable response from the PM then would be to table a motion of confidence to clear any doubt," he added.

Giving his take on the King's intervention, constitutional lawyer Nizam Bashir said the context matters.

"We must not lose sight of the context within which the royal decree was made - the country is dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic. MPs were therefore reminded that national interest must take priority over personal interest. Of course, that is merely the societal context," Mr Nizam told ST.

"Does the royal decree, in any event, pass muster from a legal standpoint? In my view, it does, as the royal decree was phrased as a 'royal advice' and it may be helpful... to remind ourselves... (about) the monarch having 'the right to be consulted, the right to advise and the right to warn'. The royal decree falls squarely within that description," he said.

Universiti Malaya political analyst Awang Azman Awang Pawi said Sultan Abdullah's advice doesn't equate interference.

"This can be seen as His Majesty exercising the role of the constitutional monarch, which is the role to advise. It does not mean interfering.

"At the end of the day, MPs have the right and freedom to individually or in a group to express their views in Parliament. Whether they're for or against the budget, it doesn't mean they're disloyal to the King," he said.

Meanwhile, the presidential council of opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan (PH) on Thursday urged PM Muhyiddin to immediately begin discussions with the opposition on Budget 2021 before its Nov 6 tabling.

The statement was signed by the three leaders of the parties in PH - PKR president Anwar Ibrahim, Amanah president Mohamad Sabu and DAP secretary-general Lim Guan Eng.