KUALA LUMPUR – A day after the dramatic abdication of Malaysia’s King Sultan Muhammad V, all eyes are on the Conference of Rulers, which met on Monday to debate which of the nation’s nine hereditary rulers will become the next king.
Under Malaysia’s unique system of constitutional monarchy, nine sultans, each overseeing a different state, take turns to be king for five-year stints. These nine royals form the Conference of Rulers, along with four state governors who attend but cannot vote. The group will officially vote on the new Agong, roughly translated as king of kings, on January 24 and he will be formally sworn in on January 31.
Under the rotational system, the Sultan of Pahang state, Ahmad Shah, is next in line although the sultan is ailing according to local media, a rumour the palace has strenuously denied.
Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar and Sultan Nazrin Shah of Perak, who is currently the deputy king and is carrying out the functions of the king until a new one is elected, are the next two names in the rotational system. Although the functions of the king are largely ceremonial, he also serves to safeguard Islam in Muslim-majority Malaysia, and must assent to the appointment of individuals for various senior government roles including that of prime minister.
Under the constitution, there are only three instances in which the ruler who is next on the list can be denied the position: if the royal is a minor, if the Conference of Rulers by secret ballot resolves that he is unsuitable by reason of infirmity of mind or body or any other cause to exercise the functions of king, or if he declines to take the position. The ballot would then move to the next ruler on the list.
In 2016, the Sultan of Johor claimed he had been offered the role of king, bypassing both Kelantan – Muhammad V’s home state – and Pahang, saying he had rejected the offer out of respect for the rotational system.
According to lawyer and constitutional expert Surendra Ananth, there is no time frame for when a new king must be chosen.
“Legally speaking there is no time cap. Practically speaking it should be done as soon as possible as there are a number of discretionary and non-discretionary functions of the [king] under the constitution, such as the appointment of a number of constitutional offices, dissolution of parliament and so on.”
Constitutional lawyer Lim Wei Jiet believes it is “not likely that the Conference of Rulers will break from tradition … Sultan Ahmad Shah may most probably assume the [king] post”.
Kadir Jasin, media adviser to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, said the elected government would have no say in who became the next king.
“This is strictly a matter for the rulers to decide,” he told This Week in Asia.
However, he suggested the path for the royal household of Pahang to attain the kingship was made “complicated” by Sultan Ahmad Shah not being well.
Online, some have suggested Sultan Ahmad Shah could abdicate, allowing his son to be king.
One other theory is that Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Ismail, who passed up the opportunity to be king in 2016, would now be handed the role by his peers.
The monarch and Mahathir are believed to have a fractious relationship, and his appointment could be a cause for concern for the premier’s eight-month-old administration.
But Kadir, the Mahathir adviser, brushed off concerns.
He said similar questions had been raised in the 1980s – during Mahathir’s first stint as prime minister – when Sultan Ibrahim Ismail’s father Mahmood Iskandar was the king. Then, too, questions had arisen about Mahathir’s relationship with the royal household of Malaysia’s southernmost state.
“But all the speculation turned out to be wrong. They [Mahathir and Sultan Iskandar] had a good relationship,” Kadir said.
Mahathir has twice put in place constitutional amendments to limit the monarchy’s power: first in 1983 when he forced it to give up the right to veto new laws by withholding assent and again in 1993 when he ended its immunity from prosecution following complaints of errant behaviour.
On January 2 of this year, Mahathir said in a blog post that monarchs were not above the law. Sources said the remarks were aimed at the Johor royal family.
Historically there has not been any departure from the rotational election list, save for in 1984 when Johor and Perak states switched orders after Perak’s sultan died a few months before the inauguration.
“As a result, Sultan Iskandar of Johor took over as the 8th Agong. Sultan Azlan Shah of Perak then took over as the 9th Agong. Hence, we can see a slight shift here – Perak was supposed to precede over Johor in the ‘election list’, but this was hampered by unfortunate circumstances,” said Lim.
Sultan Muhammad V, 49, resigned on Sunday after weeks of speculation claiming he would abdicate. No official reason was given, although this is the first time in Malaysia’s modern-day monarchy that a king has stepped down.
In the statement on Sunday, the sultan conveyed his thanks to the other Malay rulers who chose him as the Yang di Pertuan Agong in December 2016, and to the prime minister and the government who cooperated in overseeing the country.
The Oxford-educated 49-year-old had taken a two-month leave of absence in November and was due back in office on January 1, but questions arose last week over whether he had returned.
Muhammad V took the leave of absence on medical grounds. Foreign media reports said he had married a Russian beauty queen while he was away from the national office – though neither he nor the palace ever confirmed this.
The youngest Agong elected, Muhammad V’s tenure was marked by several clashes with Mahathir.
In May, after the general election that saw former governing coalition Barisan Nasional toppled for the first time in its 61-year rule, there was widespread speculation that the palace had delayed Mahathir’s swearing in as prime minister. In June, the government and the Agong reached an impasse regarding the appointment of ethnic Indian lawyer Tommy Thomas as attorney general, a position normally reserved for a member of the Malay-Muslim majority race – although the constitution does not specify a specific race, gender or religious requirement for the role. The Agong consented to the appointment after two weeks of the stand-off.
Muhammad V was also the ruler who handed democracy icon and prime minister-in-waiting Anwar Ibrahim a royal pardon in May, wiping clean his record of multiple charges of sodomy and corruption and releasing him from prison.