Malaysia's king wins plaudits during political storm

A. Ananthalakshmi and Rozanna Latiff
·3-min read
FILE PHOTO: Malaysia's King Al-Sultan Abdullah inspects guard of honour on Independence Day
FILE PHOTO: Malaysia's King Al-Sultan Abdullah inspects guard of honour on Independence Day

By A. Ananthalakshmi and Rozanna Latiff

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Frustrated with a months-long political power struggle during the coronavirus pandemic, Malaysians have praised King Al-Sultan Abdullah for rejecting Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin's request on Sunday to impose emergency rule.

"He saved our People, Country and Democracy," Twitter user @Kushfein said in one of many positive responses to the king's decision posted on social media.

Holding a largely figurehead role, Malaysian monarchs rarely make headlines for their role in the country's political affairs, but Al-Sultan Abdullah has made several big calls since February, when an elected coalition government suddenly splintered.

And he could play a key role if the political instability continues, say constitutional lawyers and political analysts.

The monarchy has traditionally been seen close to the government of the day, but Al-Sultan Abdullah's refusal of Muhyiddin's request has boosted confidence in the king's constitutional role.

"It restores a certain faith in the constitutional monarchy in this country that they are not just very passive," historian Kobkua Suwannathat-Pian said.

'CHECK AND BALANCE'

Al-Sultan Abdullah gave Muhyiddin the premiership after the alliance headed by veteran leader Mahathir Mohamad fell apart in February. In the process he turned down Mahathir's late bid to show he had the numbers in parliament to retain power.

Earlier this month, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim went to the king to prove that he had assembled a majority to oust Muhyiddin. The king urged Anwar to follow the constitutional process, and in the two weeks since that meeting, he has repeatedly called for an end to politicking during the pandemic.

On Sunday, the king refused Muhyiddin a state of emergency, which critics say would have allowed the prime minister to suspend parliament and effectively stymie any attempt to bring down his government.

But, the king also threw Muhyiddin a lifeline and told the country's party-hopping lawmakers to stop their power plays.

Posting on Facebook shortly before the Malay rulers met to discuss the king's course of action, the crown prince of the powerful sultanate of Johor said the traditional rulers provided "checks and balances".

"The current situation is a clear indication of what would happen when power to rule is left entirely to politicians," the crown prince, Tunku Ismail Idris, said in his post.

POPULARITY

Malaysia has a unique system, as the nine Malay sultans take turns to assume the role of king every five years.

It is a largely ceremonial role, including acting as custodian of Islam in the Muslim-majority country.

In the early 1990s, the then prime minister Mahathir passed constitutional changes to curb some of the sultans' powers to stall legislation and ending their immunity from prosecution.

But the sultans are still held in deep respect by Malays and the non-Muslim Indian and Chinese minority communities.

Having become king after his father's abdication in 2019, Al-Sultan Abdullah, 61, has won popularity with his approachable demeanour and down-to-earth image, having been spotted helping accident victims on the highway and queuing up for food at KFC.

And the Malaysian monarchy's stock stands high at present compared to neighbouring Thailand, where there have been mass protests daily to call for the prime minister to resign and reforms of the monarchy and a scaling back of the king's powers.

"The monarchy no longer plays a ceremonial role but is taking an 'active part' to ease the uncertainty," said Muhammad Takiyuddin Ismail, a political science lecturer at the National University of Malaysia, adding that the rejection of the emergency request enhanced the monarchy's reputation.

(Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)