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Democracy and the Monarchy in Malaysia

Dian A H Shah, National University Singapore Faculty of Law

[Editor’s note: This is one of our biweekly I-CONnect columns. Columns, while scholarly in accordance with the tone of the blog and about the same length as a normal blog post, are a bit more “op-ed” in nature than standard posts. For more information about our four columnists for 2019, see here.]

On 24 January 2019, Malaysia witnessed the second momentous occasion in her constitutional and political history in the past year. After the general elections in May 2018 had delivered an end to dominant coalition rule under Barisan Nasional (BN), another election installed the country’s sixteenth Yang di-Pertuan Agong (King), who reigns for a term of five years. This election, however, was carried out by and amongst the Conference of Rulers – an institution comprising the nine hereditary Malay rulers from states in the Federation.[1]

The election of the King, to be sure,was not in itself a historic occasion. In fact, this system of electing and appointing the country’s head of state has been practiced since independence – a hallmark of Malaysia’s autochthonous constitution which inherited a Westminster-style system of government. However, it was the circumstances that led to the election of a new King that drew attention to Malaysia’s unique system of constitutional monarchy.

On 6 January 2019, Sultan Muhammad V of Kelantan abdicated as King, ending weeks of speculation about the throne. Immediately before the unprecedented abdication, there was extensive speculation that the Conference of Rulers had met in an undisclosed meeting at the turn of the new year and requested Sultan Muhammad V to abdicate. Before that, he had taken a two-month medical leave from November 2018. Reports then surfaced on social media that he had married a Russian national during his period of absence. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad issued a statement in late November that he ‘could not confirm’ the King’s marriage, but the National Palace (Istana Negara) – even to date – has neither confirmed nor denied the news.[2] Some speculate that the marriage was one of the reasons that Sultan Muhammad V’s position became untenable. When the date was set for the election of a new King, the Malaysian public turned their attention to the succession of the country’s head of state. This event not only raised the question of who amongst the Malay rulers would fill the office, but it also generated much interest in the process of appointment and the profile of the next King.

The Resilience of Malaysia’s Constitutional Monarchy

In an era when monarchies are increasingly constrained in public life, closely scrutinized, and perhaps even viewed as irrelevant, Malaysia’s monarchy and its position within the country’s constitutional and democratic order has risen to prominence. The institution not only remains close to the heart of the Malay majority in Malaysia due to its traditional and symbolic functions with regard to Islam and Malay culture; it has remained resilient, expanding and strengthening its influence in social and political life.[3]

Unlike in absolute monarchies, the Malay rulers are constrained by Westminster-style conventions embedded in federal and state constitutions. At the federal level, the King is the Supreme Head of the Federation but he – just like the Malay rulers at the state level – does not wield unfettered powers to govern. In particular, he is generally required to act upon the advice of the executive. But even so, the role of the King is not merely ‘symbolic’ or ‘ceremonial’ – he may act in his personal discretion in a number of situations, including the appointment of the Prime Minister and the withholding of consent to the dissolution of the legislature.[4]

Malaysians have increasingly turned to the monarchy for wisdom and stability as the country battled through financial scandals, political instability, and ethnic tensions. Although the nine monarchs have specific functions with regard to Islam and Malay customs, they are also towering icons for national unity and harmony. Indeed, on some occasions, the monarchy has stepped in publicly on politically-sensitive issues that ordinary politicians are reluctant to act upon out of concern that they might alienate their core voter base.  For instance, in 2017, a launderette in the state of Johor limited its service to Muslims only on the basis of maintaining religiously-driven standards of hygiene.[5]  The Sultan of Johor swiftly intervened, ordering the launderette owner to cease operations if he continued with the discriminatory policy.[6]

More recently, in the wake of the May 2018 general elections, the state of Perak faced a crisis in forming its government due to a hung state assembly. The Pakatan Harapan (PH)coalition, which formed the government at federal level, won 29 seats – just one seat short of the minimum needed to claim outright control of the assembly. In spite of that, Sultan Nazrin of Perak – in line with established Westminster convention – gave the coalition the first opportunity to form the government, although there was talk of the BN coalition (which won 27 seats) forming an alliance with the Islamic party, PAS (which secured 3 seats).[7] A day earlier, Sultan Nazrin (who is also the Deputy King) reportedly stepped in to avert a serious constitutional crisis arising from the then King’s hesitation to appoint Mahathir Mohamad (leader of the PH coalition) as Prime Minister.[8]

Successions, Conventions, and the Future of the ‘New Malaysia’

The recent abdication has again put the monarchy under the spotlight, as it triggered debates about the complex rules of succession detailed in the Federal Constitution. As I mentioned earlier, Malaysia practices a unique system whereby the King is elected to the throne, but this works alongside a system of rotation in which the nine Malay rulers take turns to occupy the federal throne according to a predetermined order of succession.[9]

As Sultan Muhammad V had abdicated, Sultan Ahmad Shah of Pahang stood next in line to the throne, followed by Sultan Ibrahim of Johor, and Sultan Nazrin of Perak. Sultan Nazrin – a graduate of Harvard University and Oxford University – is widely seen as a highly intellectual and progressive ruler who would be crucial in facilitating reforms and good governance under the new government. Sultan Ahmad Shah would have been unable to ascend to the throne as he is gravely ill, which meant that there was a possibility that the Johor ruler would ascend to the throne. But there was a problem – the current Prime Minister and the Johor royalty have an uneasy history. In 1993, the Mahathir government engineered a constitutional amendment to remove the rulers’ constitutional immunity from suit relating to acts done in their personal capacity. This was prompted by a series of alleged criminal acts involving the then Sultan Iskandar of Johor, the late father of the present ruler.[10] Although the amendment marked an important step in strengthening the rule of law, it did not sit well with some members of the royalty who saw this as a direct challenge against their long-held privileges.

Eventually, a potentially difficult situation was averted. Sultan Ahmad Shah abdicated the throne in his state of Pahang, paving the way for his son, Crown Prince Abdullah, to be installed as the next ruler. The Conference of Rulers – in keeping with convention – elected Sultan Abdullah of Pahang as the King.

Suggested citation: Dian A H Shah, Democracy and the Monarchy in Malaysia, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Feb. 6, 2019, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2019/02/democracy-and-the-monarchy-in-malaysia/


[1] These are states that have maintained a traditional hereditary Malay ruler (Sultan) throughout the British colonial period. States without such rulers are Sabah and Sarawak in Borneo, the states of Penang and Malacca which were under direct British control as crown colonies, and the Federal Territories of Kuala Lumpur and Labuan.

[2] ‘Mahathir says can’t confirm if Malaysian King Has married, as widely reported on social media’, The Straits Times (Singapore 29 November 2018), <www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/mahathir-says-cant-confirm-if-malaysian-king-has-married-as-widely-reported-on-social>.

[3] See generally, Andrew Harding, ‘’Nazrinian monarchy in Malaysia: The resilience and revival of a traditional institution’ in Andrew Harding and Dian A. H. Shah (eds), Law and Society in Malaysia: Pluralism, Religion, and Ethnicity (Routledge 2018) 72.

[4] Article 40(2), Federal Constitution of Malaysia.

[5] Nabila Ahmad, ‘Launderette owner apologises over Muslim-only signboard’, The Star (Petaling Jaya, 27 September 2017) <www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/09/27/launderette-owner-apologises-over-muslim-only-signboard/>.

[6] Wong Chun Wai, ‘Dressing down for launderette’, The Star (Petaling Jaya, 27 September 2017) <www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/09/27/dressing-down-for-launderette-open-it-to-all-or-just-close-shop-angry-johor-sultan-tells-owner/> .

[7] See ‘Perak Pakatan given first opportunity to form state government’, The Star (Petaling Jaya, 11 May 2018) <www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2018/05/11/perak-pakatan-given-first-opportunity-to-form-state-government/> and Jaclyn L Neo, Dian AH Shah, and Andrew Harding, ‘Introduction to I-CONnect Symposium: Malaysia Boleh! Constitutional Implications of the Malaysian Tsunami’, (I-CONnect, 20 June 2018) <www.iconnectblog.com/2018/06/introduction-to-i-connect-symposium-malaysia-boleh-constitutional-implications-of-the-malaysian-tsunami/>.

[8] Neo, Shah, and Harding, ibid.

[9] This system is derived from the customs practiced by the Perak and Negeri Sembilan royal houses. Andrew Harding, Law, Government, and the Constitution in Malaysia (Kluwer 1996) 10.

[10] Harding (n 3) 80.

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Published on February 6, 2019
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