June 9, 2021

Asia

MALAYSIA: With politics in dire straits, sultans could swing sentiments

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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The sultans who head Malaysia’s nine royal households — collectively known as the monarchy — will meet on 16 June to discuss the country’s top political issues: the vaccine rollout, the recent spike in Covid-19 cases, and the end of the country’s state of emergency. The meeting is described as an emergency session, not a regular meeting of the Conference of Rulers, which is the council composed of the hereditary rulers of nine Malaysian states and four governors that convenes three times a year. Also, King Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah today started a series of meetings with leaders of the main political parties to discuss the pandemic response.

Malaysia’s royalty holds only ceremonial power, but with the political system fragmented and the ruling coalition unstable, the institution has seen its political and social clout grow over the past year. The state of emergency ordered by the king earlier this year and the consequent suspension of parliamentary sessions — a move that made it difficult for the opposition to mobilize a public or political outcry – possibly saved Prime Minister Muhyiddin from a parliamentary sitting where his main coalition partner, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), could have defected to the opposition.

The royals opted to support preservation of the status quo for the first half of the year, nominally to avoid political instability while the country was amid a major Covid-19 outbreak. But with public anger having increased in the past few weeks over the government’s handling of the most recent spike in cases, the royals may be recognizing that their credibility could suffer along with that of Yassin.

There are two potential outcomes to watch for: the royals could propose “unity” measures such as a political-bureaucratic initiative to depoliticize the pandemic response (although this would be an implied rejection of the PM); or the meeting could generate signals that the king may allow parliament to resume sessions ahead of lifting of the state of emergency or modify the 1 August end date for the current state of emergency.

Allowing parliament to reconvene could be a safety valve for public frustration, but it would immediately raise speculation about whether the prime minister is in imminent political danger — either from an impending election or from the king appointing a new PM, as he did with Muhyiddin last year. Until there is some public confidence that Covid-19 is again well under control and that vaccinations are proceeding at a decent pace, it will be difficult to call an election in the next six months.

Over the past two decades, the monarchy has become savvier at protecting its position. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad was partially successful in reducing its influence by taking away its veto power at the federal level, but the king has retained his power to declare a state of emergency. Recognizing their potential vulnerability, the royals have endeavored, relatively successfully, to stay relevant by balancing their emphasis on accountability and transparency, and attempting to voice common concerns and defending Muslim concerns. By meeting ahead of their regular Conference, the royals are attempting to again position themselves as effective political and social intermediators, similar to the role performed by the late Thai king Bhumibol Adulyadej. This may work against Yassin if his recent track record is now seen as a liability.

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