Why is Malaysia’s king helping choose the country’s next PM?

Four days after an inconclusive election that gave the opposition Pakatan Harapan the most seats, but not a majority, efforts continue to form a new government.

Malaysia's king and queen in pale blue traditional outfits. The king is saluting.
Malaysia's King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah took the throne after his predecessor suddenly resigned [File: Lai Seng Sin/Reuters]

Malaysia’s king is taking a central role as rival coalitions try to form a new government after the election on Saturday ended in a hung parliament.

The opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim has won 82 seats, leaving it 30 seats short of a 112-seat majority in parliament.

The Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition under former Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin got 73 seats.

Both Anwar and Muhyiddin are trying to reach a majority, and King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah has held meetings with both.

“Let me make a decision soon,” he told reporters on Tuesday outside the national palace, asking Malaysians to accept any decision about the government formation.

Here’s what you need to know about the king and the Malaysian monarchy.

Who is King Sultan Abdullah?

Malaysia’s head of state is known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the position is filled on a unique rotational basis among the country’s royal households.

Each king usually holds the post for five years, but Sultan Abdullah took the throne after his predecessor Sultan Muhammad V suddenly announced he would step down.

Sultan Abdullah comes from the central state of Pahang. He was proclaimed Pahang’s sixth sultan, replacing his 88-year-old father, only a week before he was named the Agong.

The king in a white shirt and striped tie waves to reporters gathered outside the palace.
The king has said he will make an announcement “soon” on the formation of Malaysia’s next government [Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters]

The 59-year-old went to school in the United Kingdom and attended the military academy at Sandhurst. He is married with nine children and was a keen polo and football player when he was younger, even representing his state. He is a past president of the Football Association of Malaysia and has also sat on FIFA’s executive committee, according to his official biography.

How has the king been involved since the election?

The Election Commission announced the results of the election in the early hours of Sunday morning.

It was the first time the poll had resulted in a hung parliament.

Anwar announced soon after that he has enough support to command a majority in the house; a few hours later, Muhyiddin claimed the same.

Amid the uncertainty, the king issued a statement setting a Monday deadline for the coalitions to form new alliances and submit them to the palace. Amid conflicting statements of support and a whirlwind of meetings between the two main coalitions and the partners needed to form a government, Sultan Abdullah extended the deadline by 24 hours.

Anwar and Muhyiddin met him separately at the palace shortly after the Tuesday deadline expired, with neither apparently having secured the necessary 112 seats.

The king proposed a “unity” government between the multiethnic PH and the conservative Malay Muslim PN. Muhyiddin said he had declined that suggestion. Anwar, meanwhile, told reporters he wanted to form a strong government “that is more inclusive in terms of race, religion, or region”.

Anwar puts his hands together as he comes out of the palace to speak to reporters. He seems to be confident
PH leader Anwar Ibrahim told reporters he would continue efforts to secure a majority after leaving his meeting at the palace [Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters]

The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, which dominated Malaysian politics until 2018, has emerged as the kingmaker since the election, even though it was roundly rejected by many voters. Its 30 seats would give PH the majority it needs to form a government. But if they aligned with PN it would go some way towards helping that coalition get into Putrajaya, the administrative capital.

The king met each of the 30 BN representatives on Wednesday morning, as well as members from the Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), which has 23 representatives in the new parliament, and Gabungan Parti Rakyat (GPR), which is based in Sabah and has six.

Following the meetings, Sultan Abdullah released a statement saying he would discuss the formation of the new government with the Conference of Rulers, the grouping of all Malaysia’s sultans, at a meeting on Thursday morning.

Has the king chosen a PM before?

Malaysia is a parliamentary democracy under which the party or coalition that wins the most seats in the general election forms the government. The leader of that party or coalition usually becomes prime minister.

The role of the country’s constitutional monarch is largely advisory, but under the constitution, the king does have the power to appoint a prime minister that he believes has the confidence of legislators.

That power has been used twice since February 2020, when a power struggle led to the collapse of the PH government elected in 2018 and the resignation of then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

After inviting members of parliament to meet him at the palace following a week of uncertainty, Sultan Abdullah announced Muhyiddin as leader.

Amid continued instability, Muhyiddin quit in August 2021, and the king then chose Ismail Sabri Yaakob, a vice president of BN’s scandal-tainted United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), as prime minister. On that occasion, he asked members of parliament to submit statutory declarations on the person they thought had the majority of support in the house.

Source: Al Jazeera, Reuters