Malaysia prepares for ‘hands-on’ king as Johor Sultan takes the throne

Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar took the oath as the country’s 17th king under a unique rotational monarchy.

Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar salutes the guard of honour, beside Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim at the National Palace. They are both in ceremonial uniforms/ Sultan Ibrahim's is black and Anwar's white with a green sash.
The Sultan of Johor, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar saluting the honour guard alongside Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim [Hasnoor Hussain/Pool via Reuters]

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – The last time a Sultan from the state of Johor was on the throne of Malaysia in the late 1980s, the country was embroiled in a constitutional crisis as then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sought to clip the wings of the judiciary.

Now, as the current Johor Sultan becomes king, Malaysia is facing a corruption crackdown which has ensnared some of the most prominent political personalities of the Mahathir era, speculation of a pardon for disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak and continued political manoeuvring as part of a realignment that began in 2018.

“It is very likely that at some point, he will be called upon to adjudicate as to which side would have a more solid command of parliament,” Malaysian political analyst Oh Ei Sun told Al Jazeera. “It could happen any time.”

Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, 65, took his oath as the 17th Yang di-Pertuan Agong in a ceremony in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday, which was broadcast live on state television.

He will serve for five years as part of Malaysia’s unique system of rotational monarchy under which the country’s nine hereditary rulers take turns to be the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, or He Who is Made Lord.

While the king is a constitutional monarch who acts as the head of state and commander of the armed forces, the upheaval that followed the historic election in 2018 – when the once-dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was defeated for the first time since independence – has seen the monarch playing a more prominent role in the country’s politics.

Sultan Ibrahim (n black) during the oath taking ceremony.
The Sultan of Johor (in black) sits among other royal sultans during the oath taking ceremony [Mohd Rasfan/Pool via Reuters]

At the time of that defeat, King Muhammad V from the northeastern state of Kelantan, was on the throne, and helped ensure a smooth transfer of power.

When the then-49-year-old chose to resign, his successor, King Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah from the central state of Pahang, used the monarch’s discretionary powers to name the country’s prime ministers in 2020 and 2021, and after the election in 2022 when no single party won a parliamentary majority.

He also agreed to then-Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s request for a state of emergency, which suspended parliament in January 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic raged.

As Sultan Ibrahim is installed, Malaysia is in a period of relative calm, with Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim at the head of a so-called “unity” government that includes his one-time rivals in UMNO as well as representatives from the Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak.

Still, some politicians continue to jockey for power amid deep cleavages in Malaysian society, while a corruption crackdown has ensnared Daim Zainuddin, the once powerful right-hand man to Mahathir, Malaysia’s longest-serving prime minister.

There is nervousness too about disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak who is nearly 18 months into a 12-year sentence for corruption in relation to the multibillion-dollar scandal at state fund 1MDB.

Speculation has grown that Najib, who has applied for a full pardon, might be released despite facing multiple ongoing court cases in relation the scandal.

Some say Najib’s release would help address some of the country’s political divisions because he remains popular among some ethnic Malays, who make up more than half the population and have increasingly voted for conservative religious and nationalist parties.

But analysts say such a move risks alienating those who want to see reform, and undermining Malaysia’s international reputation.

King of Malaysia Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar smiles. He is in ceremonial uniform.
Malaysia’s new king is known for his love of fast cars, trains, planes and trucks [Hasnoor Hussain/Pool via AFP]

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Federal Territories) Zaliha Mustafa said the Pardons Board met at the palace on Monday in the last official engagement for the outgoing king. She did not elaborate on what was discussed.

“Wait for an official statement by (the) Pardons Board,” she said, according to the Star, a Malaysian newspaper.

‘Not shy’

Malaysia’s royal houses remain potent symbols of identity for the Malays, and the king is the official head of Islam in the country. Malays in Malaysia are always Muslim.

Sultan Ibrahim has previously spoken out against the “Arabisation” of Malay culture and stressed the need for moderation in a country where there are large populations of ethnic Chinese and Indians, most of whom are not Muslim.

Independent analyst Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani says once he moves into the palace, the new king “will not be shy” about offering his views to Anwar if he is unhappy.

The two men appear to have a close working relationship and share similar concerns, notably over the need to tackle corruption and boost the economy and investment.

Serina Rahman, a lecturer in the Southeast Asian Studies department at the National University of Singapore, noted how the sultan had told reporters Anwar messaged him for advice in the middle of the night, while Anwar had sought to nurture the relationship and encourage closer ties between Johor and Singapore.

“This is a huge difference,” she told Al Jazeera. “Previous prime ministers wanted everything to go through KL (Kuala Lumpur). Clearly this means that the king and Anwar have a good relationship and that will help both of them, together, improve things for the country.”

This month, Singapore and Malaysia reached a preliminary agreement to establish a Singapore-Johor special economic zone and improve connectivity across the border, one of the busiest in the world.

Sultan Ibrahim has also spoken out in support of a high speed rail link between Malaysia and Singapore that was previously put on the backburner because of the high cost.

“Unlike other state rulers who have been mostly ceremonial, the sultan has always had a hands-on approach to state matters and a working relationship with the chief minister,” Asrul Hadi said referring to the leader of the Johor state government. “He is expecting a similar relationship with the federal government but there will likely be pushback from the administration, especially on policy matters.”

Sultan Ibrahim has already triggered controversy in an interview with Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper that was published in December.

Under a story headlined “No ‘puppet king'”, the Sultan said there was a need to tackle corruption, for “checks and balances” on the government and to control the “machinations of self-serving politicians” in a swipe at the political manoeuvring that has rocked the country over the past few years.

“He will not want to be caught in the games which the politicians are playing,” said Ong Kian Ming, the director of the philosophy, politics and economics programme at Taylor’s University in Kuala Lumpur as well as a former member of parliament and deputy trade minister. “He wants political stability so that a strong economic agenda can be put in place and implemented.”

Married with six children, Sultan Ibrahim is one of Malaysia’s wealthiest men with interests in internet services to property, including a stake in the troubled China-backed Forest City project.

Known for his annual road trip around Johor to meet the state’s people – conducted one year from a custom-made Mack truck – he has a passion for fast cars and aircraft.

Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, meanwhile, his eldest son, has won plaudits for the state’s dominance of national football with Johor Darul Ta’zim FC (JDT) winning the super league for 10 years in a row.

The family has also shown media savvy, giving an insight into royal life with hundreds of thousands of followers on social media platforms including Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

Posts have included videos of the sultan joking as he meets people around Johor and a film on the recruitment process for the Royal Johor Military Force, the state’s private army.

Crown Prince Ismail Sultan Ibrahim of Johor at his father's installation ceremony. He is seated between the rulers of Perlis and Perak
Crown Prince Ismail Sultan Ibrahim of Johor (centre) has won plaudits for the success of the Johor football team [Mohd Rasfan/Pool via AFP]

Earlier this week, they shared photos and videos from the ceremony where Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, popularly known as TMJ (the Malay acronym for Tunku Makhota Johor), was made regent ahead of his father’s departure for Kuala Lumpur.

The post showed the 39-year-old prince, dressed in full military uniform, arriving at the palace in a black Rolls Royce and taking the oath.

On Wednesday, attention turned to Sultan Ibrahim.

After travelling through the streets of Johor, where thousands turned out to bid him farewell, the Sultan flew to Kuala Lumpur where he took the oath of office at a lavish ceremony that was broadcast live on television.

Anwar, members of the government and parliament were also among the guests.

“With this oath, I solemnly and truly profess to be faithful, to rule fairly for Malaysia in accordance with the laws and the constitution,” Sultan Ibrahim said.

With reporting from Florence Looi

Source: Al Jazeera