The last check and balance, or a palace coup?
Nothing is straight forward in Malaysia. Last Saturday, the Barisan Nasional (BN), led by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) won a resounding state election victory in Johor, only to find that their chosen Mentri Besar (chief minister) candidate Hasni Mohammad was overlooked by the Johor palace for Onn Hafiz Ghazi.
This is not the first time political party nominees for the position of chief minister have been knocked back by respective state palaces. Back in Terengganu 2008, there was a political impasse when the sultan insisted Ahmad Said be chief minister over UMNO’s choice, Idris Jusoh. In Perlis 2009, the Raja refused to swear in Shahidan Kassim as chief minister and swore in Md Isa Sabu instead. In Selangor 2004, in what was called the Kajang move, the sultan refused to appoint then opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s wife Wan Azizah as chief minister, picking Azmin Ali, even though he didn’t have apparent support from the majority of assembly members. In Perlis 2018, the Raja swore in Azlan Man as chief minister, even though the ceremony was boycotted by assembly members who supported their candidate Ismail Kassim, brother of Shahidan Kassim.
There is a degree of absolute power in the hands of the monarchs that doesn’t devolve to other constitutional monarchies. According to state constitutions, the Sultan or Raja in the case of Perlis, and Yang Di-Pertuan Agong (YDPA) federally, can appoint ‘who they believe to have the support of the majority of members’ of the assembly.
There are a number of implications of what happened over the last few days in Johor.
The first issue is sovereignty over who has the power to select any chief minister? As historical precedent has shown on a number of occasions, it’s not a mandate by the people, or a nominee by the largest political party or coalition occupying the largest number of seats in the lower house that counts. It’s the selection made by the Sultan, Raja, of YDPA.
This has been in all constitutions since federation and is how the Malaysian political process is written by law and convention has supported this. This is one of the aspects of the Malaysian democratic system that makes it unique, and historically connects the Sultans with the absolute power they once had to make any selection for their chief minister of government.
Just because Sultans, Raja, or YDPA don’t always utilize this privilege doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
However, the use of this privilege in selecting the chief minister early this week by Sultan Ibrahim Ibni Almarhum Sultan Iskandar has deep implications on contemporary political scene. The Sultan’s decision effectively checked the power of UMNO, and its formal leadership, making what would have been an ecstatic celebration of victory on the floor of the UMNO conference at the Putra World Trade Centre (PWTC) this week, to something much more subdued.
This checks the current UMNO leadership, controlled by Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as president and his convicted cohort Najib Razak. At least from Johor there is a message of displeasure with the resurgence of this group openly within the public domain. This is a counter to the growing phenomena of ‘Bossku’ from the south of the peninsula, at least.
The UMNO leadership’s choice for chief minister Hasni Mohammad, with a track record of experience, was discarded in favour of Onn Hafiz Ghazi, who has a deep Johor pedigree. Onn Hafiz is the great grandson of the first chief minister of Johor Jaafar Muhammad, and great grandson of the founder of UMNO Onn Jaafar and former prime minister of Malaysia Hussein Onn. Maybe more importantly, Onn Hafiz is a nephew of current defence minister and supporter of current prime minister Ismail Sabri, Hishammuddin Hussein, who regularly carries counsel within the palace.
This is as much support you would overtly see for the current prime minister over the so-called court cluster within UMNO by a royal household.
Nobody, except for those with close council knows the exact reasons for his choice. We can only surmise some of the palace sentiments from past public statements over the years. This hints that the Johor monarchy are very concerned about the agenda politicians have mapped out for Johor. Its no secret the Johor Sultan has strong views about governance, economic development, education, health, and religious extremism. The action also signals concern over the political instability within the country at present, and corresponding agendas behind this. There is a strong sentiment against control from Putra Jaya and national UMNO, as there is a belief this is not always in Johor’s best interests as a state.
The Conference of Rulers have also managed to wrest control of the scandal ridden Islamic Development Department (JAKIM), at a time when the federal government is weak. JAKIM has for years encroached upon state powers over Islam, which has irked the royal households. The keeper of the Royal Seal also announced the Sultan of Selangor Sharafuddin Idris Shah would take the position of Chairman of the National Council for Islamic Affairs (MKI) on a two year rotational basis with other monarchs.
On more than one occasion the king Al-Sultan Abdullah Al-Haj has formally requested politicians publicly to stop bickering and focus on governance. This has gone unheeded. So, it can be expected that the Council of Rulers will use their position to the maximum in future to try and steer the nation’s governance in a direction, they see as best for the nation.
What happened in Johor can be seen two ways. Many Malaysians are outraged that the Johor Sultan took it upon himself to swear in his own selection for chief minister. There is anger calling this nepotism and undemocratic.
However, on the flip side of this, the Sultan is acting according to the constitution in the appointment he made. It can be argued that the Sultan is the last check and balance in the Malaysian democratic system. The effect of his decision is to cast displeasure over the growing influence of UMNO’s court cluster and cast support behind Ismail Sabri Yaakob’s premiership of the nation, in an effort to maintain political stability.
One can expect a covert social media campaign to discredit some royal households over the next few months. We can only guess from what quarters these attacks will come.
Some will cry that this is a palace coup, while others may see that the Sultan has acted with a wisdom that is potentially beneficial to the democratic process of the nation.