A stick to beat the sultans of swing: Raymond Whitaker reports from Kuala Lumpur on a bitter power struggle between wayward royals and a thoroughly modern prime minister

DOUGLAS Gomez, a Malaysian hockey coach, probably knew what to expect when he was summoned to the palace of the Sultan of Johor, Mahmood Iskander Ismail. The 60-year-old ruler, who has a Lear jet, eight palaces and a 200-man private army, is known for his violent temper. He was once convicted of manslaughter, and faced imprisonment and a fine until he was pardoned by his father.

As Mr Gomez went for his interview with the Sultan, his mind must have gone back to last year's Malaysian Games, when the hockey final was contested between the states of Johor and Perak. The Johor team was led by the Sultan's son, Prince Abdul Majid Idris. Perak won.

According to the charge later laid against Prince Abdul Majid, he went for the Perak goalkeeper, Mohamed Selvaraja, who was slapped and kicked unconscious in his team's dressing-room. The 22-year-old prince was charged then acquitted but agreed to pay the goalkeeper 1,000 ringgit (about pounds 250) in compensation.

In the wake of the assault, the Malaysian hockey authorities banned the prince for six months. Soon, Johor teams started pulling out of tournaments, apparently on orders from the palace. In one case, a team was withdrawn from a schools final minutes before bully-off, before a full stadium.

Mr Gomez had the temerity to complain at the damage this was doing to local players, and was called to see Sultan Mahmood.

Reporters were waiting for the hockey coach when he emerged an hour later. Although Mr Gomez was visibly shaken and bruised, he refused to say anything: apart from the immunity from prosection enjoyed by Malaysian rulers, any criticism of them can be held by the sultans themselves to amount to sedition.

Subsequently, however, the coach changed his mind, reporting to the police that after a lecture from palace staff on proper respect for the ruler, he was taken in to see the Sultan. There he was rushed by a group of men in jeans, who joined the Sultan in beating him up. Officially, Mr Gomez's complaint is still being investigated, but that is insignificant. What matters is that the complaint was made, and that it is leading to one of the greatest upheavals in the short history of this south-east Asian nation.

When Britain granted independence to Malaysia in 1957, the country enjoyed ample natural resources of tin, rubber, teak and palm oil, and - unlike some of its neighbours - more than adequate living space. The main drawback was the communal divide: the mainly rural and poor Malays outnumbered the more prosperous and urban Chinese and Indians by only a slim margin. Religious conflict also existed between Islam, to which most Malays adhere, and the Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism practised by the rest.

Nine of Malaysia's 13 states have rulers, who are regarded not only as protectors of their subjects, but also as the upholders of Islam in their territories. Seven carry the title of sultan. Their personal styles and fortunes differ radically, but Sultan Mahmood attracts more publicity than the rest put together.

The richest man in Malaysia, with extensive land holdings in Singapore, just across the causeway from his state, the ruler of Johor is not one to brook any restraint. In the controversy which ensued after Mr Gomez's ordeal, one government MP, Shahidan Kassim, referred in parliament to 23 incidents since 1972 involving Sultan Mahmood and his son. Most notoriously, a golf caddie is alleged to have died after being hit on the head by a club. His offence was to distract the Sultan as he was attempting to make a putt.

The Sultan's behaviour has been common knowledge for years, but complaints have been hushed up and public criticism almost non-existent. Malaysia's rulers have been accustomed to demanding licences, concessions and contracts from businessmen, civil servants and politicians, and to having their comings and goings reported reverently by the media. Until now, that is. The Gomez affair, in the eyes of Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, is the opportunity he has been waiting for.

Dr Mahathir, a qualified medical practitioner who has been in power since 1981, stands for a different kind of Malaysia.

In his time the country has been transformed from a purveyor of raw commodities into a rapidly industrialising economy. Light manufactures dominate exports - the country is the world's leading maker of air-conditioners, for example, and builds its own car, the Proton, which is being sold in Britain. Since 1987 the economy has grown by more than 8 per cent a year.

For Dr Mahathir, Kuala Lumpur's gleaming buildings and highways, choked with Protons and the rumble of earth-movers clearing the way for new estates of town houses, are the answer to the small number of Western-liberals who criticise his impatience with democratic niceties. His certainty of his own rightness has grown the longer he remains in power: Malays are frequently lectured like feckless patients on the virtues of hard work and providing for the future, with Japan cited as a model.

This vision leaves little room for the country's rulers, who represent the forces holding back Malays from doing as well as their Chinese fellow citizens, in Dr Mahathir's view. Attacks on the rulers' power have been a theme of his time in office: in 1983 he sought to remove the King's right to block legislation, and last year pressed the rulers to sign a code of conduct barring them from politics and most commercial activities. Sultan Mahmood was among three rulers who refused to accept the ban.

Dr Mahathir's problem is that the rulers' prerogatives are entrenched in the constitution, and can be changed or abolished only if they agree. Earlier this month, using the Gomez affair as a lever, he sought to impose the code of conduct again, as well as removing rulers' immunity from prosecution and the ability to pardon themselves and their families.

The sultans rejected the proposals but Parliament has voted to amend the constitution anyway, and a crisis looms as the legislation awaits the King's signature. In the meantime, the government is waging all-out war on the rulers. Civil servants have been told to seek the Prime Minister's permission before seeing the King; state governments are under orders to refuse business favours to their rulers.

For the past month, page 2 of the government-controlled New Straits Times has been devoted to the sultans' excesses: how Sultan Ismail Petra of Kelantan, for example, imported 30 duty-free luxury cars rather than the seven allowed, and how he got away from customs officials in a Lamborghini Diablo on the pretext of test-driving it. The 200m ringgit cost of maintaining the rulers has been lavishly detailed, including the hospital wards kept for their exclusive use, and the 9.3m ringgit spent on new cutlery and bedspreads for the King, which the newspaper said could have built two hospitals, or 46 rural clinics or 46 primary schools. Religious teachers have been encouraged to comment on the un-Muslim behaviour of the supposed guardians of Islam.

The Malaysian royals have been unfavourably compared with their British counterparts, who, in the words of one commentator, 'are more well-behaved, have a less lavish lifestyle and are more conscious of the money taken from the public purse'. The Queen's decision to pay taxes has been highlighted.

The campaign may well have the desired effect of isolating the rulers and bending them to the Prime Minister's will, but he risks damaging the country's fine balance of interests.

In a country with no great monuments, such as Thailand's Ayutthaya or Cambodia's Angkor Wat, and no heroic struggle for independence, many still cling to the sultans as the embodiment of tradition.

(Photographs omitted)