Sultan Abdullah: How Malaysia chooses its new king in bizarre 'rotational monarchy'

The unprecedented abdication of the king, or Agong, this month took Malaysia into uncharted territory

Adam Withnall
Asia editor
Thursday 24 January 2019 10:12 GMT

Malaysia has named Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin its new king following a secretive meeting of the country’s nine royal families, the culmination of a process that has no parallel anywhere else in the world.

An emergency Conference of Rulers took place on Thursday at the royal palace in Kuala Lumpur, called after the sudden abdication of Sultan Muhammad V earlier this month following just two years on the throne.

The unprecedented abdication of the king, or Agong, took Malaysia into uncharted territory, and fuelled speculation about an unpredictable outcome at the historic council of sultans.

But in the end it was the favourite, 59-year-old Sultan Abdullah of the kingdom of Pahang, who was named as the next king, the keeper of the rulers’ seal said in a statement.

Malaysia is the only country to operate under a rotational constitutional monarchy. Since its independence from Britain in 1957, the head of state has been selected from one of the nation’s nine Malay royal families.

Each Agong is supposed to rule for five years, after which the crown passes to the head of the next royal family in an order that was laid out when the system was devised 60 years ago.

Muhammad V was sultan of the Kelantan kingdom, meaning that as Pahang’s king, Sultan Abdullah was next in line to the throne.

Under normal circumstances, the vote would have been seen as little more than a formality, paving the way for his inauguration on 31 January.

But according to state media agency Bernama, some of the other sultans had objected to the fact that Abdullah was only sworn in as head of his own kingdom on 15 January, replacing his ageing father, several days after Muhammad V announced his abdication.

Thursday’s vote was originally intended as a failsafe in case the next ruler in line for the throne was ever seen as physically or mentally incapable of assuming the role.

The nine sultans would each have been given a piece of ballot paper with one name on it – in this case presumably Abdullah’s – and asked to indicate whether they deem him suitable to become Agong. If a five-vote majority in favour had not been achieved, the process would have been repeated with the next sultan in line.

Abdullah was always a “strong candidate” in spite of the rushed process, Dr Takiyuddin Ismail, head of political science at the National University of Malaysia, told The Independent.

Once a keen athlete, Abdullah is a member of the Fifa council and a former president of the Malaysian Football Association. He is also the president of the Asian Hockey Federation.

At his coronation in Pahang last week, he pledged “to preserve and defend at all times the sanctity of Islam and the peace and prosperity of the people”. He added that he would “prioritise the people’s needs”, according to the Malay Mail.

The role of protecting Islam as the official religion of the country is one of the main responsibilities of the Agong, a largely ceremonial position.

Like the Queen in the UK, the Agong’s main constitutional role is in providing assent to laws and cabinet appointments, and in the process of forming governments after elections.

He is also the ceremonial commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and has the power to issue royal pardons, as was granted to former opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim following last year’s general election.

There have been clashes between the monarch and the government of the day, however. After two constitutional crises in the Eighties and early Nineties, during the first stint in power of the current prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, the Agong was stripped of his power to actually veto laws.

As protector of both Islam and the country’s Malay majority, the Agong is seen as being above criticism and critics are to this day prosecuted under laws against “sedition”.

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The law was seen in action in the wake of Muhammad V’s resignation, which came after the relatively young king built up a reputation for his love of extreme sports like off-road driving and shooting. In November, pictures on social media appeared to show him marrying a former Miss Moscow in the Russian capital, when he was formally away on medical leave.

Nonetheless, according to the Malay Mail, those seen as criticising the monarchy in recent weeks have been hounded by “a group of online vigilantes [that] took it upon itself to defend the honour of the Malay rulers”.

Critics had their personal details revealed online and were either suspended or lost their jobs, while three are being investigated by the police, the site reported.

Aside from “a few controversies”, the image of the monarchy has mostly recovered since the constitutional crises under Mr Mahathir in the Eighties and early Nineties, said Dr Takiyuddin.

“Generally, people in Malaysia want to maintain the system,” he said. “However, they also like the monarchy to act wisely in accordance with their status, to show their neutrality in politics and not to engage in damaging activities such as abuses of power or extravagant spending.”

An exception to the latter will certainly be made for the lavish oath-taking ceremony at the end of the month, where Sultan Abdullah will be officially sworn in. The government has clarified that this will not be a national holiday – typically granted for coronations – though that may come later.

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