What Malaysia’s New King Means For the Country’s Monarchy

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ASEAN Beat | Politics | Southeast Asia

What Malaysia’s New King Means For the Country’s Monarchy

In recent years, the ceremonial monarchs have been taking a more active role in the country’s political life.

What Malaysia’s New King Means For the Country’s Monarchy

King of Malaysia Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar, center, walks out after the oath taking ceremony at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024.

Credit: Mohd Rasfan/Pool Photo via AP

On January 30, Malaysian politics witnessed a significant event with the ascension of Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar to the throne under the nation’s unique rotational monarchy. This transition has stirred both curiosity and concern, particularly regarding the intersection of wealth and power, as the 65-year-old sultan from Johor State is one of Malaysia’s richest men, has been politically outspoken, and has not shied away from criticizing perceived misconduct among the country’s politicians. The question on many minds is how Sultan Ibrahim’s substantial financial interests will shape his kingship and what implications this holds for the monarchy’s evolving influence on the country’s political landscape and society.

Traditionally viewed as a ceremonial position with limited powers, the Malaysian monarchy has departed from this perception in recent years. Monarchs such as Sultan Abdullah of Pahang, who sat on the throne from 2019 to 2024, and now Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar, have exerted considerable influence over the formation of recent governments, which may go beyond what was traditionally perceived as their ceremonial role.

Sultan Ibrahim’s vast fortune, derived from business ventures spanning real estate, mining, and a joint venture with a Chinese property developer for the ambitious Forest City project in Johor Bahru, raises questions about the potential interplay between personal interests and royal responsibilities. His possession of a private army adds complexity to the traditionally symbolic role of custodianship of Islam in this Muslim-majority nation.

Unlike many of his predecessors, Sultan Ibrahim has also been vocal about political matters and has a close relationship with Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. His advocacy for the establishment of a special economic zone between Johor and Singapore, which the two nations agreed to last month, further underscores his engagement with broader political and economic issues. This active involvement in political and economic policymaking, coupled with his substantial financial interests, raises questions about the extent and nature of his influence on the nation’s political landscape.

As the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, to give the king his official title, Sultan Ibrahim’s role is primarily ceremonial, with authority defined by the federal constitution. As the new monarch begins his five-year term, the central concern is how his financial interests will align with his responsibilities as king. Will his wealth serve as a tool for positive change, funding initiatives for the betterment of the nation, or will it become a source of potential conflicts of interest? The intricacies of his business ventures, including the stalled Forest City project, prompt scrutiny into the king’s involvement in large-scale economic developments and the potential implications for local communities and the environment.

In addition to his economic pursuits, Sultan Ibrahim has also expressed a desire to help stabilize Malaysian politics after a period of unusual political flux, in which Malaysia has had four prime ministers since 2018. The Malaysian constitution delineates specific powers for the monarch, requiring adherence to the advice of the prime minister and cabinet, but recent years have seen an increased level of intervention by the monarch to address Malaysia’s political instability and foster a more cohesive political environment. The outgoing Sultan Abdullah, for instance, actively intervened in Anwar’s appointment during the country’s recent spell of political instability, ensuring the formation of a government capable of addressing the nation’s challenges. He also engaged in post-election negotiations and publicly denounced politicians for their self-interested behavior.

Sultan Ibrahim has given every indication that he plans to continue along these lines, something that his predecessor has encouraged. Prior to stepping down, Sultan Abdullah expressed hopes that Malaysia will see a full-term government under the Anwar administration and accused several opposition and ruling bloc figures of trying to undermine his government. “Foreign investors want to see a country that’s stable, that they can invest in and maximize their returns on quickly. If we are always changing governments…this will cause delays,” he said. “We need to remain competitive otherwise we will be left behind…we cannot afford to have an unstable government.”

The king’s power to pardon convicted individuals further complicates the landscape. The controversial pardon of Anwar in 2018 by Sultan Muhammad V of Kelantan prompted contemplation about the monarch’s role in the judicial process and the potential for the abuse of this power for political purposes. Such accusations have also dogged the recent granting of a pardon to former Prime Minister Najib Razak, currently in prison for his involvement in the 1MDB corruption scandal. This halved his prison sentence from 12 to six years and sharply reduced his fine. This decision was announced after the Board’s meeting on January 29, in one of Sultan Abdullah’s final acts before stepping down.

The broader implications extend beyond the corridors of power to societal dynamics and perceptions of the monarchy. Does the king’s growing involvement in politics and economics compromise the neutrality and apolitical nature traditionally associated with constitutional monarchies?

The fragile equilibrium between the evolving responsibilities of the monarchy and its commitment to constitutional principles is in jeopardy.

In a nutshell, the ascendancy of Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar to the throne could mark a pivotal moment in the evolution of Malaysia’s monarchy. As Sultan Ibrahim begins his reign, the delicate equilibrium between traditional customs and the needs of contemporary governance, ceremonial obligations, and domestic politics will shape the monarchy’s position within Malaysia’s ever-changing socio-political environment. The nation watches with anticipation, questioning how the billionaire king will wield his influence and what this signifies for the future of Malaysia.