Malaysia faces its worst constitutional crisis in 20 years as its king exercises his constitutional powers to reform the judiciary and the government of the 13-state Southeast Asian federation that has been undermined by charges of wasteful public spending, rising corruption and lawlessness, according to diplomats and political analysts.
They say a confrontation between the king and Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is inevitable as Sultan Mizan Zainal Abidin, 45, Malaysia’s 13th Yang di Pertuan Agong or supreme ruler, is determined to dispel a misconception that his role as a constitutional monarch is purely ceremonial.
Sultan Mizan, one of nine hereditary Malay rulers who take turns to become king every five years, has the backing of all his eight other peers who last year elected him to the throne. Among them is former king Raja Azlan Shah, 79, the sultan of the northern Perak state, who is a constitutional law expert and former Lord President of the Federal Court. Raja Azlan, in his writings, has shown that the rulers have more than a ceremonial role.
Malaysia’s federal constitution gives the king sufficient power to force the hand of the prime minister in the running of his government, lawyers and constitutional experts say. Sultan Mizan, ruler of the oil-rich northeastern Trengganu state, can also frustrate Abdullah’s plans to call a snap election early next year. Constitutionally, the king can refuse the prime minister’s request to dissolve parliament to pave the way for a general election.
The next general election is not due until 2009; but analysts say Abdullah wants an early election to pre-empt a challenge from former deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, the de facto leader of the opposition Parti Keadilan (Justice Party). The charismatic Anwar, who has been convicted of corruption charges, is barred from holding public office until 14 April next year. Although Anwar’s party is unlikely to unseat Abdullah’s United Malays National Organisation (Umno), at the polls, analysts say he could take away enough Malay votes from Umno, the dominant party in the 13-member Barisan Nasional (national front) government, to humiliate Abdullah and force him into retirement.
Constitutional experts say the Malaysian parliament is Abdullah’s only recourse to neutralise the rulers. His government controls two-thirds of the votes in the House of Representatives that would allow him to amend the constitution to take away the last vestige of power that the rulers and the king now enjoy. But there are doubts as to whether Abdullah could muster enough support in parliament in his confrontation with the rulers, they say. Since winning an overwhelming mandate in the 2004 general election, Abdullah’s popularity has plunged to its lowest ebb as he has failed to deliver his promised reforms to weed out corruption, stop wasteful spending on mega projects, and overhaul the judiciary and the civil service.
Twenty years ago, former premier Mahathir Mohamed removed the king’s power to veto legislation, allowing bills before the king to be passed without his consent after a lapse of 30 days. He also curtailed the powers and privileges of the rulers, removed their immunity and set up a special court to try them for civil and criminal offences.
Analysts say Mahathir could do that because he used the government-controlled media in a relentless campaign to denounce the Malay rulers as extravagant “feudal relics” at a time when Malaysians, who include Malays, ethnic Chinese and Indians, didn’t look kindly to the rulers.
But times have changed. Sultan Mizan, the first king to be born in post-independent Malaysia, represents a new breed of western educated Malay royals who eschew an extravagant regal lifestyle and embrace the aspirations of the common people for an efficient government that upholds the rule of law. They include Raja Nazrin, 50, the crown prince of Perak who was educated at Oxford and Harvard. Raja Nazrin, the eldest son of Raja Azlan Shah, has recently called on Malaysians to uphold the constitution.
Analysts say many Malaysians, particularly the non-Malays, are increasingly clamouring for the rulers to force Abdullah’s hand in reforming the judiciary that has fallen into disrepute over allegations that the Chief Justice Fairuz Ahmad Sheikh Abdul Halim has promoted lesser and errant judges to important judicial posts. The Chief Justice has denied these allegations and has demanded proof of his judges’ misdemeanours.
Malaysians are anxious to know if their king will give his consent to Abdullah’s latest nominee for the post of Chief Judge of Malaya, the third most important post after the Chief Justice and the President of the Court of Appeal. The post has been vacant for seven months following the retirement of Siti Normah Yaakob on January 5. Siti was Malaysia’s first woman judge. The king has twice refused Abdullah’s recommendation.
Whatever the outcome is, analysts say, the king and his fellow rulers have made their position clear: They are not Abdullah’s rubber-stamp. And they expect Abdullah to do their bidding in cleaning up the judiciary. In this, the Malay rulers have most of the 25 million Malaysians on their side, they say.