Now that it has become public, the question before 25 million Malaysians is: Who is likely to prevail in a confrontation between Malaysia’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and the 13-state Southeast Asian federation’s nine hereditary rulers over the constitutional role of the king. (See In Malaysia, the king asserts his power)
King Mizan Zainal Abidin, 45, the 13th Yang di Pertuan Agong or supreme ruler, says his role isn’t purely ceremonial. Abdullah, however, says the king has no right to meddle in his administration.
Last night Raja Nazrin Shah, the crown prince of northern Perak state, told his audience at a public lecture in Kuala Lumpur, the national capital, that Abdullah is wrong.
He says that, under the constitution, the monarch acts as a “healthy check and balance” of Abdullah’s administration which has been undermined by wasteful spending of public funds on mega projects, rising corruption and lawlessness.
Such talk is worrying Abdullah; particularly when Nazrin says the constitution allows the rulers to be “ the guardian of the just rule of law, an impartial arbiter in the democratic process and an overseer over the pillars of state.”
Analysts say the rulers are not suggesting that they have the power to remove Abdullah from office. That would be a coup d’état. But rather, as Nazrin says, the rulers, who are above partisan politics, are to act like judges to ensure fairness in resolving conflicts in governing the country. The Malay rulers see themselves as the guardian of the welfare of Malaysians.
The 50-year-old Nazrin is seen as the de facto spokesman of the rulers whose office dictates that they refrain from articulating their personal views in public. Nazrin, who graduated from Oxford and Harvard, has been vocal on Malaysian constitutional, social and economic affairs. He is the eldest son of former king Sultan Raja Azlan Shah, 79, a constitutional law expert who was also the Lord President of the Federal Court.
Four years into his first term as prime minister, Abdullah’s popularity has nose-dived after winning an overwhelming mandate in the 2004 general election. He has broken his electoral promise to crack down on corruption and to bring reforms to his nation. Instead, allegations of corruption and abuse of governmental powers have risen. His ‘Mr Clean’ image is tarnished by the purchase of a luxury jet that costs $50 million and a spate of financial scandals involving projects whose costs have gotten out of hand.
Analysts say he is now perceived as a weak and indecisive leader who has lost control of his government allowing conflicts in the judiciary and rivalry among law enforcement officers that look like a mafia family feud. A spate of gangland slayings and a high profile murder case have added to Abdullah’s woes. And the rulers feel, constitutionally, they have the powers to make Abdullah correct his mistakes.
Things came to a head over disagreement between Abdullah and the rulers over top judicial appointments. Under Malaysia’s complex system of appointing judges, the king must give his consent after the prime minister has consulted the rulers of his choice. The king had refused Abdullah’s nominee following accusations that Chief Justice Ahmad Fairuz was promoting lesser and errant judges to high benches. The adamant Chief Justice told Abdullah to tell the rulers that the king must do his bidding. A seven-month stalemate ensued over the appointment of the Chief Judge of Malaya which was resolved only last week when Abdullah finally yielded to the king.
Now, the rulers want Abdullah to reform the judiciary which has been disgraced by allegations of impropriety of judges since the judiciary lost its autonomy after former premier Mahathir Mohamed sacked Salleh Abas, the Lord President of the Supreme Court, in 1988. One man who would want Abdullah to restore independence to the judiciary is Sultan Azlan Shah. He has hinted so much in many of his writings.
But will Abdullah do it?