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Is Malaysia's monarchy “above politics”?

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monarchy-politicsSpeaking at the launch of a book on the Malaysian monarchy, Malaysian prime minister Najib bin Razak said that the Malay Rulers “are above politics” (see ‘ Najib: Constitutional monarchy fosters stability, prosperity ’, The Malaysian Insider, 30 Jan 2013).

He said that the Malaysian monarchy “provides a solid foundation” for turning Malaysia into a high-income nation.

To be above politics means to not interfere in the political workings of the country and to take no sides in party politics.

To act as a foundation to the economy so that Malaysian citizens enjoy high incomes means abstaining from and disapproving the undemocratic use of the public's wealth and resources.

So is the prime minister's statement about the Malaysian monarchy true?

The evidence paints a different story.

A Negri Sembilan prince clarified that the royalty have and do participate in party politics and gave five examples (see ‘ Response to statements by Tunku Aziz and Anthony Loke ’, The Malaysian Insider, 29 Jan 2013).

In his biography of Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysian Maverick (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2009), Barry Wain speaks about how the sultans of the nine states had “sometimes played politics, leveraged their positions for financial gain and indulged in fairytale-like extravagance at the public expense”. Although the sultans were “not meant to engage in commerce, they were actually so deeply involved that they were resented by the business community”.

Roger Kershaw's Monarchy in South-East Asia (Routledge, 2001) states that “in return for secure wealth and status”, the Malaysian monarchy gives the ruling Malay elite a "more traditional kind of legitimacy” by proxy, in what is said to be an “important but unwritten 'social contract'” in contemporary Malaysia.

On this political relationship, associate professor Azlan Tajuddin in Malaysia in the World Economy (1824-2011) (Lexington Press, 2012) claims that when the constitutional article on royal immunity in 1993 was removed, “the real aim” of the government of seeking “full control of the monarchy" was “to ensure that the Malay royalty continued to serve a political function in preserving Malay electoral support for UMNO”. The author says it should not be surprising “to find some of the sultans publicly generating support for UMNO or admonishing those who have been critical of the party”.

He explains: “For the royals, the reward for subservience to the party [UMNO] would also sustain continued enjoyment of unsurpassed advantages... Several members of the the Malay royalty... have found their way into UMNO's circle of crony entrepreneurs... Many royally-run businesses have resulted in numerous bankruptcies... [but] as long as the Malay rulers remained staunch UMNO supporters, they would be assured their businesses stayed operational and are given access to lucrative commercial ventures”.

Fadzilah Majid Cooke's The Challenge of Sustainable Forests: Forest Resource Policy in Malaysia, 1970-1995 (Allen & Unwin, 1999) notes that between 1987 and 1990 alone, the Pahang royal family was awarded logging concession licenses totalling 18,723.82 hectares (or 187 square kilometres) of forest.

In illustrating the “growing economic nexus in the ruler-executive relations in virtually every Malay State”, Kershaw links the “[Pahang] Sultan['s] eager taste for timber concessions” to “being 'genuinely' consulted... over the appointment of Chief Ministers” and the need for a “malleable” Chief Minister to expedite or bend rules in the “processing of land alienation at preferential rates”.

Tajuddin claims that “[i]n 1981, the Sultan of Pahang and some members of his family had allegedly gambled away massive amounts of taxpayer money within days of an outing at an overseas casino. When the state government refused to settle the debt, the state's chief minister, Rahim Bakar, was forced to resign from office. UMNO resolved the issue by... replacing the minister with a more amenable candidate, who expeditiously helped in clearing the sultan's gambling dues. In return, the sultan has remained a strong and loyal advocate of UMNO, especially during elections”.

Tajuddin supplies another example: The Sultan of Perak's eldest daughter Eleena is “a major controlling shareholder of Gamuda, an UMNO-linked construction company... [and] among Malaysia's top 40 millionaires in 2011”. He adds that “[t]his has provided reasonable grounds for Malaysians to speculate on the connection between the Sultan of Perak's family fortunes” and the dislodgement of Pakatan Rakyat's state government headed by ex-chief minister Nizar Jamaluddin.

According to The Economist (2 May 2009), Nizar "had been removed, not as is usual in parliamentary systems, by his elected peers but by the Perak sultan", Azlan Shah, "ignoring an appeal from [Nizar] to dissolve the house". The outcome favoured UMNO.

These pieces of information indicate a long-standing royal-political-business collusion.

If these academic sources are correct, it means that the Malaysian monarchs are not “above politics” in spite of appearances, and that the monarchy's impact on the public's economic welfare and rights is questionable.

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