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Malaysia's king works to restore public trust in the monarchy

Royal sensibilities offended by UMNO's ruthless attempts to depose government

| Malaysia
Muhyiddin Yassin, pictured at the parliament on Nov. 26, 2020: the king's consent to an emergency can be seen as a royal rebuke.   © Malaysia's Department of Information/AP

Dhesegaan Bala Krishnan is a journalist based in Kuala Lumpur.

Malaysia's king, Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin, consented to declare a state of emergency earlier this month -- the country's first emergency proclamation since the 1969 racial riots.

Officially, COVID-19 was cited as the reason, but the real intention was to stall the ongoing power struggle that has dominated Malaysian politics since former Prime Minister Najib Razak unexpectedly lost power in the May 2018 general elections.

Many saw the emergency proclamation as a stamp of royal approval for current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, strengthening his hold on power. Such a scenario might appear plausible, if not for one serious flaw. If the palace did indeed favor Muhyiddin, why has the king declined his advice to declare an emergency in October last year?

Firstly, the king's consent to an emergency can be seen as a royal rebuke to the United Malays National Organization, or UMNO, and its relentless attempts to snatch back the power it believes to be something of a birthright.

For despite being a part of the ruling Perikatan Nasional coalition, UMNO no longer calls the shots in Putrajaya as it had for over sixty years until its shock 2018 defeat. Instead it is UMNO's allies -- Parti Islam Malaysia, or PAS, and Muhyiddin's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia, or Bersatu, both UMNO splinter parties, who feature more prominently in the current government.

To put things into perspective, it is worth revisiting the political events that have transpired in Malaysia since October last year. On Oct. 13, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim met Sultan Abdullah, during which Anwar claimed to have presented documents showing that he commanded a "strong, formidable and convincing" parliamentary majority.

Malaysia's king Sultan Abdullah Ri'ayatuddin, left, and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, pictured inside the Royal Palace on Oct, 13, 2020.   © Malaysian National Palace/AP

The palace, however, affirmed that Anwar had only informed the king that he had the numbers, without revealing the names of the parliamentarians who he claimed were backing him. On the same day, UMNO threatened to withdraw support for Muhyiddin's government unless the prime minister renegotiated the terms of their coalition agreement.

In response, the king issued a decree, calling on all politicians to display maturity and put the people before their own political ambitions.

Then, on Oct. 23, Muhyiddin advised Sultan Abdullah to declare an emergency to enable his government to effectively combat the pandemic. The king rejected the premier's advice, instead issuing another royal decree on Oct. 25 urging politicians to cease politicking and to start acting responsibly.

A short time later, however, the king declared an emergency in areas covering the Batu Sapi and Gerik parliamentary seats, as well as the Bugaya state assembly seat in Sabah, in order to defer by-elections after the seats there had been vacated.

A third royal decree followed on Oct. 28, in which the king called for a "political cease-fire," urging all parliamentarians to fully support the 2021 Budget.

And yet, despite these three royal decrees, UMNO went on to topple the Perak state government which was helmed by the prime minister's Bersatu party in December. UMNO only agreed to further political cooperation with Bersatu on the condition that UMNO be allowed to lead the new Perak state government.

UMNO's ruthless political gambit irked Perak's ruling Sultan Nazrin Shah -- Malaysia is a federal constitutional monarchy consisting of 13 states and three federal territories -- and during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Perak Chief Minister -- an UMNO member -- Sultan Nazrin issued a stern rebuke slamming the swearing-in of the third state government in just two years, saying it was "not a history to be proud of."

"A pious leader need not offer bribes or gratifications to get support. Neither does he have to intimidate or threaten others for support," Sultan Nazrin said.

UMNO shrugged off the criticism, neither stopping to regret or repent its win at all costs actions. And earlier this month, UMNO set out to push Muhyiddin from power with a plan to raise a motion to sever ties with Bersatu at the coalition's general assembly on Jan. 31.

Since the start of the year, two UMNO MPs have withdrawn their support from the ruling coalition, leaving Muhyiddin's government with a mere 110 seats in the 222-member lower house, which technically means that Malaysia has a hung parliament according to the country's constitution.

UMNO is also insisting on holding fresh elections by March, although Malaysia will only be receiving the first batch of COVID vaccines next month, and only just enough to vaccinate one million Malaysians out of over 32 million citizens.

Dissolving parliament early would leave a majority of Malaysians vulnerable to the virus, and only the king's emergency proclamation could checkmate UMNO's potentially disastrous plan.

UMNO's relentless lust for power comes at the expense of its own political narrative. Since its inception in 1946, in protest at the British colonial government's Malayan Union proposal, the party has branded itself as being at the vanguard of the nine sultans who make up Malaysia's Conference of Rulers, from which a new king is chosen every five years.

The party's symbol -- a Malay-dagger called a keris -- is in fact a royal weapon associated with Malaysia's sultanates. And the party's continuous attempts to subvert the king's decrees will certainly not augur well with the party's grassroots.

Meanwhile, Malaysia's king has rekindled the nation's reverence and conviction for the monarchy. Sultan Abdullah's tactful use of his constitutional powers has reassured Malaysians that the Conference of Rulers represents the nation's interest as a whole.

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