‘Let’s move on’: Malaysia’s King calls for political stability at the end of five-year reign

The unprecedented intervention by the constitutional monarch in politics followed dizzying crossovers by MPs, after Umno-led Barisan Nasional was toppled from power in the 2018 General Election for the first time since the country’s independence in 1957.

Hazlin Hassan

Hazlin Hassan

The Straits Times


Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah was appointed the 16th Malaysian king on Jan 31, 2019. PHOTO: ISTANA NEGARA/ THE STRAITS TIMES

January 30, 2024

SINGAPORE – Malaysia’s King has called for political stability at the end of his five-year reign, which saw his deep involvement in picking three prime ministers between 2020 and 2022.

The unprecedented intervention by the constitutional monarch in politics followed dizzying crossovers by MPs, after Umno-led Barisan Nasional was toppled from power in the 2018 General Election for the first time since the country’s independence in 1957.

“There were challenging times during my reign,” said Sultan Abdullah Ahmad Shah in a group interview on Jan 3 with selected media.

“I feel that I have tried to do the best I can to stabilise the country’s political scenario, even though not drastically, but at least to retain harmony and stability until now,” said the 64-year old King, who is also the ruler of Pahang state.

When asked about the latest purported plot to topple the government, dubbed the “Dubai Move” as its opponents allegedly met in that city, the King said: “I don’t know if there is any truth in it or not.

“Let’s move on. The government should govern the country. Don’t politicise (things) so much. They should focus on developing the country and uniting the people. Let’s not be too parochial and narrow-minded.”

He said it was important to have a stable country and government to attract foreign investors.

“We can’t afford to have an unstable government. We want investors, who can create jobs. Stability is very important. We can’t continue to fight. We want to develop our country,” he said.

“If you change the government every year, it doesn’t guarantee you anything. That is a fact.”

Malaysia’s Constitution follows the Westminster model, with the monarch playing a largely constitutional role and acting on advice from the ruling government.

The king, however, is allowed to pick whoever he believes will command a majority in the 222-strong Parliament.

Under a system unique in the world, hereditary rulers of nine of Malaysia‘s 13 states take turns to become the Agong, or king, for a five-year term.

The other four states – the former British protectorates of Penang, Melaka, Sarawak and Sabah – are led by governors.

Sultan Abdullah was appointed the 16th Malaysian king on Jan 31, 2019, after the previous king, Sultan Muhammad V of Kelantan, abdicated after just three years.

On Jan 31, 2024, Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar of Johor, 65, will become the new king.

The fall of Umno in the May 2018 General Election led to Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad becoming prime minister for the second time – this time as chief of a new ruling alliance led by Pakatan Harapan (PH).

But Dr Mahathir resigned on Feb 24, 2020, amid infighting within the PH alliance, forcing Sultan Abdullah to intervene to pick a new prime minister, Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, who leads Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.

Another political turmoil erupted in August 2021, with the King forced to become a referee again to choose a prime minister who he believed would command a majority in Parliament. The person was then Umno vice-president Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who became the shortest-ruling premier at 15 months.

And following an inconclusive November 2022 General Election that again threatened to descend into political chaos, the King picked Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as the prime minister.

That was just over 14 months ago. In the interview, Sultan Abdullah urged Malaysians to give Mr Anwar time to rule.

“It is not easy to gauge any government in one year’s time. There will be weaknesses here and there. What the PM is trying to do is to reduce all the legacy problems. You can’t do it in a year. We need to give it time to see its strengths and weaknesses.”

He added: “We already have a democratic process, an election every five years. So let the government rule for four to five years, not just change it after a year.”

Recounting what happened after the 2022 General Election, Sultan Abdullah said he had wanted all the parties to form a stable administration in the form of a unity government.

“There was no single majority. So what I did was to offer (the plan) to all the parties. I began with Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Tan Sri Hadi Awang (of Perikatan Nasional) but they rejected it outright. So what choice do I have?”

He said he had met whoever was the prime minister weekly for about an hour each time to discuss the country’s affairs – a total of 157 times over the past five years.

Sultan Abdullah also navigated the country through the Covid-19 pandemic amid the change of prime ministers, and the ensuing state of emergency.

Elaborating on the role of the royal institution, he said it was important to uphold and strengthen it. “The royal institution is very important for this multiracial, multi-religious country. It must be upheld for the sake of the nation and the future generation. The institution must be strengthened. Not (for the king) to be idolised but to remain as a protector of the people and the administration.”

Students should be taught about the role of the monarchy while the royal rulers must also know their responsibilities, he said.

“It takes two to tango. I am not saying I am perfect. I am reminding myself and others to help the people. Meanwhile, the people should get closer to the royal institution, not avoid it. It is their right.”

On relations with close neighbour Singapore, Sultan Abdullah said: “I had four PMs under my reign, they have settled a lot of issues, whether big or small. Most of the issues have been settled in principle.

“In terms of the relationship between government and government, it has always been good, and people to people, we welcome Singaporeans to Malaysia. There are a lot of Singaporeans coming to Johor, cross-border. And that helps the economy in Johor.”

Also at the interview was the Queen, Tunku Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah, who said: “And we love Singapore as well.”

During his five-year reign, Sultan Abdullah emerged as a popular figure with a casual style of ruling, often shunning protocol when meeting ordinary Malaysians.

Pictures of him handing out meals to journalists camping outside the Istana gates during the political crises, and queueing behind others to buy food at KFC endeared him to many people.

Among the most memorable times for him were meeting regular Malaysians and taking wefies, he said, adding that they gave him the impetus to carry out his duties.

Tunku Azizah is known for her culinary skills and charities such as the Tunku Azizah Fertility Foundation. She is frequently seen at flood relief shelters, cooking food for displaced victims.

A tour of Borneo which the King and his family undertook in September 2023 saw massive crowds waiting to meet them.

On Jan 17, 2024, a special news bulletin read by the royal couple was aired on TV3, drawing praise from netizens.

“He takes his job seriously. His job in life is only to serve the people. He sets aside everything else,” Tunku Azizah said of her husband.

“I can’t disturb him when he is reading the Cabinet papers, he reads them until he gets neck pain.”

Said Sultan Abdullah: “It is not as easy as one thinks to be a king.”

He has compiled seven notebooks on his observations during his reign.

“I am an avid reader, and I delved into the country’s administration matters. I found it very interesting,” he added.

With his family now slated to return to their home state of Pahang, he hopes that his legacy will be remembered fondly. “I may not be the king of Malaysia after January, but I can be the king of all of your hearts,” said Sultan Abdullah.

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