Malaysia’s King Holds a Sometime Job and Doesn’t Even Get a Crown
This is a land where the kings take turns and have no coronations because they wear no crowns.
But when the latest in the monarchal rotation kisses a wavy-bladed dagger April 26, he will become the Yang di-Pertuan Agung--the one who is chief among the most prominent.
The ninth agung since the country’s independence from Britain in 1957, he will keep his throne until 1994, then turn it over to an elected successor. Neither the public nor Parliament has a vote. That privilege is limited to the heads of Malaysia’s nine royal houses.
One of them is chosen by secret ballot of his fellow monarchs for a five-year reign as king of kings for this Southeast Asian federation of 17 million. When his term is up, he returns to his home state, where his throne has been kept warm in his absence by his eldest son.
Nine of Malaysia’s 13 states have hereditary rulers. The others have to make do with a governor, named by the agung acting on the advice of the prime minister.
The new agung is Azlan Muhibbuddin Shah, 60, the sultan of Perak, who was elected March 2. He is a lawyer and career civil servant who was lord president of the Supreme Court in 1982-84. He left the judiciary to succeed his late father in 1985 as head of the Perak royal household.
Although not as wealthy as most of the other rulers, Sultan Azlan is widely regarded as the best educated. He attended the then-prestigious Government English School, where the sons of royal and well-to-do Malays were groomed for government service in colonial days. From there he went to the University of Nottingham and Lincoln’s Inn, both in Britain, and was called to the English bar in 1954.
The rotating throne solved a sticky protocol problem when Malaysia, then known as Malaya, shed its colonial ties with Britain in 1957. Because none of the state rulers would have been accepted by the rest as permanent head of state, then-Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman devised the unusual system of giving every state with a ruler a turn on the throne.
Years later in retirement, the Tunku, himself a prince of the royal house of Kedah, said the agung was vested “with all the powers such as those given to sovereigns of Great Britain and other democratic monarchies of the world. . . . As symbolic head of state, the agung never interferes with the actual running of the government.”
Political power rests in a British-style national Parliament and state legislatures, which are elected every five years.
In eight years in office, the current prime minister, Mahathir Mohammed, has had uneven relations with the royal houses. His government tried in 1983 to abolish the king’s veto over legislation.
The rulers resisted, and Mahathir took his case to the country with a series of public rallies. A compromise was reached in which Mahathir agreed that the agung could delay legislation and send it back to Parliament for review, but if it passed again, it would become law.
Seven states call their hereditary rulers sultans. Perlis makes do with a rajah, and Negri Sembilan refers to its ruler as Yang di-Pertuan Besar, one who is chief of state.
The state rulers provide a continuing focus for Malay identity in a country in which Malays account for about half the population, which also includes sizable Chinese and Indian minorities. Sultans function as important arbiters of Malay custom and religion.
Some royals are criticized for their love of big cars, large palaces, frequent trips abroad and aloofness toward their subjects. They are paid the equivalent of about $23,440 a month. But most nurture their subjects, fulfilling the role of benevolent leader.
Only the nine-member Council of Rulers can oust an agung , by majority vote. Agungs are bound by the constitution “to act at all times on the advice of the Cabinet.”
An agung can be reelected for a second consecutive term, but none has been. There is a tacit agreement among the rulers that once an agung’s term is completed, he returns to his state palace to give someone else a turn.
A deputy king, or timbalan agung, also is selected, which has proved a prudent thing to do because three of the eight previous agungs died in office.
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