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What the King’s abdication means for Malaysia

By the end of January, Malaysia will crown a new King. This came about after the shocking abdication of King Muhammad V of Kelantan, who had served for only two years. While the Constitution allows for the King to step down or even be removed, the monarch’s abdication is unprecedented.

What the King’s abdication means for Malaysia

Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar of Johor and Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in a blue Proton Saga.

By the end of January, Malaysia will crown a new King. This came about after the shocking abdication of King Muhammad V of Kelantan, who had served for only two years. While the Constitution allows for the King to step down or even be removed, the monarch’s abdication is unprecedented.

The episode has also put the spotlight on the relationship between Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the Palace.

Of note was Dr Mahathir’s cryptic New Year message ­­— a few days before the abdication­ — that every one, from the Malay rulers to ordinary citizens, should abide by the rule of law.

Is the King’s abdication yet another manifestation of Dr Mahathir’s attempt to discipline the traditional rulers?

During his first stint as prime minister, Dr Mahathir had several run-ins with the rulers which led to a constitutional crisis in 1993.

At the time, in the aftermath of what is widely known as the “Gomez affair”, Dr Mahathir curtailed rulers’ immunity by which they can be tried in front of a special court.

Parliament can also question the rulers without being considered seditious, though they cannot lobby for the royal institution to be abolished.

The following year, further changes were made to a 1984 amendment regarding royal assent to bills. From 1994 onwards, a legislation will automatically be passed in parliament if it does not receive royal assent within 30 days.

Dr Mahathir’s uneasy relationship with some of the royal houses never improved when he was out of power.

Before the May 2018 elections, the Kelantan palace revoked an award given to him.

The delay in the swearing-in of Dr Mahathir after Pakatan Harapan’s electoral victory also led the prime minister to issue some eyebrow-raising remarks about King Muhammad in a press conference.

He claimed that the King was not clear who Pakatan’s leader was so he had to explain to the King. Dr Mahathir clarified that Pakatan contested under Parti Keadilan Rakyat's (PKR) logo but not all candidates were PKR members.

Under Malaysia’s unique rotation system, the new King will be the Sultan of Pahang.

This however depends on the secret ballot during the upcoming rulers' meeting and whether the Sultan himself is keen to take the throne.

Initially, there was a suggestion that the Pahang ruler is out of the running given the poor health of Sultan Ahmad Shah and the head of state post will be passed to the next one on the list: Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar of Johor.

However, the Pahang Palace announced on Saturday (Jan 12) that Sultan Ahmad has decided to abdicate and his son, Abdullah Ahmad, who has been regent for the last two years, will be sworn in on Tuesday.

It is widely known that Dr Mahathir’s relations with some royal houses have not always been smooth and, at times, contrasting views have been aired publicly.

Recent examples will be the exchanges between him and the Johor palace.

The Johor Sultan has spoken out on federal issues as well as criticised the federal Islamic department’s (Jakim) RM1 billion budget.

The Pakatan government, meanwhile, has disagreed with the Johor palace over whether foreigners can purchase housing properties in the Forest City project, and the Sultan’s decision to convert the status of Pulau Kukup located in the state to be part of the sultanate’s land.

It is in this context that there has been much public interest in the private meeting between the prime minister and the Sultan on Jan 10.

It was their first meeting in two decades, and one marked by a somewhat unexpected demonstration of warmth when the Sultan personally drove Dr Mahathir to the airport in a vintage Proton Saga.

The purpose of the meeting, however, remains a secret.

If Dr Mahathir — voted in by people’s power — can adjust his governing style to be more responsive to people’s views, one can likewise foresee the rulers rethinking their role.

Whether it is the Pahang or Johor ruler who eventually becomes the King, all Malay rulers must stand on high moral ground, to convince the people they are living up to their constitutional role of being politically non-partisan.

This is one of the contributions of King Muhammad V, who witnessed the smooth political transition from Barisan Nasional to Pakatan Harapan. This also means the rulers must co-operate with the Mahathir administration, notwithstanding any disagreements they may have.

Yet, for the King and the Malay rulers, their position as the head of Islam in the country is complicated by the increasingly conservative outlook of the Malay-Muslim community.

On the one hand, society will scrutinise whether the rulers’ behaviour is in line with Islamic values.

On the other hand, they must speak up on issues that can divide the country and prevent conservatives from taking centrestage at the expense of Malaysia’s religious harmony.

The rulers are in a special position to unify the country amid ongoing political fragmentation.

A survey conducted by ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in 2017 showed the Johor ruler commanding more influence than politicians in the state.

This finding likely applies to some of the other states as well.

As Malay rulers, they earn their authority and respect by being custodians of Malay culture and Islam, but they should not neglect their duties as heads of state to protect the interest of all Malaysians regardless of ethnicity or religion.



Norshahril Saat is Fellow at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute and the author of The State, Ulama and Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia.

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