KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysia’s royals are filling a void left by elected leaders, and re-asserting their authority as heads of Islam in their respective states.
A report in the Asia Times said they were now speaking up on issues of unity and harmony that could potentially undermine Malaysia’s complex and fraying social fabric.
It said monarchical activism, dormant since being sidelined politically in the early 1990s by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, was rising again to push back against religious institutions that had steadily expanded their jurisdiction in favour of a narrow interpretation of Islam and Muslim identity.
The report noted that last month, the constitutional monarchs issued a rare statement expressing concern over rising ethno-religious polarisation, especially a string of religious controversies and “excessive actions” that called Malaysia’s traditionally moderate brand of Islam into question.
After giving some examples of these “excessive actions” done in the name of Islam, the Asia Times report said it had yet to be seen whether the sultans had the power to neutralize this rising trend.
It said support for a more politicised and conservative brand of Islam had grown under Prime Minister Najib Razak, especially following the 2013 general election where the Barisan Nasional had failed to win the popular vote.
The report noted that Najib had been accused of appeasing Islamic hardliners and far-right Malay groups to consolidate crucial support from rural Malay Muslim voters ahead of the general election, due by next August.
Asia Times said Yayasan 1Malaysia chairman Chandra Muzaffar had said recently that the sultans had made it explicitly clear that they did not want Islam to be associated with exclusiveness and bigotry.
“Through their offer of guidance, the rulers have carved out a role for themselves in governance,” Chandra had said.
It quoted Rashaad Ali, a research analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, as saying: “Perhaps the rulers sense that there is now some space for them to manoeuver politically.
“A politically weak federal government has seen states and sultans exercise greater autonomy and influence, best exemplified by the Johor royal family.”
The report gave extra space to the actions of Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar and the Johor royals in the face of the political and social situation in the country.
It noted that the Johor sultan’s condemnation of religious segregation and call for unity through respect for race and religion had been well-received by netizens across the country.
Asia Times said Jakim, the Malaysian Islamic Development Department, which promoted an exclusivist interpretation of Islam, maintained that it was the only entity able to safeguard Islam’s position as the religion of the federation.
The report noted that Islamic affairs actually came under the purview of the individual states and not Jakim, and that Malaysia’s nine Malay sultans were the constitutional heads of Islam in their respective states.
But, despite a slew of controversies, Jakim and “another notorious religious” body, the Federal Territory Islamic Department (Jawi), were allocated more funds in Budget 2018, it said.
Jakim will receive RM1.03 billion for Islamic development, which comes directly from the Prime Minister’s Department’s operating expenditure.
Asia Times said Najib’s support for the department was an “electoral appeal to the sensibilities of conservative Malay groups that hold rising sway over both rural and urban voters”.
It added that Najib’s administration was “increasingly seen as attempting to fold the hardline religious fringes into a dominant political centre”.
The report also recounted how, in the early 1990s, then prime minister Mahathir pushed through constitutional amendments that withdrew the sultans’ absolute power to veto state and federal legislation, and curbed their legal immunity after several incidents involving royals.