Even though Johor Menteri Besar (MB) Mohamed Khaled Nordin has pared down the Sultan of Johor’s proposed executive powers in the controversial new housing bill, many observers wonder if this is just the lull before the storm.
Could there be another constitutional crisis in the making similar to the one in the 1980s?
Although the constitutional crisis in 1983 that led to the diminishing of the monarchy’s powers occurred under different circumstances, compared to the current uproar over the Johor housing bill there are basic underlying themes.
In both cases, the executive and monarchy are trying to exert power and control over one another.
Although the previous constitutional crisis in 1983 was at a bigger national scale, it is not entirely inconceivable that a wider tussle between royals and state government could develop following the current situation in Johor.
“I wouldn’t call it a constitutional crisis just yet, but we have to keep monitoring the situation closely,” said Senai state assemblyperson Wong Shu Qi.
Another observer says that there are very slim chances of it happening only because the current Prime Minister (PM) Najib Razak is not likely to go against the royals.
“In the previous crisis in 1983, there was Mahathir Mohamad (former prime minister) who campaigned aggressively against the royalty. I don’t think Najib is strong enough to do that,” said an observer.
Nevertheless, with or without the new bill the Sultan is a powerful figure in the southern state that has the second highest number of parliamentary seats of 26 after Sarawak’s 31 seats.
The original Johor Housing Property Board 2014 Enactment would have given the Sultan unprecedented executive powers.
The initial proposed bill including, among others, allowing the Sultan to appoint board members, determining allowances and remunerations, approve the appointment of the CEO (chief executive officer) of the board, scrutinize accounts and dissolve the board.
It caused a commotion in both ruling and opposition parties, worried that the Sultan’s formal powers would usurp the state administrative function.
The new housing board is touted to be critical to solve the issue of affordable housing in the southern state. The Sultan has commented on the issue, assuring that he will not stand in the way of state administration.
“I shall not interfere. My priority is my subject. I want them to be happy,” said the Sultan of Johor in an interview with New Straits Times (NST).
However, the Sultan made no reference to other related issues such as the sale of state land to foreigners that had been brought up by both ruling and opposition parties.
Mahathir Mohamad a vocal critic
One of the most vocal critics of the new Johor housing law is former PM Mahathir.
“I heard that much of Johor’s land is sold to foreigners. This is not good and is not done by the state government,” said Mahathir.
Mahathir could have been alluding to the Sultan of Johor’s RM4.5 billion sale of 116-acres of prime land in Johor Bahru last December to China developers Guangzhou R&F.
Other China developers have flocked to the Iskandar region in Johor and bought land for development projects. Major Chinese developers in Iskandar include Country Garden, Guangzhou R&F, Agile Property Holdings and Greenland Group that have invested a combined US$6 billion (RM20 billion) so far.
There has also been growing unease with the increasing Chinese ownership and presence in vast tracts of waterfront land in JB.
The Sultan of Johor’s increasing
participation in big money business deals combined with his immense influence in state matters presumably played a strong part in the stiff opposition to his formal inclusion in the state administration through the new housing law.
Although the amended bill has eliminated royal provisions except for the recommendation of four board members under the advice of the MB, most people still believe the Sultan will have a lot of say in the housing board.
“I am very cynical. They seem to have changed it, but the Sultan is a very powerful man. He will push the envelope and still get his way,” said a legal adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity.
However, Mahathir is adamant that the Sultan of Johor should be kept out of the state administration completely.
“A constitutional monarch has no executive power. This means that he may not be involved in the administration of the country. This was considered necessary because in the past the Malay states were ruled by rulers with absolute power and the people were forbidden from being involved in politics. The result was that tracts of land were given to foreign countries, concessions given to foreign businesses, and finally independence was surrendered to the British under treaties lasting for as long as there is the sun and the moon,” said Mahathir in his blog.
The former PM adds that it would be dangerous for the royalty to disregard the limitations imposed by the constitution.
Mahathir is no stranger to skirmishes with royalty. He was a central figure in the 1983 constitutional crisis when he was PM. It was just before Sultan Iskandar (the late father of the current Sultan Ibrahim) was declared the Yang Dipertuan Agong in late 1984.
During the crisis, Mahathir introduced a Constitution (Amendment) Bill 1983 to curb the powers of the royals. Among others, the new law would proposed to remove the need for royal assent in passing federal and state legislation.
Even though there was initial resistance by the monarchs, the bill was passed in early 1984 with some concessions. The Agong could only delay a legislation for only two months before it became law automatically. Nevertheless, state bills still need royal consent before becoming law. The Agong also retains the power to declare a state of emergency.
A legacy of controversy
The Johor royalty are also no strangers to controversy.
The late Sultan Iskandar was known to have strained relations with Mahathir leading up to the constitutional crisis. In 1992, the late Sultan Iskandar allegedly assaulted a hockey coach. Subsequently, Mahathir introduced further constitutional amendments to remove royal immunity from criminal prosecution.
“The second amendment created a special court to hear charges against a ruler. This was made necessary after a ruler assaulted a citizen,” said Mahathir.
Most recently, Johor’s Syariah courts declared that Tuanku Zanariah Tunku Ahmad was divorced from the late Sultan Iskandar, although the court proceedings took place after the late Sultan Iskandar’s death in 2010 and was backdated to 2009. Her Sultanah title has also been revoked.
Tuanku Zanariah is the late Sultan Iskandar’s second wife. His first wife was British Josephine Ruby Trevorrow @ Kalsom Abdullah, who is the current Sultan Ibrahim’s mother. After years of living in England, she is believed to be residing in JB now.