With Johor’s contentious new Housing and Real Property Enactment 2014, the Sultan of Johor seems to have formally inserted himself into the state administration, despite widespread protest.
How will the Sultan of Johor fit into the state administration now that the controversial new housing bill has been passed?
Even though the Johor Menteri Besar (MB) Mohamed Khaled Nordin has since backed down on the original bill, the prevailing perception is still that the Sultan is still an immensely powerful figure in the state administration.
An observer who is a practising lawyer in Johor points out that even after the original bill was whittled down to contain only the provision for the Sultan to appoint board members (under the MB’s advice), it is still fraught with potential conflicts of interests.
According to the Johor lawyer, the composition of the housing board consist of seven permanent members that includes the MB as the chairman, the local housing executive as deputy chairman, office of state secretary, state legal adviser, state director of rural and planning department, state financial officer and finally the state director of the economic planning unit.
These seven people hold permanent positions, are all appointed government servants and do not hold political office. In addition to these seven members are the four additional board members that the Sultan may now appoint, under the advice of the MB.
“This is where the trouble comes. The CEO of the board will come from these four Sultan nominees. Practically speaking, if they are the Sultan’s nominees, can the MB override him? It’s impossible. No way. The ruler will take control of the board through the CEO. It makes a mockery of the clause,” said the Johor lawyer.
The original bill that caused an uproar proposed giving unprecedented executive powers to the Sultan, including appointing board members, determining allowances and remunerations, approve the appointment of the CEO (chief executive officer) of the board, scrutinise accounts and dissolve the board.
After intense pressure from both ruling and opposition parties, Johor Menteri Besar (MB) Mohamed Khaled Nordin replaced most of the references to the Sultan in the original bill.
Now, the only royal provision is for the Sultan to appoint members of the board, in accordance with the advice of the MB. Even that has been met with widespread scepticism because the monarchy could still indirectly influence state administration.
According to the lawyer, the MB’s amendments were just to appease the public and a formality to give the impression that the MB is still under control.
“It’s a question of the horse or the cart coming first. These four members of the board appointed by the Sultan shall not hold office for more than two years but are eligible for reappointment, unless they resign or if their appointments are revoked by the ruler. This gives the Sultan great influence over these appointees,” explained the Johor lawyer.
Johor Pas (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) commissioner and Parit Yaani assemblyman Aminolhuda Hassan urges federal intervention in the new law.
“Federal involvement has been somehow sidelined in the new legislation. We are talking about the state land that is one of the most important areas of economic development. We need more check and balance, and that includes the participation of the federal government,” says Aminolhuda.
The Pas commissioner also states that although the opposition leaders support the legislation in the spirit of improving the housing problems in Johor, the legislation needs to be improved.
Another observer adds that the whole issue is purely political and has nothing to do with the law.
“It’s a political problem, nothing to do with the law. The whole legal debate misses the point. Regardless of the law, the Sultan is getting more influential and the MB’s position could be reduced. We need strong action by the prime minister and the federal government before things get worse,” said the observer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Many are sceptical that the Sultan of Johor can be a neutral bystander in the state administration and see the amendments as nothing but cosmetic changes to ease the political pressure on the MB. Even without formal executive powers, most political observers feel that the Sultan of Johor wields wide-ranging power in the state especially in land matters.
According to Senai state assemblyperson Wong Shu Qi , there are a also few clauses in the bill that was passed that cause concerns.
“Clause 39 gives the board power to acquire land whenever it is in the public interest to do so. Although it says it must be in accordance with recent law, why don’t they just stick with the existing national land code? This would only complicate the decision making process,” said Wong.
Another contentious clause that worries Wong allows the board to enter any premises under the instruction of the CEO.
“Clause 41 of the legislation gives the power to enforcement officers, under instructions by the CEO to enter any premises regardless if the property is managed or built by the state housing authorities or not, even they are private property,” said Wong.
Skudai assemblyman and state opposition leader Boo Cheng Hau says that the opposition is satisfied with the removal of the provisions giving executive powers to the Sultan and are concentrating on other clauses that could be problematic.
“We will focus on other amendments such as clause 16 in relation to conflicts of interests among board members. For example, if any board member or their relations tenders for any state project and fails to disclose the fact, the decision to award the project remains and will not be reviewed. Even if the non-disclosure is found out, the board member will not be punished. This will encourage corruption,” said Boo.
Johor state leaders from both ruling and opposition parties seem to have backed down on the Sultan of Johor issue after the bill was amended and are wary of rattling any more cages due to the sensitive subject matter.
However, discontent about the Sultan’s growing administrative powers still bubbles beneath the surface. Many are now scrutinising the Sultan of Johor’s role in the state administration in relation to the role of the monarchy as stated in the constitution.