Friday, February 26, 2021

The year when the Agong played by the book as the nation’s boss

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A change of government from Pakatan Harapan (PH) to Perikatan Nasional (PN) and a failed plot by the opposition leader to topple the government with a fragile majority are among the key events in Malaysia’s colourful politics this year, even as the country took the brunt of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Amid all this, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, long seen as a ceremonial head with all the pomp of a royal figure, played a crucial role which did far more to educate Malaysians on the true role of a constitutional monarch than any school textbook would have.

It all began in February, when a stunned nation watched as Dr Mahathir Mohamad resigned as prime minister after 22 months of leading the PH coalition that brought down six decades of Barisan Nasional (BN) rule in the 2018 polls.

A political crisis ensued, and the country was left without a government.

This volatile state of politics saw Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah making full use of his constitutional position, evident in the way he helped fill the power vacuum left by Mahathir’s exit.

For days in February, the Agong went to great lengths to interview MPs and political leaders before concluding that Muhyiddin Yassin had the majority support to be appointed as prime minister.

Analyst Kartini Aboo Talib noted the crucial role played by the constitutional monarch at a time of great upheaval in the executive branch.

She said the role played by the Agong, aided by the Conference of Rulers throughout the crisis, served to drive home a key point to politicians and political parties that the constitutional monarch is ultimately the head of state in Malaysia.

“Political parties will always compete for power and their interests, but the presence of the Agong has given rise to the realisation that the people’s interest is the only thing that matters,” Kartini, who is from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Institute of Ethnic Studies, told MalaysiaNow.

She said Malaysia’s system of constitutional monarchy had been renewed in relevance, thanks to the public role played by the Agong, adding that this was something to be proud of.

“The Agong as the constitutional monarch is a reminder to politicians to ‘stop politicking’ and to carry out the trust given to them by the people to be their representatives.”

Fragile majority

Mahathir’s resignation paved the way for Muhyiddin’s appointment to the top post, leading the PN government comprising Bersatu, BN, PAS, Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS) and a host of other parties.

“Political parties will always compete for power and their interests, but the presence of the Agong has given rise to the realisation that the people’s interest is the only thing that matters.”

The change in Putrajaya also affected state governments under PH, with Johor, Perak, Melaka, Kedah and Sabah replicating the shift in federal government. The former ruling coalition, back to its opposition role, still controls Selangor, Penang and Negeri Sembilan.

With its thin majority in the Dewan Rakyat, PN won its first parliamentary test of support when it succeeded in replacing the PH-appointed speaker, Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof, with Azhar Harun.

On Sept 22, at the height of the Sabah election campaign, PH chairman Anwar Ibrahim, claiming to have a strong and formidable support among MPs to back him as prime minister, declared that Muhyiddin’s PN government had collapsed.

Here, Sultan Abdullah played his constitutional role again, granting Anwar an audience to show his numbers despite his warning to politicians months earlier against triggering another political crisis.

After his failure to prove his claim, Anwar and his supporters turned the 2021 budget into a confidence motion on Muhyiddin, where any failure to pass allocations would mean the collapse of the government, paving the way for a pandemic-season general election.

The possibility of polls at a time when Covid-19 was still on the rampage created public anxiety, especially after the fierce spike in infections following the Sabah state election, with numbers topping 100,000 by December.

The constitutional way out of this was for a declaration of emergency to put all elections on hold.

Again, the Agong became the focus of the nation.

Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah has been praised for mingling with the people despite his royal status. Photo: Istana Negara Instagram

On Oct 25, after consulting fellow rulers, he decided there was no need to declare a state of emergency.

But instead of showing this as a snub of Muhyiddin’s government which had made the recommendation, the Agong was diplomatic, praising the prime minister for a job well done in battling the deadly pandemic.

“That being the case, His Majesty would like to remind politicians to immediately cease all politicking that will disrupt the stability of the nation’s administration,” a palace statement had said.

This was not the first time he had issued such a reminder.

In carefully scripted statements, the Agong made repeated appeals to MPs across the divide to set aside their differences and make certain the budget was passed to ensure enough allocations for the battle against Covid-19.

On Nov 26, a much-expected showdown over the budget failed to materialise when PH MPs stood down from calling for a bloc vote, leading to the budget being passed by voice vote.

It later emerged that Anwar had issued an eleventh hour directive to PH MPs not to oppose the budget at the policy stage.

But the days to come would see PN on a winning streak, as every ministerial allocation was passed despite many of them being put to vote.

Kartini said the whole episode showed Muhyiddin’s ability to remain in power despite facing concerted attempts from different political blocs to bring him down.

She attributes this to Muhyiddin’s wide political experience.

“It was crucial that Muhyiddin, with his vast experience in the government as well as in various ministries since 1986, has been able to gain trust and respect,” she told MalaysiaNow.

Fazreen Kamal contributed to this report.

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