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Analysis: Johor Sultan’s outspoken nature, ties with Singapore and China set to figure in his rule as Malaysia’s king

KUALA LUMPUR: Johor ruler Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar’s forthright ways in voicing his opinions publicly on issues and policies could shine a spotlight on the dynamics between the national palace and the federal government when he becomes king, according to analysts CNA spoke to. 

Political observers told CNA that one of the key attributes of Sultan Ibrahim, whom the national palace announced on Friday (Oct 27) as Malaysia’s new king from Jan 31 next year, is his willingness to express his thoughts on issues close to the heart of Malaysians. 

They cited how he recently criticised the standards of low-cost housing in Johor, comparing them to chicken coops. 

Sultan Ibrahim has also spoken out about slow COVID-19 vaccination rates in Johor, strict requirements for foreigners to purchase homes under the Malaysia My Second Home (MM2H) programme as well as warned lawmakers against making political manoeuvres that trigger political instability.

Analyst Azmi Hassan of the Nusantara Academy for Strategic Research told CNA that it will be “fascinating” to watch how Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his government respond to similar criticisms should they arise, after Sultan Ibrahim ascends the throne next year. 

Dr Azmi also cited how recently during a media interview, Sultan Ibrahim had lauded Mr Anwar’s anti-graft reforms and spoken positively of his relationship with the Pakatan Harapan coalition chief.

Constitutional lawyer Lim Wei Jiet told CNA that while the YDPA ought to maintain cordial relationship with the government of the day for the administration to run smoothly, he stressed that Sultan Ibrahim must remain neutral and above politics, as is his role as a monarch based on Malaysia’s Constitution.  

However, as seen during the reign of the current king Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah, the YDPA may be called upon to intervene during a period of political instability. 

During his term, Sultan Abdullah has worked alongside four different prime ministers and appointed three of them to resolve political stalemates.

In his final parliamentary address in February, Sultan Abdullah outlined that he has been recorded in the country’s history to be the only ruler to have reigned over “four different prime ministers and four different Cabinets”, adding that four years of political turmoil could have been avoided if politicians could set aside differences.

Sultan Ibrahim, in his capacity as ruler of Johor, has also expressed his opinions on political instability at the federal level. 

In April, amid reports of attempts by the Perikatan Nasional opposition coalition to remove Mr Anwar from his position by wooing Barisan Nasional MPs who did not support him, Sultan Ibrahim released a statement saying that these attempts were “not healthy for the entire nation, whether socially, economically or even our standing internationally.”

“Enough is enough. How much longer must the 30 over million people of our country endure this situation? The economy must recover and Malaysia’s prosperity must be prioritised,” he said.

Assoc Prof Awang Azman said that when installed as king, Sultan Ibrahim is likely to continue speaking out against attempts to disrupt political stability.

“When he becomes king, we can expect the Sultan of Johor to continue the message from the current king Sultan Abdullah, and call out any hanky panky attempts by politicians to create political strife,” he said.  

Earlier this month, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife Ho Ching hosted Sultan Ibrahim and Queen Raja Zarith Sofiah for dinner at the Istana.

Mr Lee later said that the relationship between Singapore and Johor has grown under Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar’s “wise leadership”. 

In a Facebook post after the dinner, Sultan Ibrahim said that both Singapore and Johor can work together to “produce win-win outcomes with tangible benefits for their people and businesses”.

On China, Sultan Ibrahim said in August during an interview with local daily Sin Chew that it was crucial for Malaysia to maintain friendly relations with the Asian superpower, describing it as a “good and reliable” investment partner.

Dr Azmi said that the Malaysian government can leverage Sultan Ibrahim’s “cordial relationship” with these countries to help strengthen diplomatic relations. 

“I have confidence that with Sultan Ibrahim as king, the bilateral relationship between Malaysia and Singapore and Malaysia and China will be better in time to come,” he added. 

Assoc Prof Awang Azman said that Sultan Ibrahim’s special relationship with the likes of Singapore and China “will strengthen diplomatic ties” between these countries and Malaysia when he ascends the throne. 

He also noted that the Johor ruler has investment partners with firms from China and Singapore. 

“He is on friendly terms with key leaders (in Singapore and China), and he may use soft power to build rapport with his foreign counterparts. This can potentially ease the work of the federal government,” added Prof Awang Azman. 

Political analyst James Chin, who is a Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Tasmania, said it is possible that Sultan Ibrahim will get an official invite from Singapore and China to visit these countries and meet their leaders soon after he is crowned. 

Prof Chin noted that Sultan Ibrahim will fully understand that the role of the constitutional monarch is not to intervene in political relations as well as official foreign affairs matters. 

“I think he knows that he’s no longer just the Sultan of Johor, he’s not speaking just on behalf of Johor. He’s representing (the country) and his eight other brother Sultans so this is always a different ballgame,” he added. 

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