KUALA LUMPUR - The Johor government's move to give some executive powers to its Sultan is unlikely to lead to a constitutional crisis although it has stirred consternation among the top Umno leadership, say analysts.
The top rungs of Umno - the dominant Malay party which forms the backbone of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) - have made it clear that they want to avoid a head-on clash with the monarchy. Their statements have been mildly worded to avoid giving offence to the rulers who hold certain constitutional powers, including over the appointment of state Menteris Besar.
Malaysia has nine ruling houses, with its King drawn from among the rulers on a rotating five-year term.
Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who runs the Ideas think-tank, said the opposition parties were equally cautious because of the political risks. "It's a tricky situation for everyone," he said. "And it has a lot to do with how the Malays may react."
He said critics run the risk of being attacked by Malay nationalist groups for not defending Malay rights as represented by the hereditary Malay rulers.
Dr Wong Chin Huat, a fellow at the state-owned Penang Institute, said the rulers have an important role in Umno's political narrative that it is the defender of race, religion and royalty.
He said: "Malay ethno-nationalism often asserts the restoration of pre-colonial order to contend that the Malays are owners of this country. The royals are important to this narrative."
This has become even more so after the 2008 general election heightened competition between the BN and its rival Pakatan Rakyat, making the Malays the main target in the political tug of war.
But at the same time, Mr Wong noted, Umno is also in competition with the monarchy, as manifested in two major clashes in 1983 and 1993.
In 1983, former premier Mahathir Mohamad sought to remove the need for the King to assent to legislation. A public relations war broke out after the rulers rejected this. The compromise reached allows the King to delay by not immediately signing into law what Parliament had approved, but not reject it.
In 1993, another crisis brewed when Dr Mahathir moved to remove judicial immunity from the rulers.
But Umno is no longer as dominant as it was then, and is treading carefully in managing this Johor episode. The Johor Housing and Real Property Board Enactment, passed on Monday, was initially to give the Sultan powers over the appointment of members to the housing board and oversight over its accounts.
After some criticism, the enactment was changed to state that the Sultan must act on the advice of the Menteri Besar (MB).
However, Dr Mahathir, who has criticised the move, remained doubtful that it would resolve the issue. "This is Malay custom. If the Sultan says something, it must be followed. I am worried that it will not be the MB advising the Sultan, but the Sultan advising him," he was quoted as saying by Malaysiakini.
Malaysia's former chief justice, Tun Abdul Hamid Mohamed, asked in a column in Malaysiakini online news if Malaysia was "moving away from constitutional monarchy and heading for absolute monarchy as in Brunei or heading towards anarchy".
Despite the rumblings, Mr Wan Saiful said a constitutional crisis is unlikely. He said it was unclear who initiated the law as it could have come from Johor politicians.
Thus, he said, it was unclear which side should back down. "A crisis will happen only if both sides clash. I don't think we will see one although some delicate negotiations may be taking place behind closed doors."
This article was first published on June 11, 2014.
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