New Malaysian king urges national unity

KUALA LUMPUR - In a glittering, pomp-filled ceremony, Malaysia installed its 14th king on Tuesday, a lover of jazz and football who has called for unity amid rising racial tension in the multi-ethnic country.

Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah, 84, who was king previously in the 1970s, became the first person to hold the position twice and was crowned in a ceremony steeped in centuries-old Malay royal traditions.

The sultan, who stunned many in 2007 by walking two kilometres (1.2 miles) to a football stadium after his official car got stuck in traffic, on Monday urged Malaysians never to repeat deadly 1969 race riots that still haunt the country.

“It was a bitter incident which should not be allowed to recur,” he told the national Bernama new agency in an interview.

The violence occurred just months before he took the throne as Malaysia’s fifth king for a five-year term starting in 1970.

But in a reference to rising racial rhetoric between the ruling party and opposition, he admonished politicians who “take the easy way out in their bid to remain popular by playing up religious and racial issues”.

Malaysia has had an elected monarchy since independence from Britain in 1957. In a unique arrangement, the throne rotates every five years among the rulers of the nine Malaysian states still headed by royalty.

Sultan Abdul Halim is the ruler of Kedah state in the north.

The sultan, who studied in his youth at Oxford, is reportedly a lover of jazz, particularly Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, The Star newspaper reported. He also plays the occasional round of golf.

He took his oath in a glittering golden hall in Malaysia’s new palace in Kuala Lumpur, a nationally televised ceremony that was attended by Prime Minister Najib Razak and hundreds of guests.

Dressed in black and yellow royal regalia, Sultan Abdul Halim was sworn in after a 21-gun salute rang out in the capital.

He succeeds Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, 49, who was one of Malaysia’s youngest kings.

Race and religion are intertwined in politics in Malaysia, where Muslim Malays make up about 60 percent of the 28 million population, followed by large Chinese and Indian minorities.

But tensions have increased recently amid rising resentment over a range of racial disputes and with elections due to be called by next year.

The Malay-dominated ruling coalition is seeking to stave off a rising opposition alliance led by Malay and Chinese parties.

Despite his merely ceremonial role, Malaysia’s king commands great respect from the public, especially majority Malays. The country’s sultans trace a lineage back to Malay sultanates of the 15th century.

Portraits of the king and queen adorn government buildings throughout the country. The king is also the symbolic head of Islam in the nation, as well as the nominal chief of the military.