Malaysia has an extraordinary approach to monarchy, and Abdullah of Pahang is an extraordinary monarch ruling in extraordinary times. A series of political crises have rocked the south-east Asian country throughout 2020 against the backdrop of a global pandemic that has expounded the island nation’s hardships, forcing the king to take up a role that monarchs have not occupied for decades. But first, what is it that makes Malaysian monarchy so unique?
For starters, Malaysia is one of the few countries in the world to have an elective monarchy, in which the royal leaders are elected, rather than born into their power. In Malaysia that king is elected from amongst the nine Sultans, or rulers, of the Malay states on what is essentially a rotating 5-year basis. The king rules for half a decade before abdicating and ceding power to the next in line. Abdullah of Pahang was elected as king just days after his father’s abdication made him the ruler of Pahang. The monarchy has been a largely ceremonial role for the past few decades, but a string of national crises has forced Abdullah of Pahang to fill a power vacuum and take on a role that is unprecedented in the country’s modern history, highlighting the importance of having a monarchy in times of crises.
One coalition government ruled Malaysia for six decades, until the 2018 election when a new ruling party took its place. Two years after the election, the government collapsed and Abdullah of Pahang had to step in to decide upon a new Prime Minister, who has since held a tenuous position in parliament without a clear mandate but with a whole host of political figures looking to seize the opportunity to grab power. 2020’s coronavirus pandemic has compounded matters and elevated the king to a position in which he has emerged into the foreground of politics, having to throw his weight behind important policy matters such as the budget and pandemic response plans, so as to ensure that they get through the fractured parliament. However, he has not been one-sided, as he also firmly denied the Prime Minister the ability to declare a state of emergency under the pretence of the pandemic, but using it as a guise to pass a bill without it being put to parliamentary vote. Throughout the ordeal the King has repeatedly called for unity and for politicians to put the people before politics, something that many much larger countries have been unable to do.
It is easy to forget the important role that monarchies play in times of crises, and Abdullah of Pahang symbolises the good that can come of retaining a regal figure within a country’s constitution. Politics has a habit of descending into chaos every now and then, but having a steady guiding hand of a good leader that can help to guide a country through its turmoil is invaluable when they put the good of the nation and its people first.