Why Malaysia Rotates Its Kings and Who’s Next in Line

Last Updated on October 26, 2023 11:16 am

Analysis by Anisah Shukry | Bloomberg

Malaysia’s King Abdullah Sultan Ahmad ascended the throne only in 2019. But under Malaysia’s unique rotational monarchy, it’s soon time for him to make way for a new head of state. The country’s Conference of Rulers will vote for a new king as soon as Friday, according to local media, and he — for it is always a man — may be crowned by the end of January. Here’s what to know about Malaysia’s one-of-a-kind system.

1. What is a rotational monarchy?

Malaysia’s rotational monarchy is composed of the hereditary rulers of nine Malay states. The positions of king, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, and deputy king are passed among the nine, with each serving a term of five years. The king resides at the national palace in the capital Kuala Lumpur while in office. The crown has so far seen a regular order of rotation, which suggests Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar is next in turn. Sultan Ibrahim has spoken publicly about his readiness to be king as well as his business ventures. Johor state, located at the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula, has a causeway link to Singapore that is one of the world’s busiest land crossings.

2. Why does Malaysia have a rotational monarchy?

The system started when the country gained independence from the British in 1957, as its old ruling dynasties sought to safeguard their status and power. Before the colonial era, they ruled over independent Malay kingdoms. The rotational monarchy allows each of them equal opportunity to serve as supreme head of the federation. While largely ceremonial, being king comes with special functions and privileges enshrined in the constitution.

3. What’s the difference between a king and a sultan?

The king is elected from among the nine royal rulers, seven of whom are called sultans. The remaining two are the Raja and the Yang di Pertuan Besar. Their powers are mostly confined to their respective states, which include pardoning convicts, appointing the state chief and acting as the state head of Islam.

4. What powers does Malaysia’s king have?

The king “shall take precedence over all persons in the federation,” according to the constitution, and his powers are broader than those of the individual sultan. They include having sole discretion to appoint a prime minister and to deny requests to dissolve parliament. The king also signs off on laws and appoints ministers and their deputies, court judges and other key roles at the national level, on the advice of the prime minister. Once crowned, the king must give up the powers associated with his own state, though he retains his religious authority. The king is not allowed to actively engage in any commercial enterprise.

5. How does this system differ from other monarchies?

In other countries, the crown is passed down through the bloodline upon the monarch’s death or abdication. Malaysia’s rotational monarchy has seen one sultan serve twice as king. The king may also resign or be removed from office by the Conference of Rulers before his five years are up. And the country has never had a female head of state, with the constitution specifically referring to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong by the male pronoun. Amending the law would require the backing of a supermajority in parliament.

–With assistance from Soo Jin Kim.

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