It is difficult for students of contemporary Malaysia to write dispassionately about the institution of monarchy in a country where the Malay rulers have been protected from criticism, where they have been so embedded in Malay culture, and where they are perceived as guardians of Malay rights and of the Islamic faith. Yet in a world in which royalty is increasingly seen as anachronistic, Malaysia's nine sultans occupy a special place. Not only do they constitute almost a quarter of the world's monarchies, they continue to exercise considerable influence in Malaysia's political life. More particularly, over the last two decades a growing public disenchantment with the dishonesty and self-interest of politicians has led many Malaysians to look to the sultans as an alternative source of leadership. To a considerable degree this has been encouraged by the rulers themselves, alienated by the limitations on royal privileges imposed during the earlier regime of the current Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and by the depth of corruption in the government of Najib Razak as revealed by the 1MDB scandal. In October 2015, after the domestic inquiry was halted by Najib's dismissal of the attorney general, the Conference of Rulers issued a joint statement calling for a revival of the investigation and “stern action” against those incriminated. Two years later, the government's unabashed politicization of Islam prompted another royal warning about the deepening of racial and religious divides.3 On the other hand, it has sometimes been difficult for individual rulers to take the moral high ground; in Pahang, Najib's home state, 1MDB disclosures indicate that the sultan received large sums of money taken directly from development funds.
The elections of May 2018 (GE14) brought a new coalition government to power under the banner of Pakatan Harapan, currently led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the erstwhile nemesis of the sultans. It is not yet clear whether Pakatan Harapan leaders will be able to set aside a baggage of resentment towards royal privilege and form a solid working relationship with the sultans at both state and national levels. Mahathir's supporters claim that he is a changed man, while the sultans, energized by what one observer has called “monarchical activism” are in a far stronger position than they were in the 1980s and 1990s.
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