Once reined in, Malaysia's royals flex political muscle

Mon Oct 6, 2014 5:02am EDT
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By Anuradha Raghu and Stuart Grudgings

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - At the murky shore of a fishing village on the Malaysian side of the Singapore Strait, Ghazali Malik cleans out the mud and small stones tangled in his boat's fishing net.

He says his daily catch of fish, prawns and crabs has slumped since land reclamation work began this year on a controversial 2,000-hectare man-made island called Forest City, a project between the Sultan of Johor and a Chinese developer.

"My net used to last up to years, but nowadays I have to replace it after three months," said the 24-year-old fisherman.

The mammoth project, which has drawn concern from Singapore and environmental groups over its impact on the narrow channel, is a sign of what critics say is the increasing political and business influence of Malaysia's traditional rulers, the sultans.

A decline in support for the long-ruling coalition, led by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), at the last two general elections has left a power vacuum. Analysts say that the country's nine traditional rulers have stepped into the void, with the tacit support of the government.

"If the national opposition front were the ruling government in Putrajaya (Malaysia's seat of government) this would not have happened," said Abdul Aziz Bari, a constitutional law expert.

"...It shows that UMNO is so desperate to cling on to power."

A government crackdown on dissent has coincided with a flurry of cases involving allegedly seditious remarks against the traditional rulers. Out of more than a dozen prosecutions under the colonial-era Sedition Act this year - most against anti-government activists or opposition politicians - five have centered on comments voiced about the sultans or their powers.   Continued...

Villagers buy crabs from fishermen at Kampung Pendas Baru, near the Forest City coastal land reclamation site off Tanjung Kupang, southern Johor, September 9, 2014.          REUTERS/Edgar Su