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.
Aziz Bari is currently being investigated under the Sedition Act over comments he made about a sultan.
The role of the sultans - descendants of centuries-old ethnic Malay kingdoms - goes beyond the ceremonial. They wield real power as the official guardians of Islam and can withhold consent for the dissolution of state assemblies and appointments of chief ministers. Many, including the sultans of Johor in the south and Selangor, Malaysia’s richest state, have built up large business interests.
The Johor and Selangor palaces declined to comment on the issues when contacted by Reuters. The prime minister’s office also declined comment, but some of his ministers have publicly expressed their support for the Sedition Act and Malay royalty.
The sultans also make up a Conference of Rulers, which can block changes to the federal constitution affecting the special status held by majority Malays over minority Chinese and Indians.
Many commentators trace the recent assertion of royal power back to 2009, when the then Sultan of Perak state declined the opposition’s request for fresh state elections after it had lost its majority. The sultan allowed the ruling coalition to form the state government.
The Perak crisis came a year after the opposition made sweeping gains in a national election, handing the now 57-year-old ruling National Front its worst-ever election setback.
“The reason they (the sultans) are asserting themselves is the change in the political scenario in the country,” said Azmi Sharom, a law professor at Universiti Malaya, the country’s oldest university.
“That is not necessarily a problem as long as they work within the constitution. However even pointing out what their constitutional limits are you put yourself at risk for sedition.”
A few days after speaking to Reuters, Azmi was charged under the Sedition Act for saying that “what happened in Perak was legally wrong” and the result of a “secret meeting”.
The Selangor sultan last month appointed a new chief minister who had not been formally proposed by the opposition coalition, in what analysts said was an unprecedented royal snub of the established democratic process.
The sultan, Sharafuddin Idris Shah, said last month that some politicians had misunderstood his role as only ceremonial.
“Politicians come and go ... but my position as sultan and ruler of Selangor will continue until the end of my days,” he was quoted as saying by Malaysian media.
The sultans’ powers were pegged back under the 22-year-rule of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who in 1993 passed constitutional changes ending their immunity from prosecution.
The then leader of UMNO tapped into rising concern about errant royal behavior and extravagance. Although neutral arbiters in theory, the sultans have traditionally been seen as closer to the ruling party than the opposition due to their shared role as guardians of ethnic Malay power.
Johor Sultan Ibrahim Ismail’s role in the state’s booming property market and attempts to gain more policy clout have raised concern from politicians and some investors.
“Hopefully he doesn’t go overboard, because it could affect the economy,” said one Johor property investor, who asked not to be identified because of the subject’s sensitivity.
However, a member of the ruling UMNO defended the sultan’s right to pursue business interests.
“If it’s approved by the state and federal government, what is the issue?,” said Sharir Samad, a member of parliament from Johor. “It’s not an issue where he is taking somebody’s land, and depriving business or an individual of his right to property.”
This year, a proposed bill that would have given the sultan broad powers over a new state Housing and Property Board was revised amid cross-party opposition to say that the sultan could only act on the advice of the chief minister.
But some are not convinced the changes are enough to limit the sultan’s ability to influence policy in the Iskandar economic zone, an international hub of property development and tourism named after his father.
“The question is whether the chief minister dares to advise him,” said Hassan Abdul Karim, the vice chairman of the main opposition PKR party in Johor. “This is not good for the democratic system in our country.”
Editing by Jeremy Laurence