Friday, June 13, 2014

Is another constitutional crisis brewing in Johor?

Johor Sultan Issue in story image Final

Even though Johor Menteri Besar (MB) Mohamed Khaled Nordin has pared down the Sultan of Johor’s proposed executive powers in the controversial new housing bill, many observers wonder if this is just the lull before the storm.

Could there be another constitutional crisis in the making similar to the one in the 1980s?
Although the constitutional crisis in 1983 that led to the diminishing of the monarchy’s powers occurred under different circumstances, compared to the current uproar over the Johor housing bill there are basic underlying themes.
In both cases, the executive and monarchy are trying to exert power and control over one another.
Although the previous constitutional crisis in 1983 was at a bigger national scale, it is not entirely inconceivable that a wider tussle between royals and state government could develop following the current situation in Johor.
Wong Shu Qi
Wong Shu Qi
“I wouldn’t call it a constitutional crisis just yet, but we have to keep monitoring the situation closely,” said Senai state assemblyperson Wong Shu Qi.
Another observer says that there are very slim chances of it happening only because the current Prime Minister (PM) Najib Razak is not likely to go against the royals.
“In the previous crisis in 1983, there was Mahathir Mohamad (former prime minister) who campaigned aggressively against the royalty. I don’t think Najib is strong enough to do that,” said an observer.
Nevertheless, with or without the new bill the Sultan is a powerful figure in the southern state that has the second highest number of parliamentary seats of 26 after Sarawak’s 31 seats.
The original Johor Housing Property Board 2014 Enactment would have given the Sultan unprecedented executive powers.
The initial proposed bill including, among others, allowing the Sultan to appoint board members, determining allowances and remunerations, approve the appointment of the CEO (chief executive officer) of the board, scrutinize accounts and dissolve the board.
It caused a commotion in both ruling and opposition parties, worried that the Sultan’s formal powers would usurp the state administrative function.
The new housing board is touted to be critical to solve the issue of affordable housing in the southern state. The Sultan has commented on the issue, assuring that he will not stand in the way of state administration.
“I shall not interfere. My priority is my subject. I want them to be happy,” said the Sultan of Johor in an interview with New Straits Times (NST).
However, the Sultan made no reference to other related issues such as the sale of state land to foreigners that had been brought up by both ruling and opposition parties.
Mahathir Mohamad a vocal critic
One of the most vocal critics of the new Johor housing law is former PM Mahathir.
“I heard that much of Johor’s land is sold to foreigners. This is not good and is not done by the state government,” said Mahathir.
Mahathir - CopyMahathir could have been alluding to the Sultan of Johor’s RM4.5 billion sale of 116-acres of prime land in Johor Bahru last December to China developers Guangzhou R&F.
Other China developers have flocked to the Iskandar region in Johor and bought land for development projects. Major Chinese developers in Iskandar include Country Garden, Guangzhou R&F, Agile Property Holdings and Greenland Group that have invested a combined US$6 billion (RM20 billion) so far.
There has also been growing unease with the increasing Chinese ownership and presence in vast tracts of waterfront land in JB.
The Sultan of Johor’s increasing participation in big money business deals combined with his immense influence in state matters presumably played a strong part in the stiff opposition to his formal inclusion in the state administration through the new housing law.
Although the amended bill has eliminated royal provisions except for the recommendation of four board members under the advice of the MB, most people still believe the Sultan will have a lot of say in the housing board.
“I am very cynical. They seem to have changed it, but the Sultan is a very powerful man. He will push the envelope and still get his way,” said a legal adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sultan of Johor thumbHowever, Mahathir is adamant that the Sultan of Johor should be kept out of the state administration completely.
“A constitutional monarch has no executive power. This means that he may not be involved in the administration of the country. This was considered necessary because in the past the Malay states were ruled by rulers with absolute power and the people were forbidden from being involved in politics. The result was that tracts of land were given to foreign countries, concessions given to foreign businesses, and finally independence was surrendered to the British under treaties lasting for as long as there is the sun and the moon,” said Mahathir in his blog.
The former PM adds that it would be dangerous for the royalty to disregard the limitations imposed by the constitution.
Mahathir is no stranger to skirmishes with royalty. He was a central figure in the 1983 constitutional crisis when he was PM. It was just before Sultan Iskandar (the late father of the current Sultan Ibrahim) was declared the Yang Dipertuan Agong in late 1984.
During the crisis, Mahathir introduced a Constitution (Amendment) Bill 1983 to curb the powers of the royals. Among others, the new law would proposed to remove the need for royal assent in passing federal and state legislation.
Even though there was initial resistance by the monarchs, the bill was passed in early 1984 with some concessions. The Agong could only delay a legislation for only two months before it became law automatically. Nevertheless, state bills still need royal consent before becoming law. The Agong also retains the power to declare a state of emergency.
A legacy of controversy
The Johor royalty are also no strangers to controversy.
Tuanku Zanariah Tunku Ahmad & Sultan Mahmud IskandarThe late Sultan Iskandar was known to have strained relations with Mahathir leading up to the constitutional crisis. In 1992, the late Sultan Iskandar allegedly assaulted a hockey coach. Subsequently, Mahathir introduced further constitutional amendments to remove royal immunity from criminal prosecution.
“The second amendment created a special court to hear charges against a ruler. This was made necessary after a ruler assaulted a citizen,” said Mahathir.
Most recently, Johor’s Syariah courts declared that Tuanku Zanariah Tunku Ahmad was divorced from the late Sultan Iskandar, although the court proceedings took place after the late Sultan Iskandar’s death in 2010 and was backdated to 2009. Her Sultanah title has also been revoked.
Tuanku Zanariah is the late Sultan Iskandar’s second wife. His first wife was British Josephine Ruby Trevorrow @ Kalsom Abdullah, who is the current Sultan Ibrahim’s mother. After years of living in England, she is believed to be residing in JB now.

Is the Sultan of Johor too powerful?

Johor Sultan Issue in story image Final

With Johor’s contentious new Housing and Real Property Enactment 2014, the Sultan of Johor seems to have formally inserted himself into the state administration, despite widespread protest.
How will the Sultan of Johor fit into the state administration now that the controversial new housing bill has been passed?
Even though the Johor Menteri Besar (MB) Mohamed Khaled Nordin has since backed down on the original bill, the prevailing perception is still that the Sultan is still an immensely powerful figure in the state administration.
Johor Mentri Besar Mohamed Khaled Nordin
Mohamed Khaled Nordin
An observer who is a practising lawyer in Johor points out that even after the original bill was whittled down to contain only the provision for the Sultan to appoint board members (under the MB’s advice), it  is still fraught with potential conflicts of interests.
According to the Johor lawyer, the composition of the housing board consist of seven permanent members that includes the MB as the chairman, the local housing executive as deputy chairman, office of state secretary, state legal adviser, state director of rural and planning department, state financial officer and finally the state director of the economic planning unit.
These seven people hold permanent positions, are all appointed government servants and do not hold political office. In addition to these seven members are the four additional board members that the Sultan may now appoint, under the advice of the MB.
“This is where the trouble comes. The CEO of the board will come from these four Sultan nominees. Practically speaking, if they are the Sultan’s nominees, can the MB override him? It’s impossible. No way. The ruler will take control of the board through the CEO. It makes a mockery of the clause,” said the Johor lawyer.
The original bill that caused an uproar proposed giving unprecedented executive powers to the Sultan, including appointing board members, determining allowances and remunerations, approve the appointment of the CEO (chief executive officer) of the board, scrutinise accounts and dissolve the board.
After intense pressure from both ruling and opposition parties, Johor Menteri Besar (MB) Mohamed Khaled Nordin replaced most of the references to the Sultan in the original bill.
Now, the only royal provision is for the Sultan to appoint members of the board, in accordance with the advice of the MB. Even that has been met with widespread scepticism because the monarchy could still indirectly influence state administration.
According to the lawyer, the MB’s amendments were just to appease the public and a formality to give the impression that the MB is still under control.
Sultan of Johor Sultan Ibrahim Ismail Ibni Almarhum Sultan Mahmud Iskandar Al-Haj
“It’s a question of the horse or the cart coming first. These four members of the board appointed by the Sultan shall not hold office for more than two years but are eligible for reappointment, unless they resign or if their appointments are revoked by the ruler. This gives the Sultan great influence over these appointees,” explained  the Johor lawyer.
Johor Pas (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) commissioner and Parit Yaani assemblyman Aminolhuda Hassan urges federal intervention in the new law.
“Federal involvement has been somehow sidelined in the new legislation. We are talking about the state land that is one of the most important areas of economic development. We need more check and balance, and that includes the participation of the federal government,” says Aminolhuda.
The Pas commissioner also states that although the opposition leaders support the legislation in the spirit of improving the housing problems in Johor, the legislation needs to be improved.
Another observer adds that the whole issue is purely political and has nothing to do with the law.
“It’s a political problem, nothing to do with the law. The whole legal debate misses the point. Regardless of the law, the Sultan is getting more influential and the MB’s position could be reduced. We need strong action by the prime minister and the federal government before things get worse,” said the observer who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Many are sceptical that the Sultan of Johor can be a neutral bystander in the state administration and see the amendments as nothing but cosmetic changes to ease the political pressure on the MB. Even without formal executive powers, most political observers feel that the Sultan of Johor wields wide-ranging power in the state especially in land matters.
According to Senai state assemblyperson Wong Shu Qi , there are a also few clauses in the bill that was passed that cause concerns.
Wong Shu Qi
Wong Shu Qi
“Clause 39 gives the board power to acquire land whenever it is in the public interest to do so. Although it says it must be in accordance with recent law, why don’t they just stick with the existing national land code? This would only complicate the decision making process,” said Wong.
Another contentious clause that worries Wong allows the board to enter any premises under the instruction of the CEO.
“Clause 41 of the legislation gives the power to enforcement officers, under instructions by the CEO to enter any premises regardless if the property is managed or built by the state housing authorities or not, even they are private property,” said Wong.
Skudai assemblyman and state opposition leader Boo Cheng Hau says that the opposition is satisfied with the removal of the provisions giving executive powers to the Sultan and are concentrating on other clauses that could be problematic.
“We will focus on other amendments such as clause 16 in relation to conflicts of interests among board members. For example, if any board member or their relations tenders for any state project and fails to disclose the fact, the decision to award the project remains and will not be reviewed. Even if the non-disclosure is found out, the board member will not be punished. This will encourage corruption,” said Boo.
Johor state leaders from both ruling and opposition parties seem to have backed down on the Sultan of Johor issue after the bill was amended and are wary of rattling any more cages due to the sensitive subject matter.
However, discontent about the Sultan’s growing administrative powers still bubbles beneath the surface. Many are now scrutinising the Sultan of Johor’s role in the state administration in relation to the role of the monarchy as stated in the constitution.