History is littered with tyrannical monarchs. Every civilisation has seen many of its kings lose the plot and, in consequence, the respect of the masses. Sometimes a king would lose his head, as in England in 1625 and in France in 1793.
So whenever a king veers far from despotic behaviour, he gets attention. Suddenly, people stop to reconsider their misgivings about monarchs and monarchy. Even the closet republicans are ready to ignore, for a while, their belief that the royal institution is a feudal relic out of sync with the times.
This was what happened recently in Malaysia, when the Sultan of Johor stepped up to his constitutional role as head of Islam and went against the tide of public opinion that has for years been left to be shaped by salaried men in flowing robes who issue edicts from their cushy seats in government offices.
There is a perception that a sultan, in order to play his role as head of Islam for his state, should be someone who has spent years in Islamic scholarship and whose piety is beyond reproach. Of course, that would be ideal. Modern-day Malaysian royals, however, do not fulfil this expectation. This is why the role of religious guides has gradually been given to Islamic studies graduates, leaving the sultans to sit on their thrones as mere ceremonial symbols.
Certainly, Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim doesn’t exude the kind of religiosity that is often associated with Islam. His movements and activities are well documented, and they show that he has no qualms about going public with his taste for expensive cars or his indulgence in hobbies that only a royal person can relate to.
Neither does one see him dressed in austere clothing or some climatically challenging Arab garb to attend prayer with the masses.
Such a display of piousness may earn a sultan respect in a large section of Malaysia’s Muslim society, which seems to pay a lot of attention to personal piety even in its cosmetic form. But Sultan Ibrahim has bucked the trend. He is praised not just by Muslims, but Malaysians of all beliefs and backgrounds.
All he had to do was step up and perform a check-and-balance function, which has long been missing from Malaysia’s political system. He has done this at a time when the religious bureaucracy is intellectually stagnant, mindlessly rigid and chronically allergic to critical thinking.
What does this tell us? It is this: a sultan just has to play his constitutional role meaningfully to earn the respect of everyone. He should not be content with being a mere ceremonial figure as many would want him to be for all the wrong reasons.
By coming out against obnoxious racism and zealotry, the Sultan of Johor may have removed doubts that people might have had about the relevance of the royal institution in Malaysia. At the same time, he has shown that one doesn’t have to be a religious scholar to talk sense.
Perhaps we won’t, for a long time, see race and religion removed from the cauldron of Malaysian politics, but Sultan Ibrahim has sweetened the mix by stepping out of his palace to sit in the people’s heart.
Abdar Rahman Koya is Editor-in-Chief at FMT.