Over the past week the eyes of the world may have been drawn to the demonstrations in Bangkok, but it has been a tempestuous few days in Thailand's southern neighbour, too. Malaysia may, in fact, have just narrowly avoided what could have turned into its worst constitutional crisis for decades.
The story began last Friday, when word spread that Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had convened his cabinet to agree that he should seek an audience with the country's King, Sultan Abdullah of Pahang, in order to propose that a state of emergency be declared. In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, that may not seem wholly extraordinary. According to one estimate, 79 countries have instituted various degrees of emergency rule to deal with the virus.
But in Malaysia a nationwide emergency – under which the government of the day has almost unlimited powers and parliament can be suspended – has only been declared twice: firstly, during the "Confrontation" with Indonesia in 1964, and secondly after the May 13 race riots in 1969. Those riots, during which hundreds died and older people still recall hiding in fortified houses, are the defining scar on the national psyche. The country was taken over by a National Operations Council, parliament did not sit again until 1971, and government policy shifted permanently to one re-emphasising the rights of ethnic Malays and their centrality to Malaysia's very being as a state.
So the idea of a national emergency has almost apocalyptic resonance in the country. Many felt that while infections have been rising after being almost contained earlier in the year, it would be illegitimate to impose such a draconian measure, which was not required when a far tougher lockdown that parts of Malaysia are currently under was rolled out in March. The suspicion was that an emergency would be a way for Mr Muhyiddin to avoid testing his majority – which has been paper thin since his Perikatan Nasional government was formed in February – in parliament next month.
A host of voices were raised against the move: from the Pakatan Harapan opposition, which had been in government since the 2018 general election, with Mr Muhyiddin as home minister, until he led a group of defectors to ally with other parties to form his administration earlier this year; from within the ranks of Perikatan Nasional itself, as the respected elder statesman and former finance minister Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah issued a statement saying he was "shocked and dismayed" that Mr Muhyiddin should seek such a declaration, which he said would be "the final nail in the coffin" of the country's "already battered economy"; and from civil society groups, including the Malaysian Bar, which warned of "the threat of a potential constitutional crisis should a state of emergency be declared".
Others, however, insisted that Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, and Sultan Abdullah was duty-bound to take any "advice" he was given by Prime Minister Muhyiddin. That is certainly the case in European constitutional monarchies such as the UK, where, if a prime minister were to ask Queen Elizabeth to dissolve parliament and call elections, it is inconceivable that she would say "no". Various provisions of the Malaysian constitution relating to the monarch’s discretionary powers then became more hotly debated than they perhaps have ever been since independence in 1957.
In the event, the palace announced that Sultan Abdullah wished to consult Malaysia's other hereditary rulers, who take turns to be the country's monarch every five years. And after they met on Sunday, a statement was issued praising the Muhyiddin government's handling of the pandemic, saying that the King felt there was no need to declare a state of emergency and that he reminded politicians "to immediately stop all politicking that could disrupt the stability of the government".
This very judicious choice of words may have not stopped the "politicking". Various factions have been feverishly weighing whether they should support Mr Muhyiddin or the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, who already claims to have the numbers in parliament, after the palace statement. But it delighted all those – almost certainly the vast majority – who were against an emergency being declared. It may not have satisfied Mr Muhyiddin, but it contained warm words of commendation for him. And crucially, it did not criticise him for raising the proposal.
Two things have been clarified. The prime minister retains the right to advise the king, including on emergency powers. But under certain circumstances, the monarch has the right not to take that advice. As the former law minister Zaid Ibrahim tweeted: “The wise king. He will be remembered for setting a precedent.” Referring to Article 150 of the Malaysian constitution – which says that the king may declare an emergency if he “is satisfied that a grave emergency exists whereby the security, or the economic life, or public order in the federation or any part thereof is threatened” – Mr Zaid tweeted that Sultan Abdullah had come to “the only correct interpretation that one can give”.
This is a very significant redefinition. It helps that Sultan Abdullah has earned great public affection by his habit of stopping the royal motorcade to help people who have had car accidents, and popping into local eateries to join ordinary Malaysians for curry and roti canai. He has also been careful to consult, as when he asked every single MP whom they supported before appointing Mr Muhyiddin Prime Minister in February.
Malaysia has been fortunate to have a king who has been so attentive to the views and cares of his people. In a time of unprecedented political turmoil he has managed to remain above the fray. The royal discretionary power has increased – which is unheard of in democracies – but this has gained popular approval because it has been presented and accepted as an even-handed and appropriate form of check and balance on the executive. Royalists in Thailand should take note.
Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National