This Week in Asia

Watch the throne: what does the king's dramatic abdication mean for Malaysia?

Malaysia's King, Sultan Muhammad V, has abdicated, the country's national palace announced Sunday, after a week of speculation about the monarch's status following his two-month leave of absence.

The dramatic development - for which the palace offered no official reason - is likely to shock citizens who largely revere the country's hereditary rulers and are unused to modern-day upheavals in the monarchy.

"His Majesty has officially conveyed this [decision to abdicate] to the Malay rulers via a letter issued to the secretary of the Conference of Rulers," said a statement issued by the palace.

"The King, during his tenure, worked to fulfil his responsibilities and the trust given him as Head of State, working to be an anchor of stability, a source of justice, a core of unity and the protector of unification among the people."

In the statement, the sultan conveyed his thanks to the other Malay rulers who chose him as the Yang di Pertuan Agong in December 2016, and to the Prime Minister and the government who cooperated in overseeing the country.

The Conference of Rulers is a meeting of Malaysia's nine Malay sultans and other civilian heads of states.

Sultan Muhammad V preparing to deliver an address during the opening ceremony of parliament in Kuala Lumpur as Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad looks on. Photo: AFP

Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy where the various rulers and governors perform a role similar to the queen of England. The Agong - or "king of kings" - is appointed to a five-year stint in the position, which he rotates with the other sultans, by the Conference of Rulers.

Muhammad V, the ruler of the state of Kelantan, was made the country's king in 2016.

Oxford-educated Muhammad V had taken a two-month leave of absence in November and was due back in office on January 1, but questions arose last week over whether he had returned.

At a Friday press conference, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said he no clue about the status of the king, though he too had heard the rumours.

Muhammad V took the leave of absence on medical grounds. Foreign media reports said he had married a Russian beauty queen while he was away from the national office - though neither he nor the palace ever confirmed this.

His wedding to Oksana Voevodina, which was reported by foreign media outlets, is rumoured to be linked to his abdication, although this has not been officially confirmed or addressed.

When Mahathir was asked to confirm the marriage in November, he said he "[did not] have any official confirmation, so I can't say anything".

Speculation among Malaysians peaked on Friday when local English daily The New Straits Times reported that the Conference of Rulers had held a "rare and unscheduled" meeting on Wednesday night.

Sultan Muhammad V and his new wife, Oksana Voevodina. Photo: Instagram

Mohd Amar Nik Abdullah, the deputy chief minister of Muhammad V's seat of Kelantan, said Thursday that his administration had not heard anything and urged country's attorney general to "take action" against those spreading rumours.

According to the rotational system that decides who shall be the next Agong, the ruler of Pahang state is due to take over - although the Conference of Rulers has the power to vary the order of succession.

Political scientist Awang Azman Awang Pawi of University Malaya's Institute of Malay Studies said the sudden abdication would not pose a threat to the Pakatan Harapan government's stability.

"There is no constitutional crisis, it is an internal issue that is resolved by the royal rites. The Conference of Rulers will soon meet to elect the next Agong. In the meantime, the deputy agong [Sultan Nazrin Shah, from the state of Perak] will perform the functions of the Agong, and so this will not impact the government's day-to-day operations."

Commenting on Mahathir's historically tense relationship with the monarchy - during his first round as premier from 1981 to 2003, he amended the constitution to strip them of certain rights and criminal immunity - Awang Azman said the premier's relationship with the Malay rulers was largely positive.

"The only thing is that in certain states due to differences - Mahathir's strong personality and the strong personalities of certain sultans - the relationship has been made tense."

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP).

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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