Last month, Malaysia’s constitutional monarchs issued a rare statement expressing their collective concern over rising ethno-religious polarization. A string of religious controversies, which the sultans branded as “excessive actions”, have called the country’s traditionally moderate brand of Islam into question.

Monarchical activism, dormant since being sidelined politically in the early 1990s, is rising again to push back against religious institutions that have steadily expanded their jurisdiction in favor of a narrow interpretation of Islam and Muslim identity.

In October, Malaysian authorities cancelled two annual beer festivals following political objections raised by leaders of the hardline Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), signaling an increased sensitivity towards activities regarded by some as insulting to Islam.

Then, a self-service laundromat in the southern state of Johor caused a social media uproar when it attempted to ban non-Muslims for ‘hygienic’ concerns, prompting a scathing rebuke from Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar in defense of moderation and racial harmony.

“This is not the Johor we want,” said the monarch, demanding that the laundry mat’s owner end the discriminatory practice. “This is not a Taliban state and as the head of Islam in Johor, I find this action to be totally unacceptable as this is extremist in nature.”

Support for a more politicized, conservative brand of Islam has grown in recent years under Prime Minister Najib Razak, especially following the 2013 general election in which the ruling United Malays National Organization’s (UMNO) delivered its worst-ever performance by failing to win the popular vote.

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) speaks to supporters during the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) 71st anniversary celebration in Bukit Jalil stadium on May 11, 2017. More than 85,000 people crammed into Malaysia's Bukit Jalil stadium on May 11 to hear the embattled prime minister vow another electoral victory ahead of a widely expected snap election this year. / AFP PHOTO / MOHD RASFAN
Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak (C) speaks to supporters during the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) 71st anniversary celebration in Bukit Jalil stadium on May 11, 2017. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Najib, who is expected to call fresh general elections within months, has been accused of appeasing Islamic hardliners and far-right Malay groups to consolidate crucial support from swathes of rural Malay Muslim voters ahead of polls that must be held by next August.

By speaking up on issues of unity and harmony that could potentially undermine the country’s complex and some say fraying social fabric, Malaysian royals are now seen as filling a void left by elected leaders and re-asserting their authority as heads of Islam in their respective states.

Out of 13 national states, nine are hereditary monarchies headed by traditional rulers. Every five years a Conference of Rulers convenes to elect among themselves a Yang di-Pertuan Agong, the federal constitutional monarch and largely symbolic head of state. Sultan Muhammad V is the incumbent.

In the early 1990s, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad pushed through constitutional amendments that withdrew the sultans’ absolute power to veto state and federal legislation, and curbed their legal immunity after a series of scandals and incidents involving royals.

Those included the late Sultan Iskandar of Johor’s conviction of assault and manslaughter in the fatal beating of a golf caddy who escaped prosecution because he was head of state. Mahathir, now head of the Pakatan Harapan opposition coalition, openly loathed the privilege of the sultans, who he viewed as a competing center of power to his strongman rule.

The sultans have since been largely confined to upholding Malay and Islamic traditions, but the precise limits of their political authority are still open to wide interpretation. Their recent efforts to consolidate their moral and social authority is viewed as a calculated reminder to the federal government and opposition politicians who play on racial and religious fault lines.

“The sultans have made it explicitly clear that they do not want the religion to be associated with exclusiveness and bigotry,” Chandra Muzaffar, a public intellectual, recently wrote. “Through their offer of guidance, the rulers have carved out a role for themselves in governance.”

“Perhaps the rulers sense that there is now some space for them to maneuver politically. A politically weak federal government has seen states and sultans exercise greater autonomy and influence, best exemplified by the Johor royal family,” says Rashaad Ali, a research analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Newly appointed President for the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim listens questions from a journalist during a press conference before the FAM annual congress meeting in Kuala Lumpur on March 25, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Mohd RASFAN
President for the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) and son of Johor Sultan Ibrahim Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim on March 25, 2017. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

Johor’s Sultan Ibrahim, known to be critical of Najib’s handling of the ongoing 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) multi-billion dollar graft scandal, has never shied from breaking convention. Last year, he took to Facebook to decline an offer to be the next Malaysian king, opting to “strictly adhere to the rotation system.”

The comment, made to counter rumors that there were other reasons for his decision not to ascend to the top royal post, was an unusually frank disclosure of firsthand details of rulers’ discussions that are not ordinarily disclosed to the public.

He also took to social media to lament constraints placed on the powers of the monarchs during the tenure of then prime minister Mahathir, vowing to never allow the role of the sovereign to be diminished to a mere “rubber stamp.”

He has also gone toe-to-toe with now opposition head Mahathir over critical comments the former premier made this year about mainland Chinese investments in Johor, saying that he was “creating fear using race just to fulfil his political motives. He’s not stupid, he’s just selfish and opportunistic.”

Sultan Ibrahim, a trained army, navy and air force officer, studied diplomacy and international relations at Boston’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. His family is involved in a variety of businesses, including telecommunications, energy and property development in Johor and his personal fortune is estimated at more than US$1 billion.

The Crown Prince of Johor, his eldest son, Tunku Ismail, heads Malaysia’s Football Association and has a reputation for political straight talk. Johor’s royals use the Facebook page of the Johor Southern Tigers, a football club with nearly 2 million likes, as an unofficial mouthpiece to express their views.

The Johor sultan’s condemnation of religious segregation and call for unity through respect for race and religion have been well-received by netizens across the country. When a preacher reportedly on the payroll of Jakim, the federal religious affairs department, criticized the southern ruler’s decree, Sultan Ibrahim vowed to cut ties with the organization.

Jakim, or the Malaysian Islamic Development Department, is one of the most prominent nodes in Malaysia’s Islamic bureaucracy. The organization promotes an exclusivist interpretation of the Islamic faith, but has no authority to regulate the Islamic affairs of each state, nor does it have power or jurisdiction over the various Islamic councils.

MALAYSIA, Kuala Lumpur: Malaysian Muslims attend prayers on the eve of the first day of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan at National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur on June 5, 2016. In Muslim nations and regions around the globe, this is the first week of the holy month of Ramadan, a time for followers to abstain from eating, drinking, smoking and sexual activity during the day, breaking their fast each sunset, with traditional meals and sweets. - Aiman Arshad
Malaysian Muslims attend prayers at the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur on June 5, 2016. Photo: Reuters/Aiman Arshad

The controversial department maintains it is the only entity able to safeguard Islam’s position as the religion of the federation, though critics have questioned its mandate as Islamic affairs come under the purview of the individual states and not the federal agency. Malaysia’s nine Malay sultans are the constitutional heads of Islam in their respective states.

Jakim, which has the authority to issue halal (permitted by Islam) certificates to businesses, was behind a push to force food outlets selling hot dogs to rename their product over concerns that the name could confuse Muslims in Malaysia, some of whom believe that physical contact with dogs is sinful.

Sultan Ibrahim has scorned the department in the past and questioned its high budget allocations. Despite a slew of controversies, Jakim and another notorious religious body, the Federal Territory Islamic Department (Jawi), were allocated more funds in Budget 2018.

Jakim will receive the largest portion of 1.03 billion ringgit (US$236.5 million) for Islamic development, which comes directly from the Prime Minister Department’s operating expenditure. Najib’s support for the department is seen as an electoral appeal to the sensibilities of conservative Malay groups that hold rising sway over both rural and urban voters.

While Malaysia’s government is obliged to endorse the monarchs’ calls to heed moderation and harmony across racial and religious lines, in practice Najib’s administration is increasingly seen as attempting to fold the hardline religious fringes into a dominant political center.

Whether the sultans have the power to neutralize that rising trend is yet to be seen.