The antics of the British royal family are nothing compared to what some of the nine royal families in Malaysia get up to. Nepotism, meddling in state politics and flagrant breaches of their exemption from import duties are among their lesser misdemeanours, which generally go unreported in the circumspect local press. The most notorious of them was Johor’s late Sultan Mahmud Iskandar Al-Haj ibni Ismail Al-Khalidi, usually known as Sultan Iskandar, who died in 2010. He is alleged to have beaten his golf caddy to death in the Cameron Highlands in 1987 after the unfortunate man made the mistake of laughing at a bad shot.
Such behaviour had long incensed the prime minister of the time, Dr Mahathir, who was itching to bring the lawless royals into line. He got his chance in 1993 when yet another beating incident involving Sultan Iskandar was brought up in the federal parliament along with 23 other similar assaults since 1972. Following a stand-off with Mahathir, the sultans agreed to a compromise – they would waive their immunity from prosecution on the condition that no ruler would be taken to court without the attorney-general’s approval.
Despite the peccadilloes, and worse, of the various sultans being the subject of popular gossip (though little coverage in the press), the sultans are still revered by many Malays, for whom they symbolise continuing Malay dominance of a multiethnic nation.