Much ado about Selangor

(First published in theSun on 30 January 2014, here).

NOT half a year has gone by since the 13th general election, and already interesting developments are taking place in the state of Selangor. Just this week, Kajang assemblyperson Lee Chin Cheh resigned from his position, and Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim announced his candidacy for the seat that will have to be contested within 60 days (of the Election Commission having been informed). It has also been widely speculated that these moves will pave the way for Anwar to replace Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim as the Selangor mentri besar.

Just how can the mentri besar be changed mid-term? This short piece tries to address this, taking both the constitutional and political dynamics into consideration.

The numbers of seats each of the three Pakatan Rakyat parties holds are almost equal. The Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) each hold 15 seats respectively, whilst Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) held 14 seats before Lee’s resignation. These add up to 44 – and form more than two thirds – of the total number of 56 seats.

First, to be a mentri besar, the only conditions the Selangor state constitution has are that the person is to be Malay, professes the Muslim religion and is a Malaysian citizen by birth. The person does not need to be born in Selangor itself, which some have wrongly assumed.

Second, it is the Ruler of the State (the Sultan of Selangor) who appoints the mentri besar from among the Legislative Assembly “who in his judgment is likely to command the confidence of the majority of the members of the Assembly”. In this case, it can be argued that it would simply be a matter of the current mentri besar resigning and making this known to the Sultan, who would then proceed to appoint someone else whom he believes to command the majority of the assembly.

In fact, there has been exact precedence to this, where in 1997, a Selangor state legislative seat was vacated in order for Tan Sri Abu Hassan Omar, who was then federal minister of domestic trade and consumer affairs, to run in a by-election and therefore be appointed the Selangor mentri besar. The previous mentri besar, Tan Sri Muhammad Muhammad Taib, resigned in order for this to take place.

The constitution states that “if the mentri besar ceases to command the confidence of the majority of the members of the Legislative Assembly”, two options are available: either
a) The mentri besar requests for the Sultan to dissolve the Legislative Assembly, or b) If he does not request as such, then he tenders the resignation of the State Executive Council (Exco), which includes himself.

These steps would be straightforward enough if two assumptions hold true: First, that the mentri besar would resign of his own accord and second, that the Sultan would agree to the newly proposed name.

If, however, the mentri besar chooses not to resign, this is where it gets tricky. Several possible scenarios may come into play. One possibility is for the Sultan to meet with the representatives of all three parties forming the Pakatan Rakyat coalition government to ascertain the situation as to which individual commands the majority. In recent times, parties have taken to signing statements showing the same (although these statements are not binding), and here all three parties would also propose the new person to be appointed.

“Another possibility that several have raised is for the Legislative Assembly to conduct a vote of no confidence against the present mentri besar. However, in order to call for a Legislative Assembly sitting, which the Speaker would call for (conventionally with the agreement of the mentri besar), this would still need the Sultan’s consent.”

Even if either of these scenarios do transpire (in order to prove there is no confidence in the current mentri besar), Article 55(2) sets out exceptional circumstances under which the Sultan does not need to act on the advice of the Exco, for instance, to appoint the mentri besar at his discretion. A change in the mentri besar would still need the Sultan of Selangor’s final endorsement.

The Sultan can also choose not to consent to requests for the dissolution of the state Assembly – which is what happened during the Perak state crisis in 2009 when Datuk Seri Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin requested for the state assembly to be dissolved, but his request was rejected by the Sultan of Perak.

The points raised so far suggest that the Sultan possesses tremendous discretionary powers with regard to the appointment of a mentri besar.

This is precisely what happened in Terengganu in 2008 when the person chosen by the prime minister and the Barisan Nasional assemblymen to be its mentri besar, Datuk Seri Idris Jusoh, was not favoured by the Sultan. This was a clear situation in which he commanded the confidence of the assembly’s majority. In this instance, the Sultan appointed Datuk Seri Ahmad Said instead, who remains as mentri besar to this day.

Another point of view, however, is that the constitution should not be interpreted to accord such powers, to be exercised willy-nilly. Instead, the Sultan is to act with wisdom in identifying the best course of action given his knowledge of the political circumstances.

This article has laid out different possible scenarios that could unfold in what will surely be an exciting few months ahead for Selangor. It is hoped that all of this will ultimately bring about benefits to the people of Selangor, lest the futility of an additional by-election and the spent energies of each of those involved.

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