KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Unlike the British, who have seen the House of Windsor publicly stripped of its last strands of dignity, Asians still tend to respect their royalty.
In Thailand, King Bhumibol Adulyadej is so widely revered that a brief speech from the throne last year was all it took to end months of clashes between the government and pro-democracy demonstrators. In Brunei, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah was pulled through the streets in a wooden chariot by worshipful subjects last October for the 25th anniversary of his rule, although the country's constitution has remained suspended since 1962.
Even in ultramodern Japan, the Chrysanthemum Throne is still treated with reverence. When Crown Prince Naruhito finally found a princess last month, the nation celebrated and predicted the match would even lift the deflated stock market.
The same can no longer be said for Malaysia. For the past three months, the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed has waged an extraordinary campaign against Malaysia's royal houses in an effort to whip up public support for a constitutional amendment stripping away many of their legal privileges.
The controversy is really a battle for the hearts and minds of the country's ethnic Malays, who constitute a nearly 60% majority of the population of 19 million and who practice Islam. (About one-third of the population is ethnic Chinese and the rest mostly Indian.) The hereditary rulers are cultural symbols to the Malays.
"The Malay now faces an implacable dilemma," said journalist M.G.G. Pillai. "He reveres the ruler as his feudal lord, to whom he goes from protection--and often gets it--from political and administrative excesses. He sees the attempt to rein in the rulers as another step to eliminate them from Malay society and which could lead to other entrenched constitutional clauses--like Islam as the state religion or of the special rights for the Malays--to be similarly removed."
The open warfare with the sultans is a tremendous political gamble for Mahathir because the Malays who traditionally support the sultans are the same constituency that elected the prime minister to power. Also, since Malaysia's remarkable economic development has been largely driven by foreign investment, any whiff of instability could have a devastating impact.
The battle royal has turned decidedly nasty, with newspapers close to the government accusing the sultans of financial, sexual and even criminal improprieties--a form of public humiliation that is virtually unknown in Asian nations.
There are hereditary rulers in nine of Malaysia's 13 states--seven of them are sultans. They act not only as titular heads of state for local governments but, more importantly, as the defenders of the Islamic faith. The other four states that are without sultans have appointed governors. The sultans elect a king for a five-year term, and he becomes Malaysia's largely ceremonial head of state.
Until now, the sultans have been protected from government depredations by language in the constitution prohibiting Parliament from adopting any law that affects royalty without first getting the sultans' approval. The sultans have immunity from civil and criminal legal proceedings and can pardon any family member.
While the question of royal popularity is open to debate, unquestionably Malaysia's rapid economic development over the past 20 years has created a middle class that is uncomfortable with public displays of royal misbehavior, especially egregious greed.
There was widespread outrage last year when Sultan Ismail Petra of Kelantan hopped into a specially imported Lamborghini Diablo and sped off without paying the $810,000 import tax.
An effort to get the hereditary rulers to adopt a voluntary code of conduct was subsequently rejected by three of the nine, and the idea was dropped.
The latest campaign against the royalty began when a prince in the royal family of Johore, the state nearest Singapore, was accused of beating up a rival field hockey player in a locker room.
The sultan of Johore is the most controversial--he was accused in Parliament of 15 criminal acts in 12 years, including beating a golf caddy to death with a club when the caddy chuckled at a flubbed putt. Because of his immunity, the government could not bring legal charges.
Other sultans have been accused of lavishing themselves with goodies at state expense. The sultan of Selangor, for example, has a $4-million yacht that costs the government $15,000 a month to maintain. The sultan of Kedah just built a $4-million palace in Kuala Lumpur for those days when he visits the federal capital.
An outraged Mahathir proclaimed: "Royalty is not above the law. They cannot kill people. The cannot beat people."
On Jan. 19, Parliament approved a bill removing the sultans' legal immunity. But the sultans refused to go along, saying that the constitution clearly prohibited the government from adopting laws concerning them without their consent.