Power play at Kelantan palace

The palace feud in Kelantan is basically a family quarrel except that this is no ordinary family and at stake is the issue of succession to the throne.

ALL eyes were on the diminutive figure of Datuk Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat when he rose to make his customary speech at the royal investiture ceremony early this week.

He has been doing this since he became Mentri Besar in 1990 yet some of those watching thought he seemed a little nervous.

He cannot be blamed for being nervous because the ceremony was being conducted amid a royal power struggle that has captured the imagination of not only the Kelantan people but that of the nation as well.

In fact, the ceremony had taken place although the Sultan of Kelantan had decided not to mark his 60th year with any official celebration.

Nik Aziz spoke for only about 15 minutes but it was one of the most significant speeches in his political career. He pledged support and loyalty to the Regent Tengku Muhammad Faris Petra on behalf of the people and the state government.

He praised the Regent’s down-to-earth style and said that his prayers were for the Prince to continue his good work and for the health of Sultan Ismail Petra.

“Tok Guru respects the State Constitution. We are loyal to the Regent. We are also praying for the Sultan to regain his health and we will stand by him,” said senior state exco member Datuk Nik Amar Nik Abdullah.

Support for Regent

Many saw Nik Aziz’s speech as an important endorsement for the Tengku Mahkota or the Crown Prince, who has been embroiled in a palace feud that has pitched him against his younger brother Tengku Muhammad Fakhry and the regal and elegant Raja Perempuan, Tengku Anis Tengku Abdul Hamid.

In the middle of it all is Sultan Ismail Petra, 60, who has been unwell since last year and who returned to Kelantan in March after months of treatment in a hospital in Singapore.

The palace power play has been intense, to say the least.

There have been so many law suits involving the Kelantan palace that people have lost track of who is suing who and over what. They have seen one royal brother suing another royal brother, prince suing ex-wife, prince suing palace officials, and the Sultan reportedly divorcing his second wife.

On top of all this, there have been statements and counter-statements by opposing sides over a variety of issues.

Malaysian royals enjoy a great deal of privileged privacy unlike, say, in Britain where everything they do or say is splashed all over the media. But the Kelantan royal feud has escalated to such an extent that it has made news headlines.

What has happened is basically a family quarrel except that this is no ordinary family and at stake is the issue of succession to the throne.

The starting point to all this was the Sultan’s health. His Royal Highness fell ill in May last year and after a brief stay in the Kubang Krian hospital, was transferred to Singapore’s Mount Elizabeth Hospital.

Tengku Faris, 40, was appointed Regent by the Kelantan Succession Council which, as its name suggests, oversees succession to the throne.

The interregnum has been fraught with incidents.

Tengku Fakhry’s beautiful teenage bride Manohara Odelia Pinot ran back to Indonesia under very controversial circumstances while they were visiting the ailing sovereign in Singapore. Tengku Fakhry, 32, is also known as the Tengku Temenggong and is third in line to the throne.

It was also during this period that the Sultan’s second wife, Elia Suhana Ahmad, emerged with allegations that she was being prevented from seeing him.

Then there was the issue of the Mentri Besar ignoring a request to call on the Sultan.

But there was also good news. The Sultan made positive steps towards recovery and returned home early last month to a warm welcome.

Many had hoped his return would lead to a more settled mood in the palace. Instead the situation has escalated.

A week ago, there was a move to replace Tengku Faris with Tengku Abdul Aziz Hamzah as the Regent. The elderly Tengku Abdul Aziz is the senior brother of Gua Musang MP Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and sits on the Succession Council.

Datuk Wan Hashim Wan Daud, who claimed to be the Sultan’s private secretary, announced it at a press conference. Six hours later, the Regent’s side rebutted the statement, insisting that Tengku Faris was still the rightful Regent.

That same evening, police picked up Wan Hashim for questioning. He was released two days later and went straight into hospital.

Tengku Abdul Aziz has since been removed from the Succession Council. The Regent is also seeking a court declaration that Tengku Abdul Aziz’s appointment is invalid.

The whole situation has been extremely delicate for the PAS government. PAS leaders know all too well the Malay saying that when the elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.

They had immense problems with the palace when they came to power in 1990. It took them almost a decade to win the royal goodwill and they are anxious not to lose it.

Playing safe

As such, Nik Aziz, who can be rather maverick when commenting on issues, has been choosing his words with care and it is obvious that his government is acting on legal advice regarding the State Constitution.

Or as he said recently: “We have God’s law which we call religion, and on earth, we have the Constitution. I advise all sides to follow the Constitution.”

The PAS government’s support for the Regent has been unmistakable. About a month before the Sultan’s return, Nik Aziz invited the Regent to take on the imam’s role in mass prayers at the Kota Baru stadium.

The Regent wore a plain cotton jubah and a white ketayap as he led the prayers for the well-being of the Sultan and peace in the state while Nik Aziz and other state figures stood in a row behind him.

The sight of the royal figure in an imam role made for quite a powerful image and as Nik Aziz later said: “We cannot find any other Prince in this world who can lead the sembahyang hajat.”

The Regent is known as a reform-minded royal who has a mind of his own. One of his mentor figures was the late religious figure Abdullah Abdul Rahman, who was the most respected of all the Tok Guru sekolah pondok in the state.

The Regent had held Abdullah in such high esteem that he insisted the elder man need not sembah (the gesture of respect shown to royals) to him.

The palace crisis is unlikely to end as yet for several reasons. One is the continued dispute regarding the position of the Regent.

Another is the health of the Sultan. Until today, no one is really sure about the cause of the illness. He has not been seen in public since his return and the exact state of his medical condition remains a mystery. One side claims he is “incapacitated” and the other insists he is well on the way to recovery.

Last Monday, Nik Aziz, in his first statement on the Sultan’s health, said: “His Highness is still sick. He uses a wheelchair and has two people by his side as his intermediaries.”

At a thanksgiving event last month, the Raja Perempuan said that doctors had not been optimistic that the Sultan would regain consciousness.

“By some divine miracle, the Sultan regained consciousness after the Yasin was read to him,” she said, while expressing sadness over the treatment of state leaders towards her husband.

Meanwhile, some are looking to Tengku Razaleigh to play some sort of mediating role. He has kept a dignified silence throughout but those with access to his more private side said he is deeply disturbed by the turn of events.

Shortly before the Sultan’s return from Singapore, Tengku Razaleigh had wanted both sides to sit down and talk things over but that has apparently not happened.

The royal politician has been a much looked-up-to figure in the royal house since his days as a high-flying politician and is related to both the Raja Perempuan and the Sultan.

The Raja Perempuan’s late mother was Tengku Razaleigh’s elder sister whom he regarded like a mother figure. The Sultan is the son of Tengku Razaleigh’s cousin.

“Many people say only Kuli (Tengku Razaleigh) can find a solution but it is also difficult for him. The Raja Perempuan is his niece and he loves the Regent like a son. He is trying very hard to stay in the middle,” said a source close to the royal politician.

But, said the source, Tengku Razaleigh understands the sensitivities in a family matter of this nature and he will not interfere unless he is asked to.

According to PAS’ Nik Amar, there has been a “cooling down” in the last few days.

“I pray there will be a solution but before that can happen, things must cool down some more,” he said.

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