7 Jan 2019

Malaysia king abdicates in historic first

8:30 am on 7 January 2019

Malaysia's king, Sultan Muhammad V, has unexpectedly abdicated with immediate effect amid rumours he has married a Russian former beauty queen.

This file photo taken on July 17, 2018 shows the 15th king of Malaysia, Sultan Muhammad V, saluting a royal guard of honour during the opening ceremony of the parliament in Kuala Lumpur. - Malaysia's King Sultan Muhammad V has abdicated, a statement from the National Palace said on January 6, 2019.

Sultan Muhammad V of Malaysia saluting a royal guard of honour during the opening ceremony of the Parliament in Kuala Lumpur in July last year. Photo: AFP / Mohd Rasfan

No Malaysian monarch has stepped away from the throne since the country gained independence from the UK in 1957. It is the only country in the world to have a rotational monarchy, with the top job passing between nine hereditary state rulers, one every five years.

Muhammad V took the throne in December 2016, and may serve as acting King before a new monarch is selected by the Council of Rulers, the Straits Times reported.

"His majesty tells the people of Malaysia to continue to be united to maintain unity, tolerance, and work together," a statement from the National Palace said.

It added that the king was "ready to return home to the state of Kelantan".

It did not give a reason for his resignation but said it would take effect immediately.

The abdication comes amid intense speculation about Muhammad V's private life. He went on medical leave in November and, later that month, photographs emerged that appeared to show him marrying a former Miss Moscow in the Russian capital.

Officials have not commented on the rumours or given any further details about his health.

Muhammad V was just 47 when he became king, and has garnered a reputation for having relatively youthful interests. He is keen on extreme sports like off-road driving, shooting and endurance challenges.

The role of king is largely ceremonial, with power in the hands of parliament and the prime minister.

Despite this, it is accorded considerable prestige, particularly among the country's Malay Muslim majority for whom the king is seen as upholding Malay and Islamic tradition. Criticism deemed to incite contempt of the king can attract a jail term.

The current Prime Minister - Mahathir Mohamad, who returned to office in a shock election victory last May - had a tense relationship with the Sultans during his previous governments, when he attempted to limit their authority.

Last week, he warned that all Malaysians must be bound by the law, whatever their status.

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