Just north of Singapore, in a public square overlooking the Johor Strait, tourists gather daily to snap photos of what looks from afar like a giant spider. The structure, two crisscrossing arches topped with an enormous replica crown, opened several years ago as a monument to the billionaire living next door — one of Malaysia’s richest men, who will soon become even more powerful.

Johor Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar, 65, financed the crown arches on government-owned land both to attract visitors and remind the public that he oversees Malaysia’s second-most populous state, according to people familiar with his thinking, who asked not to be identified discussing private matters. Grandiose and popular with residents in the state, in many ways it’s emblematic of the motorcycle-riding, Ferrari-driving, Instagram-savvy royal, who has pursued private business activities in addition to carrying out his official duties. His family’s assets with readily available valuations are worth at least $5.7 billion, according to an estimate by Bloomberg, and the sultan’s empire reaches far beyond that.


Johor Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar’s Family Fortune

The nearby grounds of Istana Bukit Serene, a palace completed in 1933 that serves as the sultan’s official residence, showcase the fruits of a sprawling business empire that touches everything from real estate and mining to telecommunications and palm oil. His collection of more than 300 luxury cars includes one he says was gifted by Adolf Hitler, a friend of his great-grandfather. At an airport not far away, his family’s fleet of private jets features three Gulfstreams and a gold-and-blue Boeing 737. He even has his own army, a relic of Malaysia’s history under British rule.

The extent to which Sultan Ibrahim displays his riches — and speaks out on issues traditionally reserved for elected politicians — makes him unique among Malaysia’s nine hereditary rulers, who rotate the role of head of state among them every five years. With close ties to the leadership of Singapore and business partners that include one of China’s biggest property developers, the sultan is poised to have more influence on both domestic and foreign policy than any previous Malaysian monarch. Selected by the nation’s hereditary rulers in October, he officially takes the throne on Jan. 31.

Although the position is mostly ceremonial, Malaysia’s king has become more important following the 2018 ouster of a coalition that had ruled the Southeast Asian nation for more than six decades. The sitting monarch, King Abdullah Ahmad Shah, has since stepped in three times to name a prime minister, twice after governments collapsed and most recently after an inconclusive election in November 2022, when he gave power to current leader Anwar Ibrahim. That has effectively made Malaysia’s politicians — including Anwar, who now oversees a wobbly government with nearly 20 parties — more beholden to the king than ever before.

Even before ascending to the throne, Sultan Ibrahim has stirred controversy. In an interview with Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper last month, he vowed to check the power of Anwar and other elected lawmakers. He called for the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and Petronas, a state-owned oil and gas giant, to report to the king instead of the prime minister, something that would require legal changes. He also urged the revival of a high-speed rail project between Singapore and the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur — and pushed for it to run through a property development in which he’s an investor.

Sultan Ibrahim declined multiple requests for an interview, and the Johor palace declined to comment on detailed questions from Bloomberg on this story.

Anwar has sought to downplay any discord, telling reporters in December that the sultan’s views “will not influence national policies and our principle of constitutional monarchy.” Later that month, Anwar said that Sultan Ibrahim “understands the constitution” and sends him frequent messages on WhatsApp. The sultan told the Straits Times he was on good terms with Anwar, saying the prime minister “calls me sometimes, even at midnight, asking for advice.”

The Johor sultanate has been at the forefront of a debate in Malaysia about the role of the royals in a modern-day democracy since the 1990s, when lawmakers publicly accused Sultan Ibrahim’s father of murder. While the subject is taboo due to a sedition law that criminalizes expressions of hatred or contempt for the rulers, a few politicians over the years have dared to speak out — most notably the 98-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, who frequently bumped heads with the sultans during his 24 cumulative years as prime minister.

Most pertinent to investors today is a provision in the federal constitution that says the king “shall not actively engage in any commercial enterprise” — a point of contention that hasn’t been tested in Malaysia’s courts. The Johor state constitution doesn’t prohibit royals from playing a role in the private sector.

“The rulers have become very much involved in business,” Mahathir said in a recent interview in his office in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative capital. “Actually, they should not be involved in business. Unfortunately, the Malays cannot say no to their rulers. Their culture is such that, if the rulers want to do something, whatever the constitution or the law may say, they cannot say no. The civil servants cannot say no. Even the politicians cannot say no.”

Sultan Ibrahim makes no apologies for his business prowess.

“If you look at the history of the Johor royal family, we have been involved in business from the days of my great-grandfather,” Sultan Ibrahim told Malaysia’s Star newspaper in 2015. “I have never tried to hide my business dealings using proxies, like some people do. I am open and transparent.”

Malaysian companies with significant operations in Johor have rallied since Oct. 27, when Sultan Ibrahim was selected as the next king. Berjaya Land Bhd., which has a rail affiliate chaired by the sultan’s daughter, has surged more than 60%. Berjaya Assets Bhd., in which the sultan has a direct stake, has jumped more than 40%.

Bloomberg’s $5.7 billion calculation of his net worth is just a snapshot of his family’s total wealth, gleaned from troves of public records in Malaysia and Singapore. The estimate includes stakes in nearly a dozen companies, proceeds from share sales and other transactions, a home in Perth and a very valuable piece of land in the middle of Singapore in the name of his son, Crown Prince Ismail Ibrahim.

It excludes company stakes held by close associates as well as assets where a value can’t be ascertained. That includes all of his land holdings around Malaysia, his extensive car collection and — perhaps most significantly — stakes in major projects ranging from real estate to industrial parks to oil and gas facilities in Johor and beyond.

In interviews over the years, the sultan has aligned himself with the common people.

“I have to earn my living like everyone else,” he told the Star newspaper in 2015. “I must earn a living, like ordinary Malaysians.”

Unlike average citizens, however, Sultan Ibrahim’s official duties permit him to regularly meet and consult with the nation’s top leaders — including on projects that directly impact his personal investments.

One key example is Forest City, a luxury housing estate across from Singapore expected to cost as much as $100 billion once finished, which is operated by a joint venture between troubled Chinese developer Country Garden Holdings Co. and a Malaysian firm owned by Sultan Ibrahim, a Johor state government agency, and others. The project, which is planned to be roughly half the size of Manhattan but is only partially completed, has struggled to gain traction in part due to Beijing’s crackdown on citizens buying real estate overseas. Mahathir also restricted visas for foreign property buyers in 2018.

Last August, Anwar’s government unveiled measures to revive Forest City, designating it a special financial zone with incentives including multiple-entry visas, fast-track access for those working in Singapore and a flat income tax rate of 15% for high-end workers. The move came after Sultan Ibrahim convinced Anwar to take action, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because the information is private.

Anwar’s office didn’t respond to written questions on details throughout this story. Country Garden, the main developer of Forest City, didn’t respond to questions about the project.

Forest City could get a further boost if both governments accept the sultan’s proposal to make it the border crossing in a resurrected high-speed rail between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, a project shelved by Malaysia in 2021 due to a price tag estimated at more than 100 billion ringgit. Anwar’s government has put out a request for proposals to restart the project as a private initiative with no cost to taxpayers. Seven groups have submitted proposals.

Sultan Ibrahim told the Straits Times a private consortium could finance the rail project and operate it for 30 years to recoup expenses before handing it back to the government. “I will make it (come back) on,” the newspaper quoted the sultan as saying.

Many of Sultan Ibrahim’s business partners are from the Chinese community in Malaysia, China or Singapore, the financial center that he can view from Johor. He maintains close relations with Singapore’s leaders, telling the Straits Times that his royal house has a “special relationship” with the family of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, which has run the city-state for much of its existence. In a meeting in October, Singapore’s leader hailed the sultan’s “wise leadership.”

“It helps when you have a monarch who has a very good relationship with Singapore,” said Khairy Jamaluddin, 48, a former cabinet minister in Malaysia who now hosts a popular podcast. “That relationship has to be elevated in the next few years for us to really present Malaysia and Singapore as a seamless market.”

Sultan Ibrahim’s family ties with ethnic Chinese date back many generations. His great-great grandfather, Abu Bakar, is known as the father of modern Johor. In the late 1800s, he brought prosperity to the state by encouraging Chinese immigrants to operate plantations producing black pepper and gambier, a plant extract used in tanning.

The federal constitution designates Malaysia’s nine sultans as the heads of Islam in their states, and they are regarded as protectors of Malay rights. As the traditional leaders of the Malay Peninsula dating back to the 15th century, all of the nine sultans once enjoyed privileges such as immunity from prosecution.

Those perks came under attack in the 1990s after Johor Sultan Iskandar, the father of Sultan Ibrahim, allegedly assaulted a field hockey coach on palace grounds. During an open debate in parliament, lawmakers publicly accused Sultan Iskandar of dozens of crimes, including beating a caddy to death with a golf club.

The Johor royal family didn’t respond to the accusations at the time, and no charges were filed. While the parliamentary hearings ended with changes to the constitution that allowed royals to face criminal prosecution in their private capacity for the first time, it wasn’t retroactive — the result of a compromise with the sultans, who had to sign off on any amendments.

Sultan Ibrahim has avoided that kind of controversy, and has become known as an advocate for tolerance in the Muslim-majority nation. He has made veiled criticisms of Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, known as PAS, which advocates policies such as banning alcohol, mandating shariah law and imposing a conservative dress code for women.

While PAS won the most seats of any single political party in the 2022 election, the Islamist party has struggled to gain a foothold in Johor. The sultan has shown support for other religions in his state by attending Christmas and Diwali celebrations.

“The Sultan of Johor is more moderate,” said Serina Abdul Rahman, a lecturer at the National University of Singapore who researches politics in rural Malaysia.

In Johor, Sultan Ibrahim and his family remain wildly popular. He has more than 900,000 followers on Instagram, where he posts regularly on everything from his love for fast cars to his official royal duties. When he was selected as the next king, his press team published a slickly produced slow-motion video of the day to mark the occasion.

Sultan Ibrahim also makes an annual procession to the state’s ten districts to see his subjects, a tradition that has gone on for generations. Some 87% of Johoreans support the royal family, according to the latest available opinion survey from 2017. About 75% of those polled wanted Sultan Ibrahim to intervene in politics when necessary.

His son, Crown Prince Ismail, appears to also be well-liked. On a recent evening at the 40,000-seat Sultan Ibrahim Stadium — a state-of-the-art facility built on state government land and paid for by the sultan, similar to the spider-like crown arch monument — spectators appeared just as enamored with the prince as with Johor Darul Ta’zim F.C., a soccer team he owns that has won the Malaysia Super League for each of the past 10 years. Every time the team scored, fans would look up to watch the prince punching his fist in the air.

In the Straits Times interview, Sultan Ibrahim painted himself as a man of the people in contrast to Malaysia’s elected lawmakers. “There’re 222 of you in parliament — there’re over 30 million outside,” he said. “I’m not with you. I’m with them.”

Among some notable politicians, those kind of statements are raising concerns that Sultan Ibrahim will soon be able to exert his influence throughout the country in the same way as he’s done in his home state.

“He’s a man who is very aggressive in many ways,” Mahathir said. “In a situation where the government is weak, the government cannot impose the rule on the ruler.”

Source : Bloomberg

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