WHAT'S ON HIS MIND: Sultan of Johor Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, in an exclusive interview, speaks candidly on a variety of issues -- from his bid for the WWW 1 vehicle registration number, his deep love for his subjects, his fear of heights, and passion for cars, to his favourite colour.
He also talks about a plan to build a unique landmark in Mersing inspired by his favourite television cartoon series. Sultan Ibrahim reveals his thoughts to Jassmine Shadiqe and Ahmad Fairuz Othman
Question: How has the role of the monarchy in Malaysia changed with the times?
Answer: Our role is still the same as before -- to look after the rakyat , the state and different districts. Of course, there are still official palace functions and ceremonies. These are important. We do not want ceremonies to disappear because they are part of our heritage, our history.
But maybe, nowadays, we have become more approachable and there are more opportunities for people to tell us their problems.
We are less formal and we make informal visits to different parts of the state. When I drive around the state, and see areas which are dirty or piled with rubbish, I tell the government officers to get these places cleaned up.
Also, we are more aware now about pollution and about taking care of our jungles, islands and beaches. I try to help. Like the time during the Kembara Mahkota Johor when I visited the islands. I am concerned over animal trafficking.
Question: Has technology provided a platform for Malaysians to be closer to royalty? What are the pros and cons? What blogs do you follow?
Answer: I try to adjust to technology. In fact, I sometimes read gossip columns, too. I don't follow any bloggers, but I have a Facebook page under the name Ibrahim Ismail. I sometimes do glance through it, but don't comment. I am on Facebook because I want to know how it works.
It is, however, left idle where "friends" are concerned. If I start to accept friends, but don't reply or respond, mesti ada yang kecil hati (some might be offended).
Yes, the Internet is a platform for the rakyat to be closer to royalty in a way. But it's impossible to answer all their questions. It takes a lot of time. And sometimes, there can be misunderstandings. It's still better to meet face-to-face.
But I think a proper website would be good, for example, the British monarchy website and the Prince of Wales' website -- both highlight the work royals do, including where they went, who they met. So, I prefer to have something like that where the people can experience and see for themselves what I have done and am doing.
Question: The Johor royal family has a long history of charismatic rulers who are well loved by the people. How would you describe your style as a ruler?
Answer: I want to be a sultan who is known for his love for his people. And that I listen to their problems and try to solve those problems. It doesn't matter who they are, whether they are fishermen, Orang Asli, businessman or people with heart problems.
From the time I was Tunku Mahkota Johor, I liked stopping at warung (stalls) or restaurants in whatever town I am in and have something to eat if I am hungry. I still like doing the same thing now. I enjoy it when old men, who I usually call Wak or Pak, come to chat with me. I don't mind if the people at the warung want to take pictures with me. It is nice to know they are happy to see me and to talk to me. I started the Kembara Mahkota Johor (KMJ) because it is a good way for me to meet the rakyat in an informal way. I enjoy the times I stayed in kampung houses overnight during the kembara.
At the same time, I want people to know that I am strict about certain things -- don't try to be nice to me or sweet-talk me so that you can get a datukship.
Question: Would you say this is your own unique style?
Answer: This is not a "put-on" style. This is me. I can't be somebody else. I am myself.
I still need to learn a lot from my brother rulers. I am a lot like my father (the late Sultan Iskandar) but at the same time, we are two different people. For starters, I don't have his patience. I have a tendency to want things done immediately. Thus, I don't have as much patience compared with him.
I am strict but at the same time, soft, and very forgiving. This is me, there is no put on. What you see is what I am, I don't have a facade.
I enjoy eating at a stall and I will (do so). My father taught me to treat people with respect. I call my driver Pak Mail and my teachers from school sir and my Quran teacher cikgu until now.
Anyone else who is older than me is Pak, Wak or encik and womenfolk are kakak.
Because some people are segan (shy) when I drop by their stalls unexpectedly and it causes their customers to become fidgety, so I have reduced such things. I still make my rounds unannounced by driving around to see for myself that the state is fine and my subjects are well.
Question: Are you different now as compared with when you were Tunku Mahkota Johor?
Answer: I still go to the kitchen, you know. I still like my friends. It's difficult for me when I can't go to Botak's restaurant (a famous asam pedas restaurant in Johor Baru). I can't sit at a warung, but I will do it during the Kembara Mahkota Johor.
Question: From the uniform that you wore at the rulers' meeting to confirm the next Yang DiPertuan Agong, some say you have styled yourself along your great-great grandfather, Sultan Sir Abu Bakar. What is your comment?
Answer: That's not a military uniform. The uniform is new but all the jewels are Sultan Abu Bakar's. All the jewels are his. They're not new. They were passed down from Sultan Abu Bakar to (the late) Sultan Ibrahim and so on. They are normally only worn prior to the coronation. There are two sets of jewels. I put them on because I want people to know what Johor has. These are the state jewels.
Question: Is your late great-great grandfather your role model?
Answer: Yes. I always listen to stories about Sultan Abu Bakar, and I read books about Sultan Ibrahim. He's my hero. But times have changed. That was 80 or 60 years ago. Times have changed. So I guess I have to change with the times, too. Sultan Abu Bakar was very smart as he was the "Father of Modern Johor". He became a very wealthy man. Later, (Sultan) Ibrahim became a wealthy man as well. It (their wealth) started from plantations. It started from the cultivation of gambier and black pepper. My great grandfather started a rubber plantation.
Question: From the initials used on the royal cypher, it appears that the Johor royal household plans the names of future rulers carefully.
Answer: Sultan Abu Bakar had the AB on his cypher. Then, it was changed to SI during the reign of Sultan Ibrahim. Ibrahim had a son named Ismail. Why those names? Prophet Ibrahim's son was Ismail, and so the late Sultan Ibrahim's son was named Ismail. Sultan Ismail had a son called Mahmud Iskandar, but the latter likes to be called Iskandar. Again, the cypher was SI yet again. Then, I am Ibrahim. Again the SI cypher is used again and it didn't change.
Question: Did your late father ask you to name the Tunku Mahkota Johor, Tunku Ismail?
Answer: I never named any of my children. I've never named any of my children. When they were born, I would go to see my father or call him. Like when the Tunku Mahkota Johor, Tunku Ismail, was was born, Almarhum (Sultan Iskandar) was the (Yang di-Pertuan) Agong. He was in Kuala Lumpur, not here. The Tunku Mahkota was born on Hari Raya day. The Agong celebrated the first day of Hari Raya in KL, and the second day of Hari Raya in Johor.
My late father asked me, "What did you get?" I said, a son. He said: "Well done, a son! Name him this."
When I was born, my father called his grandfather Sultan Ibrahim in London. My father had asked: "Can I name my son after you?" It was to get his blessing. That's how I got my name.
Question: It is clear that you are close to your children.
Answer: We're friends. In uniform, they are formal. The moment they take off their uniform, they are just like everybody else with their father. In uniform, they will approach me and say: "Asalamualaikum, Tuanku" and give a salute. That's their discipline. I spend the weekends with my family. These are the times I share with my children what my father shared with me.
Question: Your son Tunku Ismail defended you (on the bid for the WWW 1 vehicle registration number issue) and it is said that he takes a lot after you.
Answer: Of course. They are my children. I am his father. Not only did the Tunku Mahkota Johor say something back, Tunku Temenggong Johor (Tunku Idris) and Tunku Jalil (Tunku Abdul Jalil) said something back (about the matter), too. I am their father and they know how I feel.
Question: Does Tunku Ismail take a lot after you?
Answer: He is slightly shorter than me, but all my other children are taller than me. Except for my daughter (Tunku Aminah), she follows her mother. Tunku Jalil is tallest of the lot. But we have yet to know how "Tunku Bubu" (youngest prince, Tunku Abu Bakar) will turn out as he's only 11.
Question: Some say Tunku Ismail seems a lot like you when you were his age?
Answer: Sometimes you want to have your father's style. You know, sometimes you want to look like your father and want to walk like your father. Wear a similar coat. Like today, I want to go diving, and he asks me if he could go. I felt touched that they want to come with me. That way, I have an opportunity to teach them or lecture them. It's quality time for us.
Question: In your opinion, what is it that people still do not understand about the role of the monarchy in our country?
Answer: In Malaysia, it is a constitutional monarchy. We are a symbol of stability. Politicians may come and go but we remain and carry out our duties.
Royal families in Malaysia have been here long before independence. Hundreds of years prior to that.
What people may not understand is this -- we know what our duties are and what we should do because we are well aware and know what our fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers did. We learned from them and their experiences.
If people invite us to visit them, we will go. It doesn't matter if it's a wedding in a kampung or a big event in a hotel in the city.
Maybe because our photographs don't appear often on television and newspapers, people may think we are not doing anything.
All my subjects matter to me, immaterial of their race, religion or beliefs. They are Johoreans and they matter!
Question: The "Perhimpunan Ikrar Taat Setia" last Sunday in Johor Baru attracted 30,000 people from various races and walks of life. How did you feel about it?
Answer: It was a very emotional moment for me to see so many people gathered there. I didn't expect so many to turn up. It was a very hot day and it touched me that they still wanted to come and see me although it was extremely humid.
I will remember that day for the rest of my life. And I was impressed, too, because they were not rowdy and everyone behaved themselves.
Question: On the bid for the WWW 1 vehicle registration number issue, what are your feelings about it?
Answer: It shouldn't have become an issue. I wasn't doing anything wrong. I bid for the number and I paid for it. I didn't ask it for free. And the money I paid went to the government. This means the government will decide what to do with it. It will still go back to the people.
I went through the proper channels and I am proud I won the bid. It would be unfair to have asked it for free. It will put the JPJ (Road Transport Department) in a very difficult position. The government made the right choice to tender it out.
Question: Recently, certain cases have been linked to the palace, such as the Pulau Rawa incident and that involving national boxer (Mohd Farkhan Mohd Haron). What is your take on the matter?
Answer: It's difficult. The boxer was involved in a case with some distant family members of mine. But the bad name will be on the Johor royalty.
I ask my children to stay away from all sorts of provocation. All their bodyguards now are on alert.
When somebody wants to be your friend and join you for a drink, but then starts swearing to your face, that's provocation. It's very... the bodyguards are in a difficult position. Sometimes the bodyguard pulls them, or reprimands them, and people complain and say, "Oh, the sultan's bodyguard is rough".
It's very difficult for them to do their job. Their job is to look after my safety. I'm not saying my life is always in danger. For example, if somebody comes to me and hugs me? What if he has a bomb? Look at Rajiv Gandhi (the assassinated Indian prime minister)?
I have reminded my sons to stay away from all kinds of provocation. There are protocols to adhere to. When I go out and meet the people, and someone makes a sudden gesture and hugs me, my bodyguard, who has been entrusted with my safety, will react.
That is their job. They might pull that person away or maybe push them a little. But it does not mean they are misusing their powers. What if anything happens? If someone acts rudely, it may be concluded as a threat. The bodyguards will react. It's what they have been trained to do and they do it out of love, too. Just let them do their job. One should not be judgmental.
Question: What are your future plans for Johor?
Answer: The future plans in Johor lie with the government. I would like to see Johor prosper. I want this development to benefit my subjects. They are the technocrats. They must make sure that my subjects benefit from the developments.
Question: Does Johor need another airport?
Answer: It will be good for Johor to have another airport. I want to build a house using the railway track channel slippers, or rather a log cabin in Mersing.
It will be country's first, and become an iconic Johor landmark. While I was looking for a carpenter to do so, a friend introduced me to an architect from Africa. I drew for him what I wanted and he showed me something else. It turned out looking like the Flintstones' house. I grew up watching that cartoon, and I love it.
The architect told me that no one else can build such as house. So, yes the Flinstone Beach House in Mersing is under way. There will be a car like Fred Flinstones', too. But it will not run on foot. The uniform will be Flinstones' costumes and locally made.
There is also a another kelong project in Mersing. These structures will put Johor on the world's map and benefit the rakyat.
I love Mersing for its beaches. I love water sports.
Question: Do you prefer to travel by air, sea or road?
Answer: Road. I am a pilot and I fly a helicopter. I am a parachutist and I have jumped off a plane. But lately, I have become scared of heights and don't like to fly, unless I am in the cockpit. It just happened. I don't know why I changed. I get jittery when my plane goes into turbulence or crosswinds.
Question: What is your favourite colour, hobby and car? Besides polo, what other sports do you enjoy?
Answer: My favourite colour is pink. I like turquoise and blue, too. I don't have any particular hobbies but I love cars and boats. I used to go windsurfing and I also water-ski. But now, I prefer scuba diving. And of course, I enjoy driving... and it doesn't matter what the licence plate number is.