Remembering Istana Bukit Serene and Mr Douglas Gomez


When I was a child growing up in Johor, my parents sometimes took the whole family for a picnic lunch in the gardens off Istana Bukit Serene in Johor Bahru.  After eating, my brother and I would peer through the steel bars which surrounded the palace grounds and wonder whether princes had spiders which fought as well as those in our matchboxes.
When I took driving lessons, my instructor told me never to overtake any car owned by or driven by a royal.  He said if I didn’t take his advice, tragic things could happen to me and my family.  He said that it wasn’t just about royals acting directly; he said royals also acted through the police and government officials, who wouldn’t dare disobey them.
The former Sultan of Johor had a colourful background.
In 1977, when he was Raja Muda, he was convicted of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder.”  He was fined RM6,000 and sentenced to jail for 6 months.  (He was pardoned).
In 1983, when he was Sultan and a candidate for Agung, he was alleged to have said that when he became Agung he would declare an emergency and rule directly, bypassing the government.
The Sultan’s threat wasn’t unthinkable.  At that stage in our history, Chief Ministers of 2 states had to quit because their state’s rulers wouldn’t accept them.  The Chief Minister of Johor, Othman Saat, was one of them.
The government’s response to the Sultan’s threat was to take away from the Agung the power to declare an emergency and grant that power to the Prime Minister (Dr Mahathir). 
In 1992, the Sultan physically abused Mr Douglas Gomez, hockey coach of Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar, at Istana Bukit Serene.  Mr Gomez was alleged to have acted disrespectfully.  This is what transpired before Mr Gomez was summoned to the Istana on 30 November:
  • Mr Gomez had called on office bearers of the Johor Hockey Federation to resign, soon after 25 November.
  • Mr Gomez called them to resign because on 25 November the Johor team was withdrawn just hours before the semi-final of a Malaysian Hockey Federation (MHF) tournament.
  • The Johor team was withdrawn as directed by the Johor education department.
  • The Johor education department issued the withdrawal directive after a call from the Palace.
  • The withdrawal was requested as a response to the MHF punishment of the Sultan’s son, Tengku Abdul Majid Idris.
  • The MHF had banned Tengku Majid for 5 years as punishment for assaulting a Perak goalkeeper after Johor lost a match to Perak in July.

Mr Gomez was in Johor Bahru.  The police did not arrest him.  He went of his own free will to the Istana.  He was assaulted.

There was a public outcry over the assault on Mr Gomez and over the buckling of the state education director under the pressure placed upon him by the palace.  The government, under the leadership of Dr Mahathir, decided to curb the powers of the Rulers. 

The state controlled media let loose a barrage of stories both about the Johor royal family and about other royal families.  Vast numbers of Malaysians were informed about what the royals were really doing.  In 1994, citing newspapers as his sources, Mark Gillen, a professor of law at the University of Victoria in Canada wrote: