Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy consisting of 13 states, 9 of which were formerly sultanates under British protection and 4 of which (Melaka, Pulau Pinang, Sarawak, and Sabah) were former British settlements ruled by appointed governors.
The constitution, promulgated on 31 August 1957 and subsequently amended, derives from the former Federation of Malaya, with provisions for the special interests of Sabah and Sarawak. It provides for the election of a head of state, the yang di-pertuan agong, or paramount ruler, for a single term of five years by the Conference of Rulers. The constitution also provides for a deputy head of state, chosen in the same manner and for the same term.
The Conference of Rulers consists of the nine hereditary sultans. Its consent must be obtained for any law that alters state boundaries; affects the rulers' privileges, honors, or dignities; or extends any religious acts, observances, or ceremonies to the country as a whole. The conference must also be consulted on proposed changes of administrative policy affecting the special position of the Malays or the vital interests of other communities.
The yang di-pertuan agong , who must be one of the hereditary sultans, is commander-in-chief of the armed forces and has the power to designate judges for the federal court and the high courts on the advice of the prime minister, whom he appoints. Until January 1984, the paramount ruler had the right to veto legislation by withholding his assent; this right was lost in a constitutional compromise that gave the paramount ruler the right to delay new laws for up to 60 days but also stipulated that, if passed by a two-thirds majority, a bill may become law after six months without his signature.
The yang di-pertuan agong from 1979 to 1984 was Ahmad Shah al-Musta'in Billah Ibni al-Marhum, the sultan of Pahang. The leading candidate to succeed him was Idris al-Mutawakil Allahi Shah Ibni al-Marhum, the sultan of Perak, but when Idris died of a heart attack on 31 January 1984, the Conference of Rulers selected Mahmud Iskandar Ibni al-Marhum Sultan Ismail. As crown prince of Johor he had been convicted of homicide in a shooting incident in 1977 but had been pardoned by his father and became sultan in 1981. In 1989 the sultan of Perak, Azlan Muhibuddin Shah, became the yang di-pertuan agong. He was succeeded in 1994 by Tuanku Ja'afar ibni Al-Marhum Tuanku Abdul Rahman, who was in turn succeeded in 1999 by Salehuddin Abdul Aziz Shah ibni Al-Marhum Hismuddin Alam Shah. Salehuddin died in office on 21 November 2001 and was succeeded by Tuanku Syed Sirajuddin ibni Almarhum Tuanku Syed Putra Jamalullail, the sultan of Perlis.
Executive power rests with the cabinet, chosen by the prime minister, who is the leader of the majority party or coalition of the house of representatives (Dewan Rakyat), the lower house of parliament. The 193 members of the house of representatives must be at least 21 years old; they are elected by universal adult suffrage (at age 21). Their term is five years unless the house is dissolved earlier. The 69-member senate (Dewan Negara) consists of 26 elected members (two from each state); 2 members appointed by the paramount ruler to represent the federal territory of Kuala Lumpur and 1 to represent the island of Labaun; and 40 members appointed by the paramount ruler on the basis of distinguished public service or their eligibility to represent the ethnic minorities. Senators must be at least 30 years old; they hold office for six-year terms.