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Southeast Asia - SEMINAR REPORT

#296, 7 July 2009

Emerging Trends in Malaysian Politics: Implications for the Region and India

Speaker: Dr. Baladas Ghoshal
Distinguished Fellow, Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies, Visiting Professor, Third World Studies Centre, Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi & Visiting Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

Professor Ghoshal:

There are two major reasons why current trends in Malaysian politics merit attention. Firstly, the March 2008 elections were a paradigm shift in Malaysian politics and shall have a lasting impact on future of Malaysian politics. Secondly, the evolution of representative modes of government in pluralistic societies with a variety of ethnic and religious influences holds theoretical significance for other pluralistic societies such as India.

However, even pluralistic societies are often inclined towards a singular narrative which, although need not be harmonised, pose operational obstacles. The March 2008 elections marked a paradigm shift in Malaysian Politics. Never before had the opposition which comprised of multi-ideological parties come together to form government. The transition from Mahathir bin Mohammad (prime minister of Malaysia from July 1981-October 2003) to Najib Tun Razak who was appointed as prime minister in April 2009 has parallels from Indian politics. The Indian citizenry found a low profile yet smart leadership in Lal Bahadur Shastri after Jawaharlal Nehru. Mahathir’s political agenda entailed fighting corruption; he promised openness and transparency and shifts in the economic balance. Corruption is a systemic and structural problem and cannot be solved overnight. This issue raised too many expectations and was Mahathir’s undoing. It created turmoil and was instrumental in the shifts that Malaysian politics was soon to experience.

The rumblings among the grassroots were another indication that went unnoticed. The affirmative action programs benefited those who were already politically well connected. It widened the gap between the rich and the poor. It was more visible in the urban areas. The Malays were dissatisfied with the government’s management of this issue. It created disenchantment among the Malays towards the government. The Non-Malays on the other hand felt that since the affirmative action programs had been instituted in 1969, it was now time for them to end or in the very least to include the Non-Malays also in the distribution of the economic crumbs. Many had lost their jobs in the plantations and had not really adapted to the urban environment. The Malay Indian Congress (MIC) was another source of disenchantment among the Non-Malay community. There was resentment against the leadership for how it dealt with the Indian community and the position they were put in. The creeping Islamization within Malaysian society and the ensuing feeling of alienation and discrimination among the Indian community further added to a rising crescendo of disillusionment.  

Thus, although there were a multitude of factors contributing to discontentment in Malaysian society, Abdullah bin Haji Ahmad Badawi, who succeeded Mahathir as prime minister in 2003, became the scapegoat. A feeling that Badawi was a weak leader and that he had to be ousted also gained ground. In the wake of the March 2008 elections, one needs to ask the question: What direction is Malaysia moving? A lot of cracks are visible within the opposition even though they did come together. There is nothing in common ideologically between them. Moreover, there was a lot of negative voting during the elections out of which the opposition benefited but it was not an authentic mandate. Nevertheless it gave them the confidence and legitimacy they needed to pursue their political agendas. On the downside, there is no institutional arrangement or structure that shall monitor the functioning and actions of the opposition group. It was not long after coming to power that there was infighting over major government contracts.

The new prime minister Razak endeavours to overcome the divisions in Malaysian society through his ‘One Malaysia’ policy. He has introduced economic reforms that entail a reservation of 25 per cent of the shares of a foreign investment for the people. Out of this 12.5 per cent shall be reserved for the Malays; if there are no takers then that shall be distributed to the other communities. While it looks as if Najib has downsized the Malay benefits from the earlier 30 per cent to 25 per cent, but what he has really done is to strike a balance. These changes have taken place in the service sector (health, tourism etc) which has the ability to have a huge impact on economic development. However, some other major industrial sectors such as shipping, energy, infrastructure etc have been left out.

Many of the critics of Najib ascribe this to his attempt to weaken the opposition through his reforms, particularly the ‘One Malaysia’ policy. This policy it was alleged to be an attempt to drive a wedge between the major opposition parties. The Unity government proposal by Najib was meant to promote Malay and Muslim cohesion. It was seen by the opposition as a move to weaken them and as a reversion to the days of Malay favouritism in society. However, a Unity government is also in all likelihood to break from any external pressures. At the same time, Najib is seen as a stronger leader than Badawi. He is perceived as being articulate, forward looking and educated with a better grasp of economics.
The current trends in Malaysian politics can be applied to many other pluralistic societies. Social differences and multiculturalism should be acknowledged by the political elites in a pluralistic society in order to achieve peaceful governance. 


Malaysian politics and the conviction of Anwar Ibrahim
  • Among the most critical moments in Malaysian politics was the conviction of Anwar Ibrahim, former deputy prime minister under the Mahathir government (1993-1998) who later emerged as a staunch critique of Mahathir’s administration. In 1999, he was convicted for six years in prison on charges of corruption that was extended to another nine years in 2000, a charge that was later reversed by the Federal court. This incident marked a significant shift in the support for the Mahathir government, particularly at the grass root level where people were deeply affected by the humiliation of Ibrahim. For the first time in the history of Malaysia, a huge gap between the rich and the poor emerged.

Significance of the One Malaysia Policy
  • Despite uncertainties surrounding the One Malaysia Policy, it is driven by the objective of uniting the Malays and Non-Malays in Malaysia. There prevails a general perception that Malaysia is a country for native Malays and alienates the Non-Malay community. It was basically to bring about a gradual change in this perception that the government changed its policy and style of governance. Najib wanted to make a difference in the style of governance. However it would be extremely hard for any Malaysian prime minister to bring such a change overnight. It is hard to reconcile people’s interests on the one hand and move towards an egalitarian society on the other. Moreover, the reservations in economic reforms further entrench already existing inequalities and make communities dependent. Malaysia used to be one of the best English speaking countries in the region but today it is no longer the case.

Malaysian Society
  • Malaysia is a young pluralistic nation trying to determine its national identity. The colonial legacy has had some negative effects such as the compartmentalization of social groups. In Malaysian society, the Chinese ethnicities have learnt not to completely depend on the government. The Indian community on the other hand needs to do some introspection to analyse what they can do to improve their lot and also contribute to Malaysian society. The Indian media tends to play a negative role in projecting the Malaysian government’s policies as discriminatory. But it must be remembered that Malaysia’s cultural ties with India are very strong and the two countries share a very relaxed travel environment reflected in the large number of Indian tourists. Today the Malaysian Foreign Service has more Indians than Chinese in its ranks. Indian media should be broad minded and look on the positive side of what Najib is doing and how it is affecting India. The internet is a great means to access some alternative views on what is really happening in Malaysia. The March 2008 elections were in fact a victory for the internet and its scope.

A comparison of Mahathir, Badawi and Najib in Malaysian Politics
  • Mahathir had strong leadership qualities which were absent in the quite low profile Badawi. Najib gained over Badawi due to several reasons primarily political lineage and a man-of-the-future image. His performance under pressure also added to his political profile. However, he has limited time to perform and show results.

Harnit Kaur Kang and Tuli Sinha
Research Associates, IPCS

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