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The Multiparty System: Country Studies - Malaysia

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 4 Political Rights, 4 Civil Liberties (Partly Free)


Malaysia is a federation with a mixed population of ethnic Malays (50.4 percent), Chinese (24 percent), Indians (8 percent), and assorted indigenous groups (11 percent), as well as a large number of migrant workers from other countries in the region. While most of its 25 million inhabitants are concentrated in West Malaysia, constituting the southern portion of the Malay Peninsula, more than half of the country's territory is in East Malaysia, consisting of the northern quarter of the island of Borneo. West Malaysia includes 11 states and two federal territories, while East Malaysia is made up of two large states and one federal territory. The west, then known as the Federation of Malaya, gained its independence from Great Britain in 1957 and absorbed the eastern states in 1963 to become the Federation of Malaysia.

Singapore also joined that year but left in 1965 to become an independent state. The sultanate of Brunei, an ethnic Malay country surrounded by East Malaysia, similarly opted to remain separate, eventually gaining full independence from Great Britain in 1984.

The Federation of Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system of government. While some opposition parties have seats in Parliament, it is dominated by a single, long-standing coalition whose leading party generally controls government policy. Malaysia has recorded impressive economic growth through foreign investment in the export manufacturing sector. Its GDP ranked 37th in the world ($149 billion) in 2006, or 33rd ($301 billion) by PPP. Malaysia ranked 80th in both nominal and PPP GNI per capita, at $5,490 and $11,300, respectively.


Early History

Malaysia's first major cultural influence was India, whose merchants began trading in the region roughly 2,000 years ago. This interaction gave rise to a number of small states that benefited from maritime commerce and adopted many Indian religious practices. Much of the area was partially controlled by the Srivijaya Empire, based on the island of Sumatra in what is now Indonesia, between the seventh and 14th centuries. However, war with neighboring kingdoms led to the decline of Srivijaya and further competition over the lucrative trade route through the Strait of Malacca.

Islamic Influence, European Dominance

During this time, greater trade with the Arab world and Indian Muslims helped to spread Islam in the region, adding to the existing blend of indigenous, Hindu, and Buddhist beliefs. The state of Malacca, founded around 1400 by a local ruler, soon converted to Islam and flourished as a leading commercial center.

The Portuguese commander Alfonso de Albuquerque, whose predecessors had explored the coast of Africa and rounded the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean, conquered Malacca in 1511. This led to fresh conflict with new Muslim sultanates on Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula and a decline in Malacca's importance as a trading port. The Dutch captured the city in 1641 and were already building an empire in the region that would eventually become Indonesia. The British became active on the Malay Peninsula in the late 18th century, occupying Dutch possessions during the Napoleonic wars and establishing a base at Singapore in 1819.

British Malaya

Beginning with an 1824 treaty, the British and Dutch began to divide the region along the borders of modern Malaysia and Indonesia. Great Britain gradually established a network of protectorates and colonies that left the existing sultanates with varying degrees of autonomy. Meanwhile, the British compelled Siam (Thailand) to give up control of some Malay states in 1909, setting the current northern border. Large numbers of Chinese and Indian migrants arrived in the country during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and tended, with British encouragement, to play distinct roles in the economy and society. The Chinese formed mining communities to extract tin and gold, and settled in towns to engage in commerce. Many Indians were imported as laborers for agricultural plantations producing cash crops like rubber. The ethnic Malay population largely remained in rural villages but also continued to dominate the state structures of the sultanates.

Postwar Insurgency

After a brutal Japanese occupation during World War II, ethnic Malay leaders and local rulers feared a breakdown of political order and welcomed the return of British administration. But British colonial power had been greatly weakened by the war, and different ethnic and political groups had conflicting visions for the postwar order. When the British sought to create a Malayan Union, merging the various peninsular states and providing equal citizenship for all races, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) emerged to oppose the plan and preserve ethnic Malay political privileges. In 1948 the British created the Federation of Malaya instead, leaving the sultanates intact within the larger structure. The ethnic Chinese–dominated Communist Party of Malaya, which had fought the Japanese and supported the initial union plan, then began a decade-long insurgency. Even as they worked to put down the rebellion, the British helped to broker a compromise between the non-Communist, ethnic-based political parties: UMNO, the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA), and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC). The three groups formed a governing coalition known as the Alliance that set the pattern for Malaysia's modern politics.


By the time of Malaya's independence in 1957, the Alliance had settled on a basic agreement whereby the more prosperous non-Malay ethnic groups would enjoy citizenship and cultural autonomy while bumiputera— ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups— retained special privileges, especially in education and economics. Singapore and the northern Borneo states of Sarawak and Sabah, governed until then by the British, were added to create the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. But Singapore, whose dominant ethnic Chinese population and leaders threatened the Malays' political position in the federation, agreed to withdraw in 1965 to become a separate city-state (see Country Study of Singapore).

Multiparty System

The head of Malaysia's constitutional monarchy, known as the paramount ruler, is elected for a five-year term by the hereditary rulers of the nine states with monarchies. The paramount ruler, whose powers are largely ceremonial, chooses the head of the leading party or coalition in the lower house of Parliament as prime minister, and appoints other lawmakers as cabinet members on the prime minister's recommendation. He also appoints 44 members of the upper house of Parliament, the Senate, on the prime minister's recommendation, and the 13 state legislatures each elect two of the remaining 26 members; all senators serve a maximum of two three-year terms. The lower house, the House of Representatives, consists of 219 members elected from single-member districts for five-year terms. Elections are by universal suffrage.

The head of Malaysia's constitutional monarchy, known as the paramount ruler, is elected for a five-year term by the hereditary rulers of the nine states with monarchies.
1969 Race Riots

Since the independence of the Federation of Malaya in 1957, elections have been dominated by UMNO and its junior coalition partners—the MCA, MIC, and a range of smaller parties. UMNO's leadership was seriously challenged in the 1969 elections, when the ruling coalition lost ground to the Democratic Action Party and other opposition groups. The opposition drew much of its support from the ethnic Chinese community and sought to end special privileges for bumiputera. The election results spurred riots in which thousands of Chinese homes and businesses were destroyed and dozens of people were killed. The government suspended Parliament for nearly two years, invoking emergency powers under the 1960 Internal Security Act. This law, originally adopted to deal with the Communist insurgency, effectively restricts political dissent and criticism of the government; the legislation remains in effect to date.

Positive Discrimination

After the 1969 riots, the government adopted a new economic policy aimed at boosting development and eradicating economic disparities among the races. Affirmative action policies were established to promote bumiputera advancement in education and employment. While causing resentment among minority groups, the policies have apparently succeeded in raising bumiputera ownership in the private sector. A 2006 study found that such ownership had already significantly surpassed the 30 percent target, raising doubts about the necessity of continuing affirmative action, but the government disputed the accuracy of the study. Prominent opposition politicians like Anwar Ibrahim have argued that the affirmative action policies have left the bumiputera population dependent on artificial supports without substantially improving their economic or social position.

Anwar Ibrahim

In the area of religion, all ethnic Malays are considered members of the Islamic faith. Sharia (Islamic law) courts have jurisdiction in all cases involving Islam, and civil courts have ruled that individual Malays cannot renounce Islam and must submit to the religious courts. Despite a guarantee of religious freedom in the constitution, other faiths generally face discrimination and government restrictions.

The [1969] election results spurred riots in which thousands of Chinese homes and businesses were destroyed and dozens of people were killed.
Opposition and Curbs on Dissent

The governing coalition, renamed the National Front (Barisan Nasional), expanded its cooperation with other ethnic and regional parties after the 1969 riots, and secured sweeping electoral majorities over the following decades. UMNO's Mahathir bin Mohamad became prime minister in 1981 and dominated the political scene until his retirement in 2003. The principal opposition parties, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), continue to compete under highly restrictive conditions. They were joined by an opposition movement that arose after the popular deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was dismissed by Mahathir in 1998 and subsequently convicted on questionable charges of sodomy and corruption. The party that emerged from this movement, the National Justice Party (later renamed the People's Justice Party after a merger with another group), formed a united opposition front with the DAP and PAS to contest the 1999 elections. While UMNO and its allies remained firmly in control of Parliament, they lost some 20 percent of their seats to the opposition parties, particularly the PAS.

The constitution guarantees the right to organize parties, associations, and trade unions, but in practice these rights are trumped by the 1960 Internal Security Act and additional security legislation passed under Mahathir. Among other provisions, the laws restrict criticism of the government and allow individuals to be held without charge or trial for as long as two years at a time. The Societies Act allows the government to deny registration to associations for political reasons, and trade union laws restrict unions to their respective industries and effectively bar strikes in a long list of industries that are deemed essential. Furthermore, the ruling parties and the government exercise indirect control over most media outlets, putting opposition parties and other government critics at a serious disadvantage.

2004 Elections

Under Mahathir's successor as prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, the National Front won more than 90 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives in 2004 elections. Opposition parties captured just 20 of the 219 seats and took a similar proportion of the seats contested in state-level elections. Abdullah campaigned on an anticorruption platform and benefited from a growing economy and renewed optimism after Mahathir's long-awaited departure. However, the authorities had left little to chance. District boundaries were altered to the National Front's advantage, UMNO used its vastly superior funds and media access to drown out the opposition, and the campaign period was limited to just seven days. Political speech was restricted through amendments to the election law making it an offense for a candidate to "promote feelings of ill-will, discontent, or hostility," and UMNO officials were accused of attempting to bribe opposition candidates. Even Mahathir reportedly remarked the following year that the 2004 margin of victory was excessive.

Political speech was restricted through amendments to the election law making it an offense for a candidate to "promote feelings of ill-will, discontent, or hostility..."
Economic Growth

Under UMNO, and especially under Mahathir, Malaysia adopted an aggressive economic development policy and invited foreign investment to create an export manufacturing sector. The result has been impressive growth rates since the 1980s. Today, however, Malaysia's important electronics industry faces competition from cheaper labor in China. At the same time, the country has stepped up efforts to expel its hundreds of thousands of illegal migrant workers, potentially straining the labor market further. As the government addresses new economic challenges, it has also sought to tackle the widespread perception of corruption in government and business, which dissuades foreign investment and spurs voter frustration.

Democracy in Malaysia

Mahathir remains a dominant figure in Malaysia and frequently criticizes his handpicked successor. He has gained international notoriety for his strident anti-Semitism and for arguing, like his Singapore counterpart, Lee Kuan Yew, that Western-style democracy is inappropriate for Asian culture, which he said values stability over freedom. Mahathir points to the success of Malaysia and Singapore as proof that there is a unique "Asian" path to development. Whether Malaysia's economic growth will continue remains to be seen. China has shown that economic growth in the absence of political competition is possible at least temporarily (see Country Study of China). But India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all demonstrate how open democracy and economic growth can both flourish in Asian societies, and the undemocratic measures that the Malaysian government has taken to suppress dissent could sow the seeds of future instability.