Political Development Continues to Stall in Malaysia

The deportation of Australian Senator Nick Xenophon from Malaysia shows the continuing refusal of the long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition government to embrace political reform.

Modern Malaysia is based on a pro-Malay multi-ethnic state, whereby the large Chinese and Indian minorities’ political and economic rights are subordinated to those of the indigenous Malays. This policy was enacted after the 1969 Kuala Lumpur race riots, when Tunku Abdul Rahman’s government fell to the newly-created Barisan Nasional of Abdur Razak. (Esman, 1972, pp.42-43)

The May 1969 race riots ushered in a pro-Malay era
The May 1969 race riots ushered in a pro-Malay era

The Barisan Nasional determined that the root cause of the riots was the socio-economic imbalance between the “rich” Chinese and “poor” Malays, which had led to great resentment among Malaysia’s dominant ethnic group. The resulting New Economic Policy (NEP) in which the Malays were favoured in business, education and the professions was supposed to be a remedy for the ethnic tension. (Alatas, 1997, p.119)

Adopting the East Asian development model of export-oriented growth in the 1970s allowed for a rapid expansion of the Malaysia economy. At the same time, however, political power was concentrated in the Prime Minister’s office, giving significant authoritarian power to strongman Mahathir bin Mohamad. The creation of the Internal Security Act (ISA), allowing detention without trial, further strengthened the cause of the government as opponents to the ethnically-biased development model could be easily silenced. (Yin, 1983, p.190)

Simultaneously, the banning of trade unions and the retention of artificially low wages and labour costs encouraged foreign investment, further bolstering the Malaysian economy. However, at this point Malaysia ceases to follow the typical developmental model. Opening up to foreigners eventually encouraged scrutiny of Malaysia’s draconian security measures and rising living standards ushered in the development of a new middle class eager for political change. Yet Mahathir refused to bow to pressure for reform.

Part of Mahathir’s success in forgoing political reform was the legacy of the NEP, which had created an ethnically-divided civil society in which a coordinated reform movement was not forthcoming. The human rights abuses that Senator Xenophon has often eluded to in Malaysia to were allowed to continue. For the majority of the population, the favoured Malays, whilst economic development remained consistent there was no real incentive to join arms with their Chinese and Indian neighbours and campaign for reform.

It has only been since the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997-8 and the subsequent contraction of the Malaysian economy that stifled political development has been challenged. Finding a champion in former government stalwart Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat finally began to unite society against the archaic and reform-shy Barisan Nasional.

A former ally of Mahathir, Ibrahim has become the face of political change for many Malaysians
A former ally of Mahathir, Ibrahim has become the face of political change for many Malaysians

Mahathir’s successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi narrowly won the 2008 general election and was soon forced from office to be replaced by current Prime Minister Najib Razzak. Mahathir, Badawi and Razzak all resorted to poorly-veiled methods to derail the opposition movement, arresting Ibrahim on questionable sodomy charges on several occasions. The prolonging of his trials enabled the government to prevent the populist Ibrahim from taking his place in the country’s political spectrum.

The deportation of Xenophon shows that the Barisan Nasional remains hyper-sensitive to criticism of its political authority. Such a desperate need to silence criticism, both domestic and foreign, is testament to the waning powers of a political organisation that must call an election this year. All the signs suggest that elections will be anything but free and fair with the Barisan Nasional seemingly intent on clinging to power.

There naturally comes a time when all political movements must come to an end. When consistent economic growth can no longer be achieved, people suddenly become more aware of their nonexistent political rights. Such is the ever-present fear of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In this case, the deportation of Senator Xenophon would appear to be a mistake. Rather than marshalling his movements carefully within Malaysia, the Barisan Nasional has drawn unwanted media attention to its authoritarian methods at a time when an election looms. With an increasingly-well educated population, such mistakes will not be overlooked. The time for the Barisan Nasional may nearly be over. Whether this will bring democratic, political development to Malaysia remains to be seen.


Alatas S F, Democracy and Authoritarianism in Indonesia and Malaysia (1997)

Crouch H, Government and Society in Malaysia (1996)

Esman M, Administration and Development in Malaysia (1972)

Munro-Kua A, Authoritarian Populism in Malaysia (1996)

Verma V, Malaysia: State and Civil Society in Transition (2002)

Yin H W, Class and Communalism in Malaysia (1983)

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

2 thoughts on “Political Development Continues to Stall in Malaysia”

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