Return of the Strongman? Mahathir Mohamad and the Political Development of Malaysia

Who would have thought that Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad, at the ripe old age of 92, would be re-installed as the Prime Minister of Malaysia? Even more, that he has defected from the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), whose iron grip on power he helped solidify during his first tenure.

It is an amazing story, and coupled with the release of Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition darling who fell from grace as Mahathir’s former deputy and has been in and out of prison ever since. Deposed Prime Minister Najib Razak, meanwhile, now almost certainly faces corruption charges. Barred from leaving the country by his former patron Mahathir, it is a dramatic fall from grace for the man touted as the UMNO’s next standard-bearer.

Mahathir (R) greets the recently released Anwar (L)

What does this mean for the political development of Malaysia? For so long subordinated to economic progress, particularly the wants of the native Malays (Bumiputera), is true political reform and democratisation on the horizon? Would that even be a good thing in an era where the flaws of the liberal system are being laid out in the open?

It is first worth recounting the transformation of the Malaysian state and economy post-WWII and the unique conditions that have driven its development. Below is a piece I wrote on the subject back in 2009.

Mahathir has promised to vacate his position as leader of the Pakatan Harapan ruling coalition for Anwar Ibrahim within two years

Defining development is not a straightforward task and therefore in examining Malaysia’s unique development post-war I will use the following definitions:

Economic development:

The measurable progress in an economy from a primarily agricultural base to an industrial emphasis, accompanied by a general improvement in living standards.

Political development:

The adaptation of the institutions, attitudes, and values that form the political power system of a society.

These definitions are in line with “modernisation theory” which emphasises that economic development will increase with access to financial capital and advanced technological education and gradually lead to greater political development along more democratic and pluralistic lines of governance. (Im, 1987, p.232)

These processes establish a social transformation from a traditional to a “modern” society. I will argue that, whilst pursuing a development model similar to other East Asian states has led to rapid economic development in Malaysia, it has not been accompanied by the political development forecast by modernisation theory.

In fact, a reverse political development pattern is noticeable, as attempts to create a pro-Malay multi-ethnic state have merely resulted in a highly centralised authoritarian elite.

Tun Abdul Razak; father of Najib Razak and 2nd Prime Minister of Malaysia. He was instrumental in setting the platform for Malaysia’s unique development

The catalyst for Malaysia’s rapid economic development from the 1970s onwards was the Kuala Lumpur race riots of 1969. This involved clashes between the indigenous Malays and the Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities (who still make up a substantial proportion of the population). (Esman, 1972, p.42)

The government decided the root cause of the riots was the socio-economic imbalance between the “rich” Chinese and the “poor” Malays, which had led to great resentment amongst Malaysia’s dominant ethnic group. (Wah, 2002, pp.24-5) This diagnosis would contribute to the implementation of the policy that would shape Malaysian development for the next three decades: the New Economic Policy (NEP).

The NEP sought to raise the Malay share in all capital interests from a rate of two per cent in 1970 to thirty per cent by 1990. This would be achieved through economic and social restructuring, giving preference to the Bumiputera (native Malays) in business, education and the professions. (Munro-Kua, 1996, p.63)

This was hugely significant both for Malaysia’s economic and political development. Economically, it helped initiate a move from import-substitution to export oriented growth (Crouch, 1996, p.221). This is a key phase in the East Asian economic development model, and led to rapid growth in Malaysia’s GDP.

Politically, the NEP centralised economic control in the Prime Minister’s department, “signalling a more interventionist approach in the economy,” (Liew, 2003, p.94) and thus setting the framework for authoritarian rule.

Further policy creation in the 1970s, including the Internal Security Act (ISA) to allow detention without trial, strengthened the position of the pro-Malay Barisan Nasional coalition (Yin, 1983, p.190) and had consequences for Malaysia’s future economic development. These policies were specifically aimed at reducing non-Malay dominance in the economic sector and were enacted to quash any resistance towards the pro-Malay NEP.

This was particularly ironic given that the Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities’ business enterprise and corporate taxation had prevented the post-independence Malaysian economy and political system from being an unmitigated disaster. (Bowie & Unger, 1997, p.67) Discriminating against these traditionally key economic players saw Malaysia apparently deviate from modernisation theory, as the government restricted its access to the financial capital necessary to continue its ambitious development programme.

The 1969 race riots prompted a radical change in Malaysia’s development

Modernisation necessarily requires substantial capital for a sustained period and as the Malaysian government marginalised the ethnic Chinese, they had to seek foreign investment as an alternative provider of finance. (Alatas, 1997, p.119) Not only does foreign capital allow infrastructural improvements to traditional societies, but it aids the transfer of technology that can intensify economic development.

The authoritarian nature of the Malaysian state facilitated the arrival of foreign investment, as industrial legislation banning trade unions, along with the draconian measures of the ISA, ensured wages for labour remained artificially low. (Crouch, 1996, p.231) This also persuaded multinational corporations to establish manufacturing bases in Malaysia, encouraging a move away from predominantly agricultural employment.

Indeed, in the initial phases of development, “modernisation theorists argue that developing countries need an authoritarian political system…where power is concentrated to ensure rapid economic growth.” (Gomez, 2004, p.4) Here Malaysia fits the model perfectly and whilst the NEP appeared contradictory to the modernisation model, it inadvertently made some provisions for economic modernising.

The Malay bias in education policy meant less ethnic non-Malays could enter tertiary education domestically, leading many to getting more advanced training abroad, enabling the transfer of technology from already modernised nations back to Malaysia. (Liew, 2003, p.95) In addition to this, a substantial number of non-Malay businesses used their corporate expertise to develop close patronage relationships with burgeoning Malay groups, taking advantage of the preferential legislation given to these groups to maintain their own economic prowess. (Gomez, 1999, p.5) This meant domestic non-Malay investment didn’t completely vanish and also encouraged the Chinese diaspora in Malaysia to continue attracting investment from other Chinese businesses in Hong Kong and Taiwan (Hing, 2001, p.173), further stimulating economic development.

Therefore, despite the ethnically discriminatory NEP Malaysia was able to accrue the necessary amount of domestic and foreign investment and technological advancement to fuel the early stages of the modernisation model. Aside from the ethnic ambiguities, this modernisation took a similar form to what had been, or was being, employed throughout states in East Asia. Whilst some authors are loathe to include Malaysia as one of East Asia’s “developmental states”, (Doner et al., 2005, pp.334-36) similarities can be drawn between the economic development of these states and Malaysia. Aside from the move towards export-oriented growth, the most significant similarity sees state authority over the economic development process, with curtailments in political liberties. (Beeson, 2007, p.170)

Malaysia sustained rampant economic growth until the financial crisis of 1997-98

The authoritarian nature of the Malaysian state enabled the government to pursue an export-led growth policy coupled with heavy industrialisation, which was funded by the foreign and domestic investment that resulted from the NEP. (Crouch, 1996, p.228)

This allowed Malaysia to achieve levels of economic growth second only to China in the region in the late 1980s and 1990s. (Athukorala, 2001, pp.13-14) In fact, Malaysia actively pursued a “Look East” policy under the stewardship of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whereby the government sought to imitate the development model exemplified by the modernisation of Japan and the Newly Industrialised Countries. (NICs) (Milne & Mauzy, 1999, p.55) The success of adopting this model on economic development is highlighted by the general improvement in living standards in Malaysia with poverty levels dropping from 43 to 11.5 per cent between 1970 and 1995. (Wah, 1999, p.41)

It cannot be doubted that Malaysia had several characteristics consistent with the East Asian development model and a further result of this was the emergence of an enlarged middle-class, an essential stage in modernisation theory. (Fukuyama in Wah, 1999, p.49)

Vidhu Verma argues that the transition of a large number of rural poor into a more affluent, urban middle-class “can be seen as an impetus to liberalisation and democratisation in Malaysia.” (2002, p.72) Under modernisation theory Verma should be right. Nevertheless, the reality of Malaysian development is somewhat different and the rise of a middle-class is actually the point where it departs from modernisation theory. Despite the prerequisite economic development being attained by Malaysia to fit the modernisation model, the political development that is supposed to coincide with it has not emerged and is once more a result of the ethnic complexities in the country.

For political development to emerge as a democratic process with equal representation for the whole population, the presence of an active middle-class is a precondition. (Johnson in Snodgrass, 1980, p.285) Modernisation theory argues that economic development leads to an “economically independent middle class whose threshold for autocratic rule would diminish.” (Gomez, 2004, pp.4-5) This political socialisation encourages the formation of more unified civil society groups that campaign for democratic reform and the government accepts it to ensure social stability and economic productivity remain high. This process is evident in the democratisation of the NICs of Taiwan and South Korea. (Ibid, pp.4-5)

According to this theory Malaysia should have experienced democratic political development as its economic growth continued apace in the late 1980s and ‘90s. Some authors, like Alatas, argue that this is the case, and point to the democratic institutions and procedures that exist in Malaysia, such as universal suffrage and a range of political party choice. (1997, p.2, 120)

However, these institutions have existed since independence in 1957 and it is widely agreed they are manipulated by the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional to ensure re-election, rather than encourage civilian participation in politics, a crucial feature of democracy. (Gomez & Jomo, 1999, p.2) Whilst it is unquestionable that the middle-class has come to make up a large proportion of the population, Derichs is right to point out that it “is not a coherent social stratum,” in Malaysia. She argues that rather than fitting the modernisation model, Malaysia’s middle-class remain divided along ethnic lines in particular, with pro-Malay government policy a barrier to class unity, preventing concerted pressure for political development. (2004, p.125)

This lack of class unity is hardly surprising as the NEP, whilst not completely detrimental to non-Malays, led to great resentment amongst Malaysia’s ethnic minorities who saw the Bumiputera benefiting from what they considered a racist policy. (Cho, 1990, p.82) This resentment was only exacerbated by the National Development Policy of 1991, which replaced the NEP but reaffirmed its key policies of increasing Malay economic development in relation to non-Malays. (Athukorala, 1997, pp.22-3) This division of the middle-class as a result of ethnic policy has limited the explicit calls for democratic reform from civil society, allowing the government to pursue a reverse political development pattern from that predicted by modernisation theory.

The paternalistic nature of the state through Malaysia’s economic development, combined with the lack of middle-class political socialisation, has led to what Bell and Jayasuria call a “culture of dependence” amongst the Malaysian population. (In Gomez, 2004, p.5)

As a result, there is a greater acceptance for solely economic development driven by the state at the expense of political development, contrary to modernisation theory. This has allowed the Malaysian government to tighten its authoritarian grip by engaging in corrupt practices, such as “cronyism”, which further centralises executive power in the hands of what is effectively a power elite. (Gomez & Jomo, 1999, p.25)

The lack of political development amongst the population allows such practices to be conducted quite openly even though they are potentially detrimental to future economic development. Corrupt practices and favouritism are completely contrary to modernisation theory, as they repress productivity and can lead to crucial resource outflow to more politically transparent countries. But whilst Malaysia may be blocking its own path to modernised status, the government continually decries such theories as relativist and not appropriate for Malaysia’s unique development.

Traditionally weak and incoherent, Malaysian civil society groups – particularly pro-democracy groups – have grown stronger since the financial crisis of the imprisonment of Anwar

Malaysian leaders, particularly Mahathir, have promoted the notion of “Asian values” to account for their “different sort of political development” based on collective rather than individual rights. (Verma, 2002, p.167) As the population give greater political obedience and respect to state authority, it is argued the Malaysian government has fostered communal economic development that improves living standards. (Wah, 1999, p.49)

Whilst it is hard to argue with Malaysia’s economic progress over the last few decades and contestable to implement universal models of development, it appears the “Asian values” argument is merely a tool to legitimate authoritarian rule and restrict calls for democratisation. Nevertheless, this argument, as well as the government’s ethnic policy, suitably divided the Malaysian population and satisfied them with almost continuous economic development up to 1998 without the government having to resort to gross levels of authoritarianism. (Case, 2009a, p.312) However, the government willingness to use the ISA as a means of silencing agitators for political reform if necessary, as highlighted by the mass arrests of political opposition under “Operation Lalang” in 1987 on security grounds, limits further the chances of political development predicted by modernisation theory. (Milne & Mauzy, 1999, pp.107-9)

Whilst Malaysia’s political system had developed into an effectively authoritarian regime, the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 and its aftermath created the conditions whereby modernisation theory could possibly become applicable to Malaysia’s development once again. The slump in the East Asian economies created doubt over the sustainability of their specific development model and the positive effects of “Asian values.” (Haggard, 2000, p.10) This was particularly significant for the Malaysian population whose government was being legitimised solely by its ability to ensure economic development continued.

Suddenly there was an increase in questioning the lack of political development in Malaysia, as economic growth was no longer guaranteed, and these questions were answered by the pro-reform Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, in stark contrast to the desires of PM Mahathir. (Beeson, 2007, p.127) As a result, Anwar’s sacking and subsequent imprisonment on corruption and sodomy charges “led to considerable overt demand for political change in Malaysia.” (Derichs, 2004, pp.109-110) If people within the country had been unaware of their state’s authoritarian nature they weren’t anymore and these two events strengthened the possibility of fostering the political socialisation needed for the modernisation model to be revived in Malaysia.

The Asian Financial Crisis undermined the foundations of development in Southeast Asia

Since the Anwar affair one development has been significant in showing the potential increase in political socialisation. The formation of a new, multi-ethnic coalition (Barisan Alternatif) to challenge the dominant status of the Barisan Nasional has seen the collaboration of Malay and non-Malay parties to campaign for democratic reforms and greater social justice. (Hussein, 1999, p.100) Weiss identifies the increasing educative role played by Malaysian civil society post-1997 in encouraging the public to challenge the unrepresentative political system by voting for the new coalition. (In Case, 2003, p.52)

This is more in line with modernisation theory whereby a unified campaign for political development follows economic development. However, the fairly quick return to growth after the financial crisis in Malaysia and suspicions relating to the Barisan Alterantif’s political motives, both within and outside the coalition, has resulted in a lack of “determinative force” in the political reform movement. (Case, 2009b, p.261) It appears that manipulative government propaganda (Andaya & Andaya, 2001, p.329) combined with the public preference for economic development suggested by opinion polls (Samad, 2008, p.248) and the divide created by Malaysia’s ethnic policy, are all significant factors in why Malaysia has not followed the pattern of development suggested by modernisation theory.

Anwar and Mahathir during their first days of alliance

Malaysia pursued a course of economic development consistent with modernisation theory, whereby financial capital was courted from domestic and foreign sources, often as an indirect result of the NEP, to power an export economy. The alleviation of poverty, increased urbanisation and a move away from agricultural employment are all testimony to the effectiveness of Malaysia’s economic development, based largely on the East Asian development model. Whilst a strong, interventionist state is a necessary precursor for development according to modernisation theory, democratic political development will emerge as a result of sustained economic growth, as highlighted by other East Asian states.

Yet Malaysia’s unique development has ensured that democratic political change has not accompanied economic development as is predicted. The crucial determinant in why this is the case is the ethnic underpinnings of Malaysian society, which resulted in the NEP creating an ethnic divide within Malaysia, fostering an unchallenged authoritarian power elite masquerading as a democracy. This divide and the public preference for economic development go a long way to explaining why Malaysia has displayed a reverse political development pattern according to modernisation theory, as authoritarianism has increased.

With increasing competition and a lack of industrial diversity likely to slow Malaysia’s economic development in the future, calls for political reform may swell as with after the Asian financial crisis. However, until the issue of ethnicity is put to one side and a concerted reform movement is generated, the state’s repressive response to any domestic challenge will continue to ensure that Malaysia fails to achieve the levels of political development that modernisation theory suggests it should already have attained.

Rising above the Kuala Lumpur skyline, the Petronas Towers symbolise Malaysia’s economic progress

So, returning to the present, has political development in Malaysia just taken a little longer than the model suggests? Is the clamour for change a symptom of the ‘information revolution’, whereby the public are more inspired by trends and movements on social media than a sense of entitlement based on their improved economic status?

Whatever the case, Mahathir is promising reform and he has, for now, the backing of the masses. But is this merely a cynical ploy to ensure that he spends his final few years on this earth wielding ultimate power? Heady days these may be but the seeds of true democracy are still nascent. And what of the ethnic minorities? Will they continue to endure discrimination at the hands of the Bumiputera?

Mahathir won’t be particularly concerned at this moment in time. He has demonstrated an astuteness and political cunning that his predecessors were unable to exercise. He has read the public mood and surged back to the summit. How long he remains there, and what it means for Anwar Ibrahim and his millions of followers, is a mystery worth waiting to unravel.



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Andaya, B.W. & Andaya, L.Y. (2001), A history of Malaysia (2nd ed.) (Palgrave: Basingstoke)

Athukorala, P. (2001), “The macroeconomy up to 1997” in C. Barlow, Modern Malaysia in the global economy: political and social change into the 21st century (Edward Elgar: Cheltenham), pp. 13-27

Beeson, M. (2007), Regionalism and globalization in East Asia: politics, security and economic development (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke; New York)

Bowie, A. & Unger, D. (1997), The politics of open economies: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge)

Case, W. (2003), “Thorns in the flesh: civil society as democratizing agent in Malaysia” in D.C. Schak & W. Hudson, Civil society in Asia (Ashgate: Aldershot), pp. 40-58

Cho, G. (1990), The Malaysian economy: spatial perspectives (Routledge: London)

Crouch, H. (1996), Government and society in Malaysia (Cornell University Press: Ithaca; London)

Derichs, C. (2004), “Political crisis and reform in Malaysia” in E.T. Gomez, The state of Malaysia: ethnicity, equity, and reform (RoutledgeCurzon: London), pp.105-129

Esman, M. (1972), Administration and development in Malaysia: institution building      and reform in a plural society (Cornell University Press: Ithaca; London)

Gomez, E.T. (1999), Chinese business in Malaysia: accumulation, ascendance, accommodation (Curzon: Richmond, Surrey)

Gomez, E.T. (ed.) (2004), The state of Malaysia: ethnicity, equity, and reform (RoutledgeCurzon: London)

Gomez, E.T. & Jomo, K.S. (1999), Malaysia’s political economy: politics, patronage and profits (2nd ed.) (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge)

Haggard, S. (2000), The political economy of the Asian financial crisis (Institute for International Economics: Washington, D.C.)

Hing, L.K. (2001), “The Chinese in Malaysia” in C. Barlow, Modern Malaysia in the global economy: political and social change into the 21st century (Edward Elgar: Cheltenham), pp. 167-77

Hussein, S.A. (1999), “Muslim politics and the discourse on democracy” in F.L.K. Wah & K.B. Teik, Democracy in Malaysia: discourses and practices (Curzon: Richmond), pp. 74-110

Liew, L.H. (2003), “Ethnicity and class in Malaysia” in C. Mackerras, Ethnicity in Asia (RoutledgeCurzon: London), pp. 88-100

Milne, R.S. & Mauzy, D.K. (1999), Malaysian politics under Mahathir (Routledge: London)

Munro-Kua, A. (1996), Authoritarian populism in Malaysia (Macmillan: Basingstoke)

Samad, P.A. (2008), Abdullah Ahmad Badawi: a new breeze in Malaysia’s politics (Partisan Publication: Kuala Lumpur)

Snodgrass, D.R. (1980), Inequality and economic development in Malaysia: a study sponsored by the Harvard Institute for International Development (Oxford University Press: Kuala Lumpur; Oxford)

Verma, V. (2002), Malaysia: state and civil society in transition (Lynne Rienner: Boulder; London)

Wah, F. (1999), “Developmentalism and the limits of democratic discourse” in F.L.K. Wah & K.B. Teik, Democracy in Malaysia: discourses and practices (Curzon: Richmond), pp. 19-50

Yin, H.W. (1983), Class and communalism in Malaysia: politics in a dependent capitalist state (Zed in conjunction in with Marram: London)


Case, W. (2009a), “Electoral authoritarianism in Malaysia: trajectory shift”, The Pacific Review Volume 22(3), pp. 311-333 (Online: Accessed 21/10/2009)

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Internet Sources

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Revisiting Transnational Migration Issues in East Asia: the historical paranoia over national sovereignty

Whilst accurate data is impossible to come by, there is no doubt that transnational migration has become an increasing phenomenon in East Asia over the last couple of decades:

The process by which immigrants [cross international borders and] forge and sustain simultaneous multi-stranded relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement. (Glick Schiller et al., 1995, p.48)

This evolving process has posed several problems to states in the region, especially in relation to national security:

The protection of the sovereign state from external or internal threats.

Stranded at sea: Rohingya migrants escaping persecution in Burma are treated as a burden and even a national security threat by regional states
Stranded at sea: Rohingya migrants escaping persecution in Burma are treated as a burden and even a national security threat by regional states

However, these problems have arisen not necessarily as an inevitable result of regional population movements but primarily because of the way East Asian states conceptualise the issue of transnational migration. This essay will argue that East Asian states perceive essential transnational migration networks to be national security threats because of their strict upholding of the key principles of Westphalian national sovereignty:

  • The territorial integrity of the state
  • Cultural homogenisation
  • State autonomy over its internal affairs
  • Non-interference in other states’ internal affairs (Joffe, 1999, pp.124-5; Beeson, 2003, pp.359-361)

Secondly, it will suggest that this in turn has resulted in the imposition of restrictive immigration policies in most states in the region, thus fostering an increase in irregular migration which:

takes place outside a legal framework usually through trafficking, smuggling and overstaying of visas, not always at the fault of the migrant (Koser, 2005, p.5)

This creates greater problems for national security, as migration networks become criminalised. The essay will conclude by suggesting that the failure of East Asian states to find effective solutions to irregular transnational migration, as a result of their sovereign concerns, is exacerbating these security problems. This can only be resolved through greater accommodation of migrant networks and increased multilateral cooperation. The essay will draw on examples from across the region to highlight how the security problems brought by transnational migration are interlinked, regardless of the development status of individual states.

Transnational migration has become a necessary by-product of the process of globalisation, whereby people follow the movements of capital and labour requirements across borders predominantly in order to secure more profitable employment. (Hollifield, 2000, p.151) This is particularly applicable to East Asia, where developed and rapidly developing countries require the surplus labour of the region’s poorer nations in order to maintain high production levels. (Lee, 2005, p.166) Even China, the world’s most populous country, is facing labour shortages in its crucial manufacturing centre in the Pearl River Delta. (BBC News, 22/02/2010) The obvious way to prevent these shortages is through migrant labour, meaning transnational networks are theoretically an important contributor to economic development. However, a problem arises in East Asia in that these networks are often seen as a national security threat as well as an essential labour source.

The desire amongst East Asian states to preserve their national sovereignty is especially strong given that many are still involved in the nation-building process following external colonisation and occupation. (Narine, 2005, p.424) Consequently, any challenge to this concept is perceived as a national security threat. Transnational migration is seen as one such challenge as it supposedly leads to a breakdown in border control, threatening the territorial integrity of the state, even if little evidence supports this view. (Koser, 2005, pp.10-11) Furthermore, because transnational migrants are often of a different ethnic and cultural heritage than the indigenous population, it has been argued that they form independent communities that “take on the form of exile diasporas, determined to establish their own nation-states.” (Castles, 2002, p.1158) For example, some see the arrival of transnational migrants in Japan as a challenge to the country’s uniquely homogenous society and cite cases of ethnic conflict between migrants and natives as a sign of the threat migration poses to internal stability. (Sellek, 1994, pp.193-4) Whilst such cases may be infrequent they are perceived as a national security threat because of their potential challenge to the sovereign norm of cultural homogenisation.

Additionally, East Asian states have sought to link the issue of transnational migration with other domestic problems. For instance, rising immigrant numbers are often linked to increases in crime rates in the host country, something the Malaysian government has frequently claimed when referring to the influx of Indonesian workers in the last two decades. (Caballero-Anthony, 2008, p.166) Moreover, the idea that transnational migrants aid the spread of infectious diseases because of long transit periods is another concern. (Jakarta Post, 19/02/2007) These phenomena are seen as national security threats, as they undermine the credibility of the state, thus challenging its survival. Although isolated events may occur where migrants cause such problems, the idea that they create a proliferation of crime and disease transmission in host countries is probably a “myth.” (Wickramasekera, 2002, p.5) Nevertheless, it is the perception of the states that is significant and therefore transnational migration poses a dilemma for them, as they try to balance their economic needs with their sovereign concerns.  In attempting to achieve this, most regional states have enacted very restrictive immigration policies since the 1990s that permit the entry of only a small number of temporary migrants to suit their economic demands. (Skeldon, 1998, p.39) However, these policies are simply causing greater irregular migration, which is posing more serious problems to national security.

Indonesian migrants have often been subjected to harsh treatment and minimal protection in neighbouring Malaysia
Indonesian migrants have often been subjected to harsh treatment and minimal protection in neighbouring Malaysia

The imposition of restrictive immigration policies in most East Asian states has not diminished the desire for transnational migration or prevented employers from hiring migrants in these countries, as economic considerations persist. (Van Meijl, 2007, p.17) What they have done is changed the characteristics of transnational migration in East Asia, with up to forty per cent of regional population movements now thought to be irregular. (Lee, 2005, p.165) This increasing irregular migration is not merely the result of more people being smuggled across national borders but also due to the manipulation of entry visas. For example, thousands of transnational migrants enter Japan each year on “trainee” or “pre-college student” visas with the intention to work illegally rather than enter education. (Sellek, 1994, p.188) These migrants not only enter host countries on invalid grounds but often remain there after their visas expire (Stahl, 2003, p.34), thus contributing to the irregular migrant trend and making it harder for regional governments to monitor population movements. This in turn increases the chances of covert transnational communities, separate from mainstream society, from forming, which theoretically poses a greater challenge to the notion of cultural homogenisation.

Escalating irregular migration in East Asia is being exploited by transnational criminal organisations, which can profit from the phenomenon. Migrants often pay such organisations to smuggle them across borders and if they are unable to pay then they can be forced into criminal employment with the groups as compensation. (Piper, 2005, p.205)Transnational migration networks have consequently become criminalised largely due to the policies of the sovereignty-concerned states, which offer more severe challenges to regional security.   (Curley & Wong, 2008, p.180) Firstly, irregular transnational migrants are recruited into the drug-trafficking industry as a means to cross national borders. (Emmers, 2003, p.1) Drug-trafficking has become an increasing problem in East Asia, which is both a major producer and consumer of drugs (Dupont, 2001, pp.204-5), and has undoubtedly been aided by the recruitment of irregular migrants in the transport of illicit merchandise. This is a severe concern for the national security of regional states, for as Emmers suggests it:

can reduce a government’s capacity to govern, weaken the credibility of financial institutions and undermine social order by questioning the rule of law and increasing the level of violence. (2003, p.2)

This security threat has been evident in Laos, where state security forces often clash with drug traffickers using migrant routes across the Thai border (Thayer, 2004, p.112) and even developed nations like Japan, where overstaying migrants become distributors for thriving criminal gangs in return for being kept illegally in the country. (Friman, 1996, pp.974-5)

Secondly, female irregular migrants unable to pay their smugglers are increasingly forced to work in the illegal sex businesses of the region in order to pay off their debt. (Bishop & Robinson, 1998, p.17) This has contributed to thriving sex industries in Japan and Thailand in particular, as there is a ready source of illegal workers and widespread demand from both domestic and foreign “tourists.” (Seabrook, 1996, pp.79, 130) These industries help fund criminal organisations such as the Japanese Yakuza (Lee, 2005, p.182), who use the money to “dispose over modern military equipment and to corrupt politicians, judges and police authorities,” thus threatening the autonomy of the state over its internal affairs. (Emmers, 2003, p.4) Furthermore, the proliferation of irregular migrants in the sex industry has led to the spread of infectious diseases like AIDS across the region, particularly when migrants return to their country of origin, as exemplified by Burmese Shan women returning from Thailand. (Beyrer, 2001, p.547) The link between transnational migration and human trafficking is often overlooked by regional states. (Skrobanek et al., 1997, p.7) Yet they remain interlinked problems, with McFarlane’s claim that transnational crime only became seen as a regional security threat in the mid-1990s (2005, p.301) coinciding with an increase in irregular migrant networks due in part to restrictive immigration policies.


Thirdly, a further problem posed by irregular migration in East Asia is the role it plays in facilitating transnational separatist movements. Not only have regional states enforced restrictive immigration policies but many have also placed limitations on the migrants they do allow across their borders. For example, in Southern Thailand, transnational migrants arriving from Malaysia are forcibly assimilated into Thai religious and political culture, despite their Islamic affiliation. (Albritton, 2005, pp.166-7) This is in line with the sovereign concern of forging a united national identity (Narine, 2005, p.424), which the Buddhist state of Thailand obviously sees as being threatened by Islamic infiltration. Consequently, migrants become potential recruits for the Muslim separatist movement in Southern Thailand, as they can forge links with their Islamic homeland of Malaysia. This separatist movement has claimed over 3,000 lives in the last five years and been increasingly linked to acts of terrorism against local civilians (AFP, 19/03/2008), therefore becoming a severe threat to national security. These movements are widespread across the region, including between Indonesia and the Philippines (Hedman, 2006, p.191), and are becoming increasingly interlinked with irregular migrant networks. Therefore, the restrictive immigration legislation enacted by regional states has merely resulted in their security fears regarding transnational migration becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In addition to this, their failure to effectively address the issue of irregular migration is exacerbating the problems these criminalised networks pose to national security.  As Schloenhardt recognises, “transnational problems require a multilateral response.” (2008, p.36) However, the strong concern for protecting national sovereignty amongst East Asian states, institutionalised by regional organisations such as ASEAN (Acharya, 1997, pp.328-9), has limited the chances of this occurring in several ways.  Firstly, states in the region are reluctant to pool their sovereignty (Higgott, 1997, p.177), as this naturally requires a degree of reliance on other states in managing their affairs. This limits the potential for resource-sharing to combat transnational issues. (Narine, 2005, p.424) Alone, many states in East Asia have insufficient resources to secure their borders either as a result of poor socio-economic development, as highlighted by Laos, or inadequate allocation of resources in developed states such as Japan. (Emmers et al., 2008, pp.65-6) Shared border security and intelligence gathering regarding irregular migration, and the criminal organisations often associated with it, would help overcome such limitations. Although some attempts at the latter have been made, many regional governments refuse to disclose such intelligence to neighbouring states despite the relevance it may have to their national security. (Piper, 2005, p.224) Furthermore, the lack of a coherent regional definition of irregular migration means data is collated in various ways by different states, making any shared intelligence conflicting and of questionable value. (Laczko, 2005, p.11) In regards to the former, multilateral law enforcement along state borders remains limited to small-scale operations. (Emmers et al., 2008, pp.74-5) This lack of significant multilateral cooperation makes borders easier to penetrate for irregular migrants and their sponsors, ensuring criminalised networks continue to flourish.

The failure of states to pool their border resources to combat irregular migration also contributes to what Godson terms the “political-criminal nexus.” (PCN) (2003, pp.259-61)Poorly financed security forces and politicians responsible for border protection are often left underpaid for a virtually impossible task, making them open to corruption. (Emmers, 2003, p.10) For example, despite heavy police presence and crossing checkpoints, Burmese criminal groups are able to smuggle irregular migrants across the Thai border because of their capabilities in purchasing protection from corrupt officials. (Beyrer, 2001, p.547) The “PCNs affect regional cooperation, colour relations with other states, and contribute to local instability in geostrategic regions of concern.” (Godson, 2003, p.264) However, whilst some multilateral declarations condemning transnational corruption have arisen in East Asia, they have not been followed by decisive action. (Schloenhardt, 2008, p.45) This is typical of responses to transnational issues in the region, with optimistic multilateral rhetoric being undermined by the reality of unilateral sovereign concerns. (Khoo, 2004, p.50) In this case, corruption is perceived as an internal issue meaning it continues to be dealt with at the national level (Emmers et al., 2008, p.78) because of the region-wide sovereign norm of non-interference in other states’ domestic affairs. (Acharya, 2003, pp.379-80) This is despite the fact that in regards to irregular transnational migration, corruption has simultaneous security implications for several states. This further absence of multilateral action surely encourages transnational criminal groups to increase their exploitation of irregular migrants, as their chances of being punished are minimised by state collusion.

The non-interference norm prevailing in the region also enables East Asian states to pursue their own migration policies without having to face external criticism. Therefore, whilst the majority of states have restrictive immigration policies, some also allow significant emigration depending on their domestic needs. (Goss & Lindquist, 2000, p.400) This is particularly evident in the case of the Philippines, which explicitly encourages emigration to more vibrant economies so that Filipino transnational communities can generate additional wealth for their homeland. (Suzuki, 2002, p.99) Such regional incoherence in migration policies contributes to irregular transnational flows, as those encouraged to emigrate are forced to find illegal entry into states trying to restrict immigration. This helps create the tension between origin and host countries that Wickramasekera warns is an undesired effect of irregular migration (2002, p.26), as states’ conflicting policies seemingly exacerbate each other’s security problems. These sovereign concerns are restricting multilateral cooperation against irregular transnational migration to non-binding statements of ambition such as the Bangkok Declaration, which called for a “comprehensive and balanced” response to the issue from regional states. (1999, p.2) Without acting upon such promising dialogue, states will continue to target the problems posed by this phenomenon in a unilateral manner, further entrenching the criminalised networks and the security problems they create.

ASEAN's strong non-interference norms has often made decisive action on transnational issues difficult
ASEAN’s strong non-interference norms has often made decisive action on transnational issues difficult

The concerns of the East Asian states about the threats posed by transnational migration to national security have become a self-fulfilling prophecy because of the policies they have enacted to try and protect their sovereignty. The increase in irregular migration as a result of such legislation has given increased strength to a plethora of transnational criminal networks, facilitated the spread of potentially devastating diseases and even proved a catalyst for separatist activity in the region. These phenomena lead to the insecurity of national borders, a reduction in state autonomy over its internal affairs, the undermining of the governing capacity of the state and weaker cultural homogeneity, ensuring the objective of safeguarding sovereignty is not even being achieved. Furthermore, a lack of coherent multilateral solutions is intensifying the security problems posed by transnational migration and deepening inter-state tension. States in East Asia need to be more accommodating to migrant networks, which still remain important for regional economic development. In doing this they will reduce the needs for migrants to seek irregular routes across borders, which are often associated with the transnational crime that has become a severe regional security threat. However, as long as East Asian states remain committed to a strict preservation of Westphalian national sovereignty, it is unlikely such accommodation will occur. Rather, states will remain focused on ineffective unilateral solutions geared towards restricting immigration, creating a continual cycle of increasing irregular migration that will become further interlinked with transnational crime. Without significant multilateral cooperation in breaking this cycle, transnational migration in East Asia will continue to pose regional security problems and the human costs of irregular migration will remain overlooked.




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