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10-minute guide to Malaysian Politics: A foreigner’s view October 7, 2008

Posted by Sverre in : Malaysia, World politics , trackback

Malaysian politics are fascinating, but as with any country not easy to understand unless you’ve studied them. I’ve had a keen interest in Malaysia for a few years, so I’ll try to sum up the most important things you need to know to follow what’s going on. This reflects my understanding of things, which I admit may be flawed. Please comment on any mistakes you believe I have made. Also a word of caution: Wikipedia articles on these subjects have occasionally been contaminated by “jokes” or partisan statements and should be used with caution.

The first thing to know is the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional, or National Alliance. This multi-party coalition has ruled since Malaysia’s independence in 1957, enjoying a 2/3 parliament majority until 2008. Malaysian politics is traditionally divided along ethnic lines, and the three original coalition partners are the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Asscociation (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). There are also several smaller parties.

Most important of these parties is UMNO, holding majority within BN, as the most important party representing the largest ethnic group in Malaysia, the Malays. The Prime Minister of Malaysia has always been from UMNO. One of these prime ministers is Tun Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled the party and Malaysia throughout the 80s and 90s.

In the late 90s, his deputy was Anwar Ibrahim. Unlike the conservative ultranationalist Mahathir Mohamad, Anwar was a young liberal, popular with the public arguing for reform. Among the reforms he wanted was the abolishment of the Bumiputra policy, a policy instated in the 70s bestowing economic and social benefits to Malay nationals which has allowed for the creation of a Malay economic elite in the country. In 1998 Anwar, by then a major threat to Tun Mahathir’s power, was accused of sodomy (a serious offense in the Muslim Malaysia) and corruption and imprisoned. This sparked riots by the so-called ‘Reformasi’ movement. The riots died out, but left a large group of middle class Malaysian discontents.

In 2003 Mahathir Mohamad, then age 78, stepped down from power handing the reins over to Abdullah Badawi, nicknamed Pak Lah (short for Uncle Abdullah). Abdullah has ruled UMNO and as PM since, but has proved a much less competent and popular leader tham Mahathir ever was.

2008 has so far been an important turning point in Malaysian history. First the BN suffered a great defeat in the parliament election, for the first time losing its 2/3 majority in the parliament. The big winner was the new opposition coalition Pakatan Rakyat. Later, two minor parties of the BN from the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo broke away from the coalition.

Furthermore, Anwar Ibrahim’s ban from participating in Malaysian politics was lifted. His wife withdrew from parliament, creating the need for a by-election through which Anwar Ibrahim regained a seat in the parliament and took the position of opposition leader.

The troubles of the year have given fuel to a strong internal opposition within the UMNO party, and open criticism from its Supreme Council which has called for Abdullah’s resignation. He has promised to hand over power by the year 2010, presumably to his deputy PM Najib Tun Razak, but this has not been enough to quiet dissent. Calls have been made for his resignation already at the next general assembly of UMNO. As of the time I’m writing this, there is yet much speculation about what Abdullah’s next move will be. Rumours range from immediate resignation, through handing over power to any number of possible successors to just clinging to power for as long as he can.

In the meantime, Anwar Ibrahim and the Pakatan Rakyat have been busy. They claim to have a list of as much as 40 MPs ready to defect from BN. In addition there are rumours of the possibility of the BN party Gerakan being ready to defect, and that Pakatan Rakyat will move for a vote of no confidence against the cabinet and form a new government, alternatively taking the matter to the Malaysian king. However, the fact that no move or publication has yet been made may indicate that the PR position might not be as strong as they claim.

One last important event. Important tools of Malaysian autocracy have been a strict media censorship and a law called the Internal Security Act (ISA), which have been the target of much criticism by human rights and freedom of speech groups. Both tools have been widely abused by prime ministers. The latter gives the PM the right to imprison anyone for extended periods of time based on any accusation of threat to national security. Lately, these two were used first to block the independent news source Malaysia Today to Malaysian users, and then to imprison its editor Raja Petra Kamaruddin, who has among other things accused Deputy PM Najib’s wife of connections to the murder of a Mongolian journalist. Several other activists were also arrested under the same act. The power of Malaysian bloggers, which are very numerous, is a big threat to the effectiveness of the media censorship and thus to the autocratic methods of the Malaysian leadership. So far, Abdullah appears unable to do much to limit this power.

Well, that’s my summary of 10 years of Malaysian politics in 10 minutes. Hope it might help clear some of the confusion. Keep in mind that this is just my limited analysis from an overseas vantage point, and that things are changing at a breakneck pace.

Further reading:


1. sgfell - October 7, 2008

By the way, it behooves me to point out that it was not Abdullah’s wife that Raja Petra tried to implicate in the Mongolian murder. Suggest you get the facts straight before publishing stuff.

2. sverrebm - October 7, 2008

Stupid mistake there. Thanks for the correction.

3. Exit Pak Lah « Nachspiel at Polemarchus’ - April 2, 2009

[…] 10-minute guide to Malaysian politics Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Malaysia PM says to quit early; no dateRaja Petra’s Open Letter To Our Pak Lah : there are many surrounding you …Abdullah Badawi, One Word For You – Pukimak Kau!Malaysian Premier Announces Resignation – NYTimes.com […]

4. wong - April 15, 2010

Comment by andy fong — March 1, 2010 @ 7:28 PM | Reply
We always recieved news messages from Myanmar people, they are complainted about committees of temple and please see at below.
Dear Sir and Madam,
We are Myanmar group in Malaysia; we lived in Malaysia over decade and always went to one of temple in Taman Desa Jaya, Kepong, Kuala Lumpur and we were very sad and regreting with the committees of temple because they are using our monks in wrong conception of Buddhist teaching or Buddhist rules. We came to temple to help our monks and respected of our religion.
That temple is president of name:Yip Kum Fook, that our monks said and he is invited our monks from Myanmar to in charge of that temple but without pay anything to our monks, added he and his not respecting of our monks and sometime he ordered of his people to collected item such as paper, mineral water etc. without inform any words to our monks. In our religious believed we can’t take anything of holy place, if we done we are sin.
In pervious, our monk said the committees always asked money from him, when our monks gave RM20,000.00 in cash on 2001 to the committees, then committees keep silent, later committees make problem with our monk again and cancelled of our monk Visa permit to stayed in Malaysia, then our monks( Sadayaw Nandiya) go to Australia and our monk not come that temple at long time. “Yip Kom Fook gave our monk notebook computer for to cover of that amount of money our monk said”
Many local people around temple said, now no more people come to this temple because committees is always make problem and we are heard from local people said: Yip Kum Fook ordered of his people to put fire of Hindu temple at Taman Daya, Kepong because he needed that place to make his business about many years ago. “Everybody known what he done for Hindu temple at Taman Daya, Kepong”
Last time also he invited police to arrest the monks at holy place(temple) and locked the temple without afraid and shameful of people because he believed committee is big and has more authority, also his son always say to people: this temple is belonging of his father. “This temple donated from public, we are work hard for this temple”
This temple the committees always changed the monks, now they change the new monk to in charge of temple, this new monk also complaint the bad things of committees because committees also wait for donation box only, they without help anything to our monks. And committees controlled of our monks not to talk more or complaint more, our monks lived there as slaver and afraid of committees members.
In new building where remaining of Buddha statue marble; we have renovation of Buddha statue because that Buddha statue is put very low, we lift to highest the committees don’t like and unhappy. In our country, anyone be able to come temple to worship the Buddha but in Malaysia is different temple controlling by committees.
We hope everyone preserve of Buddhist teachings, and please safety of our monks, not see only money as this of temple. When we asked some of our people ( Myanmar) and local people, the committees are very low of idea because is very narrow mind and without education of religions. And committees will not disturbing of our monks, monks are like our father to take care of Buddhism and temple is like our place of resolving of our problem.
Recently, our monk(Sadayaw Ashin Indaka original from Madalay, Myanmar) has been staying in this temple also unhappy because the committees are not pay anythings to him, he is working in hardly to advise people and we also unhappy and very sad when heard the bad news from our monks. Sometime the committees people came and shouting in the temple without have any reason and done what they need to do, our monk said, the committees of this temple don’t have Buddhist teachings in their mind, may be next time Buddhist can destroy.
From Myanmar Buddhist group in Malaysia but many word complaint by local Buddhist community in Malaysia. If anyone receive of this message(email), please forward or send to your friends to protection Buddhism in Malaysia.
.-March 10th, 2010 at 8:55 am