10-minute guide to Malaysian Politics: A foreigner’s view October 7, 2008Posted 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.
- Nachspiel at Polemarchus’: “Anwar Ibrahim returns to the Malaysian Parliament“
- Nachspiel at Polemarchus’: “Sex, lies and capital controls – How Mahathir painted himself into a corner.“
- Tun Mahathir Mohamad’s blog chedet.com
- Proud 2B Malaysian: “What ifs in october” on what might happen this month.
- Malaysia Today: “Malaysian power struggle continues unabated“
- BBC News: “Malaysian writer in sedition trial“
- The Kuala Lumpur Traveller: “RPK: Deputy PM Najib’s wife Rosmah was at Altantuya’s murder scene.“