Malaysian political stresses and research reconsiderations


Khoo Boo Teik

This year, 2017, marks the 60th year since the Federation of Malaya emerged from colonial rule to become a new nation. Although the appropriateness of commemorating Malayan independence in 1957, instead of the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, is contested (with reason), the likelihood that the 14th General Election will be held soon makes 2017 a compelling moment to reflect on the political developments and changes that have taken place. Under ‘normal circumstances’ this calls for an accounting-like appraisal that produces a verdict of ‘continuity with change’ or ‘change with continuity’. Today, such an approach is unlikely to offer instructive insights into the stresses and conflicts that beset state and society.

In fact, the political system has experienced much turbulence over the past two decades. The turbulence produced unpredicted outcomes, including the near collapse of an old pattern of leadership transition, non-violent revolts against successive regimes, and unstable realignments of opposing forces. The resulting disorder bears two symptoms. One was the heavy electoral losses suffered by the post-Mahathir regimes. The other is the re-entry into politics of two leaders who had otherwise been written off, namely, former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim between two bouts of imprisonment, and former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

The political situation has grown more complex in just the past two years. Now, practically five parties compete for the political and electoral support of the Malay majority community. Two new parties are each the splinter of the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and the Islamic Party (PAS) respectively. The third new party, headed by an UMNO Vice-President who was expelled by Najib in 2016, is poised to cut into UMNO’s base in Sabah. The UMNO splinter in Peninsular Malaysia is a Mahathir-led party (PPBM, or Bersatu) that seeks not just to oust the current prime minister, Najib Razak (who is dogged by the largest ever financial scandal) but to defeat UMNO itself. To this end, Mahathir has made peace with Anwar (who was jailed by Mahathir in 1998 and by Najib Razak in 2015). Finally, a campaign for electoral reform that began in 2007 has grown into a large social movement pursuing various agenda of social dissent and political protest.


Specialists of Malaysian politics should ask if conventional paradigmatic explanations can explain the deep stresses and strange conflicts in the system. A turn to inter-ethnic rivalry and compromise, the staple fare of scholarly analysis of the ‘plural society’ will run up against the eruptions of major conflicts within the majority Malay community. Any standard assumption of elite conduct and solidarity will founder on the realities of intensifying intra-elite fractures. Nor can typological labels of the regime – semi-democratic, hybrid, competitive authoritarian, and so on – do more than to freeze selected features of the polity in the face of dynamic resistance against repressive rule. It is imperative and yet opportune, therefore, to explore new ways to understand a conjuncture that has emerged from a conflict between two unfulfilled projects – Mahathir’s quest for developed-country status via high growth, and the opposition’s pursuit of a ‘two coalition system’ to reform debased institutions. Minimally a historically informed examination is needed of the stresses of economic transformation, shifts in the social bases of mobilization, and the agency of leadership challenges that lay deep beneath two decades of conflict and affected all institutions of state and all parts of society.