Malaysia: Struggle For Democracy Intensifies – Analysis

A notable feature of the Malaysian electoral system is that the electoral system favours the electorate in rural areas. And the rural areas are predominantly inhabited by the Malays. This legislation was introduced on the eve of the formation of Malaysia in 1963.


On July 9, 2011, thousands of Malaysians defied the government ban and marched through the streets of Kuala Lumpur demanding democratic rights for the people. The march was organized in response to the clarion call issued by Bersih – 2, a coalition of 62 non-governmental organizations, who have been demanding a level playing field and free and fair elections.

The unprecedented demonstration was in defiance of the Malaysian Government which had detained many Bersih leaders in the false pretext that they were planning the violent overthrow of the Government and were preparing to wage a war against the Agong (Head of State). The Government declared Bersih-2 to be an illegal organization and, what is more, banned the use of yellow colour (the followers of Bersih wear yellow shirts). The access roads to Kuala Lumpur were closed, private buses were prevented from transporting passengers to Kuala Lumpur and those wearing yellow shirts and scarfs were detained before they reached the city.

However, the people in a rare display of courage and determination marched hand in hand and were singing “we shall overcome”. They were greeted with tear gas shells, chemical laced water cannons and police batons. The use of force, according to international human rights organizations like the Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch was “excessive”. The unprovoked attack resulted in 1670 arrests; one demonstrator, a Malay leader, Baharuddin Ahmad, died in the hospital.

Never before in the history of contemporary Malaysia has such a demonstration taken place. The demonstration represented all ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese and Indians. The only comparable show of peoples’ strength took place on November 25, 2007 when the Hindraf mobilized the Indian community in a demonstration before the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur. It was an exclusively Indian gathering and they were protesting against the marginalization and impoverishment of the Indian community since the dawn of independence. Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic Malaysian leader, warned the Government of a “hibiscus revolution” (hibiscus is the Malaysian national flower) if the government did not heed to popular demands and introduce far reaching democratic reforms.

Bersih stands for Coalition for Free and Fair Elections. The July demonstration was called Bersih – 2 because the first was organized in 2007. The Bersih is headed by Ms. Ambiga Sreenivasan, a leading lawyer and former President of the Malaysian Bar Association. Ambiga is the recipient of the US State Department’s International Women of Courage Awards. Recently Ambiga was awarded the honorary doctorate by her alma mater, the University of Exeter. She dedicated the award to the “brave people of Malaysia” who had overcome “fear of intimidation and harassment”. In her acceptance speech she referred to the July 9 rally and underlined the truth that “while it brought out the worst in some, it brought out the best in others and this is where our hope lies”.

Malay Political Dominance

In order to put the present crisis in perspective, it is necessary to keep in mind certain basic political realities of Malaysia. When the British extended their political influence in the Malay Peninsula in the 19th and 20th centuries they introduced Direct Rule in the Straits Settlements and Indirect Rule in the Federated and Non-Federated Malay States. As far as the Malay states were concerned, the fiction of sovereignty was still vested in the Sultans, but the Sultans had to seek and administer the State on the advice of British Residents/Advisors whose advice was binding on all matters “except Malay religion (Islam) and customs (adat)”. What is more, the Malays were recognized as the Bhumiputras (sons of the soil). The British encouraged large scale immigration of the Chinese and the Indians for the economic development of Malaya. Before the Second World War, there was not much of an anti-British feeling; politically the country, unlike Vietnam and Indonesia, was a backwater. As the British novelist Somerset Maugham has written “Malaya was a first rate country for third rate English men”.

However, the political awakening of the Malays following the introduction of the Malayan Union proposals and the unity that they forged under the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) had far reaching consequences in the political evolution of Malaya. Not only did it compel the British to withdraw the Malayan Union proposals, but it also clearly revealed that the Malays will never surrender the pre-eminent position in Malaya. While in later years, the Malay leaders did take the co-operation of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) in the larger interests of Malaya as a whole, the dynamic leadership of Malaysian nationalism had always come from the Malays. The ruling Alliance, later expanded into Barisan Nasional, was not an alliance of equal partners; it was an alliance in which the UMNO was the dominant partner. The Malay political supremacy continued unabated until Anwar Ibrahim raised the banner of revolt against the undemocratic and high handed policies of Dr. Mahathir. After the split in the UMNO, the non-Malay votes have become extremely important in coming to power, but unfortunately this has not resulted in any dilution of Malay pre-eminence.

Two important changes in the political system should be highlighted. While, in early years of independence, the leaders of the Chinese and the Indians – Tan Siew Sin and Sambanthan – accepted the political supremacy of the Malays without any reservation, the new generation of the Chinese and the Indians has started questioning the basis of Malay political supremacy. These Indians and Chinese – third or fourth generation Malaysia born – resent the special rights enjoyed by the Malays and ask, with certain amount of justification, for how many more years they should live in Malaysia to enjoy equal status with the Malays. What is more, they have started questioning the rationale behind many undemocratic features of the Malaysian political system. Equally important are the leadership qualities of Malaysian Prime Ministers. While the first three Prime Ministers since independence – Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak and Hussein Onn – had overwhelming support of Malays and non-Malays, the same cannot be said about Dr. Mahathir and his political successors.

The long spell of Mahathir’s rule brought about a fundamental transformation in Malaysia. From being a producer of primary commodities, Malaysia has become an industrialized country, virtually an economic power house in the ASEAN region. But the negative side of the story was increasing authoritarianism and pro-Islamic policies. The unfair trial of Anwar Ibrahim and the third degree methods employed against him by the police officials have given a bad image to Malaysia. What is more, the fruits of development have not percolated to the poorer sections of Malaysian society, especially the Indians. The cumulative result was the political Tsunami in the 2008 election and the Barisan Nasional suffered unprecedented reverses. Not only it lost its two thirds majority in Parliament, it failed to regain power in Kelantan and lost power in Kedah, Perak, Penang and Selangor. The victory of the opposition parties had been a morale booster to pro-democratic forces in the country.