Malaysia: Pseudo-democracy and the making of a Malay-Islamic State

James Chin (2)

No researchers, save those hired by Barisan, would regard Malaysia today as fully democratic.

James Chin

In 2013, the Federation of Malaysia celebrated the half-centenary of its founding. When formed in 1963, the federation comprised four territories: Malaya (which had been made independent in 1957), Singapore, North Borneo (now called Sabah), and Sarawak.

At the time, these territories had little in common other than the fact that they had all been colonised by the British, directly or indirectly. Yet there were high hopes for Malaysia. The new nation had inherited a system of constitutional monarchy with universal suffrage. And in patterning its institutions after Westminster, it formed two houses of parliament, the Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) and Dewan Negara (Senate).

The three major ethnic groups in the country – the Malays, Chinese, and Indians – while unintegrated, avoided open conflict.

The ruling coalition, the Malayan Alliance (later Barisan Nasional or National Front), provided representation for these communities and, for the most part, perpetrated accommodation between them.

The non-indigenous Chinese and Indian population, brought into the country as economic migrants by the British, were given citizenship. The path to independence was based on negotiation with the Colonial Office rather than armed struggle. Malaysia was widely regarded at the time as one of only a few newly independent countries with working democratic institutions.

This peaceful state of affairs lasted until 1969 when ethnic rioting broke out in the capital of Kuala Lumpur after a general election. Parliament was suspended and the country was placed under emergency rule until 1971.

When Parliament reconvened, new laws were imposed that restricted public discussion on what were considered to be ‘sensitive issues’: the newly enhanced ‘special rights’ of the Malays and other indigenous groups, now demarcated as ‘Bumiputera’ (a Sanskrit term meaning ‘sons of the soil’); the special position of Islam; and the political and cultural powers of the Malay Sultans.

What was unique about the restrictions was that the new laws were applicable to parliament as well. Put simply, MPs were not allowed to debate the special standing of the Bumiputera, Islam, or the Sultans.

From that moment onwards, any pretence that Malaysia was a working democracy faded away as new, more authoritarian political order was instituted.

In brief, a single-party-dominant system was established over which the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) held sway. It continued to operate its multi-ethnic Barisan coalition, however, incorporating the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), and some parties from Sabah and Sarawak as subordinate partners.

The primary aim of the UMNO-centred government after 1969 was to create a state dominated by and dedicated to the political and material advancement of the Malay community. The policy instrument for this project became known as the New Economic Policy (NEP).

Under the NEP, the Malays and other Bumiputera were given preferential treatment in all political, economic and social spheres.

Although the government claimed it was merely an affirmative action policy to right previous wrongs, in the eyes of the non-Bumiputera, the NEP amounted to an egregious and systematic form of ethnic discrimination.

Given the many political restrictions that were imposed to shield the NEP’s ethnic redistributions, the Federation of Malaysia could not be regarded as democratic.

To see this more clearly, a range of categories are canvassed below, including press freedoms, free and fair elections, equal citizenship rights and protection of minorities. As we will see, Malaysia has fallen well short of democratic norms. What is more, its prospects for any re-democratisation remain bleak.

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