Current trends in Malaysian society

Dr Chandra Muzaffar

Dr Chandra Muzaffar

Current trends in Malaysian society do not generate much optimism about the future. Gleaned from the electoral landscape, there are two trends one should focus upon: one, associated with the ruling Barisan Nasional, specifically UMNO, the coalition’s pillar and the nation’s biggest and most influential political party; the other, linked to the Pakatan, mainly the DAP, the largest political party in the opposition.

We shall evaluate briefly these two actors in relation to five critical aspects of national life — integrity; economic realities; political structure; religion; and ethnic relations.


While the UMNO led government has initiated some institutional measures to enhance integrity such as anti-corruption courts and integrity pacts, it has given very little attention to the variety of proposals made by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the Institute Integrity Malaysia (IIM) in the last few years to combat elite corruption. This is largely because of powerful vested interests which have become deeply entrenched. The government’s approach to the 1MDB controversy testifies to this.

The opposition appears to be more determined to curb graft. The DAP state government in Penang under Lim Guan Eng requires its Executive Councillors and Assembly members to declare their assets (though not their liabilities) to the public. After seven years in power, there is no whiff of any financial scandal. The PKR-led Selangor state government sought to minimize political interference in governmental decisions pertaining to contracts and projects under its former Mentri Besar, Tan Sri Abdul Khalid Ibrahim. Kelantan, which has been under PAS stewardship for 25 years now is not tainted with corruption largely because of the moral rectitude of the late Dato Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, who was Mentri Besar for 23 years.

Economic Realities

The UMNO-BN leadership recognizes that the bottom 40% of urban Malaysia is struggling to make ends meet. It has offered some remedies in the form of assistance programmes but they are largely palliative and do not address the root causes of relative deprivation. It is not just a question of raising incomes or upgrading skills. The ownership and control of key resources that the bottom 40% depend upon — land, water, energy — will have to be re-appraised. Likewise, the distribution of goods and services which impact upon the cost of living will have to be reviewed to ensure greater access and equity for the poorer half of society.

The opposition’s economic policies have also not examined larger structural challenges of this sort in a consistent manner. True, its alternative budget for 2016 promises to implement a capital gains tax and an inheritance tax which would be equitable. But it could have tried to explore how the role of the cooperative movement for instance could be reinforced in both the production and distribution of certain goods and services to strengthen the position of the working-class. The re-organization of agriculture, which the opposition’s budget highlights, could have also been linked to building dynamic rural cooperatives.

Political Structure

For all its warts and pimples, Malaysia is still a functioning democracy. In some respects, democratic space has widened in the last few years with the abolition of the Internal Security Act (ISA), changes to the University and the University Colleges Act (UCCA) and the introduction of a Peaceful Assembly Act — all accomplished under Dato Sri Najib’s tutelage. The new media has also been a major contributory factor. Nonetheless, dissent, especially when it raises questions about the exercise of power at the apex, is often severely curbed. A true participatory democracy anchored in local, grassroots communities is nowhere on the horizon.

Through its commitment to local government elections, the DAP continues to uphold an important principle of grassroots democracy. But there is little evidence to show that it is seeking to change the top-down approach to democracy and governance — which is part of the national ethos — even in those areas within its jurisdiction in Penang.