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Navigating Malaysian politics’ hall of mirrors



For TODAY Newspaper, Singapore: 12 December 2013

The art of studying Malaysian politics is about hearing the signals despite of the noise; this is not always easy because the noise is always so much louder.

To switch metaphor, it is more like being in a room full of mirrors. To keep from getting lost, one has to distinguish the concrete objects from the reflections.

The race-based tone heard at the recently concluded UMNO General Assembly for the year is a case in point. Did we hear a call to arms or was it just customary chest thumping? My guess is the latter.

How the immediate future of Malaysian politics will develop depends more on recent trends than on polemics.

First, we may technically consider that Malaysia is in the post-Mahathir period. But having said that, one must agree that the former prime minister’s influence is still very noticeable in UMNO politics, not least in his son recently becoming the chief minister of his home state of Kedah.

Dr Mahathir Mohamad did govern for 22 years, before which he had strongly set the political tone that was to become dominant; and after which he tried his best to steer developments, including toppling Mr Abdullah Badawi, his successor as Prime Minister. One should say that the attempt by Mr Abdullah Badawi and Mr Najib Razak to clear a path for themselves, has ended with an UMNO leadership that is rather restrained in implementing reforms and in developing a post-New Economic Policy (NEP) discourse.


Second, it has been exactly 15 years since the Reformasi Movement precipitated by the sacking of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim began.

That pivotal event provided the momentum for Dr Mahathir’s retirement; for opposition parties to work more closely together; for the formation of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat; and for the rise of a new generation of political activists, many of whom have joined the ranks of opposition parties as well as non-government organisations (NGOs). Malaysia has, to a greater extent than anyone could have imagined, developed a two-party system.

Third, three states, including the two richest ones—Selangor and Penang—remain in opposition hands and serve as showcases for alternative development policies. This puts constant pressure on the federal government to stay on its toes.

Fourth, while events in the last 15 years saw greater divisions in the structure of Malay political affiliation, the rise of Pakatan Rakyat and of NGOs such as Bersih has seen a greater unity of political will among Malaysian Chinese – and to a lesser extent in the Indian community – than ever before. In fact, the Democratic Action Party (DAP) is now the second largest party in the country, after UMNO.

Fifth, East Malaysia’s subordinate position has become much less subordinate now with the popular vote on the peninsula having gone against the Barisan Nasional (BN). This could potentially cause problems for the peninsula-centric polemics of the BN, and will require the federal leadership to give more say to Sabahans and Sarawakians.

Sixth, the continued Islamisation of political discourse has led to the need for new bogeymen. Externally, Christians are becoming perceived as a threat to Malay hegemony; internally, deviations in Islamic thought and practice have come under fire in favour of a centrally sanctioned and bureaucratically defined national Islam.

Seventh, the role of new media and the social media cannot be underestimated. These will continue to play a major role in coming years, with the federal government trying its best to capture territory in Cyberspace.


These are some factors to consider, looking into the immediate past. Elements to consider when looking forward include the following.

First, it is two years before Malaysia assumes the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), exactly marking the point when ASEAN becomes officially an economically integrated region. Many would say, the ASEAN Economic Community will continue to be a “work-in-progress” past the 2015 deadline.

Second, pundits are suggesting that in all probability, Malaysia will join the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) in the not too distant future (the implementation of GST in mid-2015 appears to be preparation for membership), and this is expected to have serious repercussions on the “Malay First” socio-economic structure of the country.

In the eyes of some, the bleak economic forecast today, together with a ballooning trade deficit and huge and broad subsidies, require that the country take some radical macro-economic measure like the TPP – especially when piecemeal domestic reforms affecting the NEP are politically not viable.

Third, Malaysia has seven years left to the 2020 deadline for achieving Advanced Nation status, not to mention Bangsa Malaysia (Malaysian nation). No one today believes in the latter goal, but the former is still bandied about, though with less and less conviction.


Fourth, Malaysia’s 14th General Elections have to be called by mid-2018. Where the political parties are concerned, the power structure is decided for now and it is reasonably stable despite the popular vote being split almost down the middle.

This is a time for long-term strategising; for some parties such as UMNO, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia and the DAP, the internal battle is over for now, since they have just recently held their national party elections. The Malaysian Chinese Association will have its elections on Dec 19-20 and that will see a three-cornered fight for the presidency. The PKR has postponed its elections to May 2014.

Chances are, the country as a whole will continue to reform (or transform, Mr Najib’s term for limited change) at a comfortable but ineffective pace, at least until it is time for the next General Elections. Over the next four years, the trends mentioned here will hold sway over the country’s political development.


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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