The Year in Malaysian Politics: Democracy’s Crooked Trajectory

(Credit: Kai Ostwald).

Memo #310

By Kai Ostwald – kai.ostwald [at] ubc.ca

Ostwald_photoIn the run-up to Malaysia’s 13th General Election in May 2013, optimists argued that the country had finally transitioned from decades of semi-authoritarian rule to a competitive de-facto two party system of democracy. The election itself exposed several flaws in the system, namely that high levels of malapportionment allowed the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition to capture 60% of legislative seats despite losing the popular vote to the opposing Pakatan Rakyat coalition by 4%. The seventeen months since the election have seen Malaysia slide further away from a democratization trajectory, with three key factors causing the regression.

Second, the legal system has become more active in constraining activity critical of the government. Since the start of 2014, over 30 people have been investigated, charged, or convicted under the colonial-era sedition law. With very few exceptions, these have been members of the opposition or public intellectuals not aligned with the government. Underscoring the perception that the charges are politically motivated, several divisive pro-Malay activist groups aligned with the government have staged provocative actions without interference or legal repercussion.

Third, the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition is on the verge of collapse due to internal disagreements and a leadership struggle in the constituent party PAS (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party). Even if the coalition does not formally dissolve, its ability to coordinate is likely to be constrained. Moreover, the electorate’s faith in the viability of the ideologically diverse coalition is unquestionably shaken. Independent of Pakatan Rakyat’s strengths and weaknesses, the opposition coalition provides some balance to Malaysia’s political system, as without it Barisan Nasional faces no meaningful checks in the governing process.

Malaysia is without question one of the world’s success stories in terms of development. The events of the past year are reflective neither of the country’s immense potential nor of its boundless aspirations. While democratization is seldom a linear process, the consequences for Malaysia of not quickly righting its trajectory will almost certainly be serious.

Kai Ostwald is an assistant professor in the Institute of Asian Research and Department of Political Science, as well as the co-director of the Centre for Southeast Asia Research, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. His research interests cover ethnic politics, national identity, and other issues in domestic politics in Southeast Asia, particularly in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

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(Credit: Kai Ostwald).
(Credit: Kai Ostwald).

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