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Democratization or Oligarchic Restructuring? The Politics of Reform in Malaysia *

  • Hari Singh (a1)


Malaysia's impact on World Politics Exceeds the usual level of inf luence expected of a small state in an international system. It has exercised a leadership role in the Commonwealth, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Non-aligned Movement and South-South Cooperation, and has tried to modify the agenda of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation through the East Asian Economic Caucus. In addition, Malaysia has championed selfdetermination, articulated an ‘Asian’ approach to the issues of human rights and democratization, and has contributed to international peace-keeping operations under the aegis of the United Nations, where it has also served as a non-permanent member of its Security Council and chaired its General Assembly. These achievements in themselves are sufficient to draw scholarly attention to Malaysia although, it must be admitted, that the arena of foreign policy itself is part of domestic politics. In this domain too, Malaysia has long been of interest to political scientists. For an ethnically divided society, Malaysia has maintained a remarkable record of political stability. This in turn had contributed to sustained development, and up till the advent in 1997 of the Asian financial crisis, Malaysia was poised to be the next newly-industrialized country in the Asia-Pacific.



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1 See Crouch, Harold, Government and Society in Malaysia, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1996, ch. 1. On authoritarian regimes promoting the trappings of democracy for regime legitimacy, refer to Wriggins, W. H., The Ruler’s Imperative: Strategies for Political Survival in Asia and Africa, New York, Columbia University Press, 1969.

2 Crone, Donald, ‘State, Social Elites, and Government Capacity in Southeast Asia’, World Politics, 40:2 (01 1988), pp. 252–68.

3 Huntington, Samuel P., Political Order in Changing Societies, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1968, pp. 34–5.

4 Huntington, Samuel P., ‘Political Development and Political Decay’, World Politics, 17:3 (04 1965), pp. 386430.

5 Vilfredo Pareto: Sociological Writings, selected and introduced by S. E. Finer, translated by Derick Mirfin, New York, Frederick A. Praeger, 1966.

6 For details, see Rachagan, Sothi, ‘The Development of the Electoral System’, in Crouch, Harold, Lee Hing, Kam and Ong, Michael (eds), Malaysian Politics and the 1978 Election, Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press, 1980, pp. 255–92.

7 On the salience of the ethnic equation in Malaysian politics, see Milne, R. S. and Mauzy, Diane K., Politics and Government in Malaysia, Singapore, Times Books International, 1980, especially p. 3.

8 Refer to Muzaffar, Chandra, Protector? An Analysis of the Concept and Practice of Loyalty in Leader-led Relationships within Malay Society, Penang, Aliran, 1977.

9 See Gullick, J. M., Indigenous Political Systems of Western Malaya, New York, Athlone Press, 1958, p. 43.

10 The nature of cyber communications itself posed difficulties for effective government censorship. In any case, the government’s commitment to its Multimedia Super Corridor, modelled upon the Silicon Valley in the United States, discouraged the expurgation of dissenting viewpoints posted on the Internet.

11 Singh, Hari and Narayanan, Suresh, ‘Changing Dimensions in Malaysian Politics: The Johore Baru By-Election’, Asian Survey, 29:5 (05 1989), pp. 514–29 and Singh, Hari, ‘Political Change in Malaysia: The Role of Semangat 46’, Asian Survey, 31:8 (07 1991), pp. 712–28.

12 UMNO’s parliamentary representation declined by 20 seats, from 92 in 1995 to 72 in 1999. Likewise, it lost 53 state assembly seats, from 229 to 176. See Hari Singh, The 1999 Malaysian General Election, Manuscript, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.

13 BBC News, 14 April 1999 at 09:07 GMT.

14 Moore, Barrington Jr., Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Boston, Beacon Press, 1966.

15 Mosca, Gaetano, The Ruling Class, edited and revised by Livingston, Arthur, translated by Kahn, Hannah D., New York, McGraw-Hill, 1939, p. 50 and Michels, Robert, Political Parties, translated by Edan and Cedar Paul, New York, Dover, 1959, pp. 389–90.

16 Wright Mills, C., The Power Elite, London, Oxford University Press, 1956.

17 Straits Times, 5 September 1998, p. 27.

18 Anwar’s trial resulted in the surfacing of an earlier report prepared by the Special Branch, whose role is similar to that of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in the United States, clearing Anwar of any wrongdoing. Straits Times, 17 November 1998, p. 2.

19 The Malaysian Bar Council expressed ‘deep concern’ about the way the judicial process was used against Anwar. Straits Times, 23 April 1999, p. 40.

20 This is not to say that Mahathir did not relate to the Malay masses. Prior to becoming a politician, the doctor had championed the issues of the underprivileged and had also provided free medical services to the poor. The subtle difference is that Mahathir, in his prescriptive approach, was then viewed as more of an authoritarian figure and community leader in a patrimonial society whereas Anwar, who often championed Malay-based issues in the streets, was more readily accepted as ‘one of us’.

21 Ibrahim, Anwar, The Asian Renaissance, Singapore, Times Books International, 1996.

22 Ibid., p. 54. After his arraignment, Anwar specifically attacked ‘soft authoritarianism’ and openly advocated democratization. Strait Times, 19 November 1998, p. 40.

23 See Nair, Shanti, Islam in Malaysian Foreign Policy, London, Routledge, 1997, p. 223.

24 Sunday Times, 27 March 1994, p. 20.

25 Anwar Ibrahim, The Asian Renaissance, p. 97.

26 Ibid., p. 89.

27 The actual charges pertained to Anwar’s espousal of Malay nationalism. (Copy of detention order with John Funston.) The squatter demonstrations also provided an excuse to intern Anwar under the ISA, purportedly on the orders of Mahathir himself. See John Funston, Political Careers of Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim: Parallel, Intersecting and Conflicting Lives, IKMAS Working Papers, Instituit Kajian Malaysia dan Antarabangsa, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, 15 July 1998, pp. 14 and 25.

28 Straits Times, 29 September 1998, p. 18.

29 However, as John Funston points out, the divergence between the policies advocated by Mahathir on the one hand, and Anwar and the IMF on the other, began to narrow as the IMF itself began to reassess its strategy of stringent economic restructuring. See ‘Malaysia: A Fateful September’, Southeast Asian Affairs 1999, Singapore, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1999, p. 167.

30 Sejarah Melayu. English translation by C. C. Brown, Kuala Lumpur, Oxford University Press, 1970, p. 16.

31 Straits Times, 24 September 1998, p. 1.

32 bin Mohamad, Mahathir, The Malay Dilemma, Singapore, Donald Moore for Asia Pacific Press, 1970, pp. 116–18.

33 The demonstrations are worth commenting on for their sophisticated nature. In general, they did not appear to be pre-arranged and neither did they reflect mob mentality. The participants would generally be ‘shopping’ or ‘dining’, and as if on cue, would suddenly pour out into the streets and clamour for reform. They would resume their pre-demonstration activities upon the arrival of the police forces.

34 For details, refer to Singh, Hari, ‘UMNO Leaders and Malay Rulers: The Erosion of a Special Relationship’, Pacific Affairs, 68:2 (Summer 1995), pp. 187205.

35 Straits Times, 6 October 1998, p. 28.

36 See Hari Singh, ‘The 1995 Malaysian General Election: Reaffirmation of Barisan Nasional Dominance’, The Round Table, 343 (July 1997), pp. 389–409.

37 Notwithstanding Mahathir’s ‘Look East Policy’ and other policies that were critical of the West, Malaysia has generally been viewed as pro-West.

38 Straits Times, 18 November 1998, p. 15.

39 Generally, most Western leaders and other global institutions like the IMF and the World Bank came out in support for Anwar. On sectional interests being passed off as universal values, see Miller, J. D. B., ‘Morality, Interests and Rationalization’, in Pettman, Ralph (ed.), Moral Claims in World Affairs, New York, St Martin’s Press, 1979, pp. 36–51.

40 Refer also to Rosecrance, Richard, ‘Regionalism and the Post-Cold War Era’, International Journal, 46:3 (1991), pp. 385–90.

41 George Soros, ‘Towards a Global Open Society’, Business Times, 23 September 1997. For an argument that challenges the assertion that economic prosperity encourages democratic development, see Bell, Daniel A. et al. ., Towards Illiberal Democracy in Pacific Asia, Houndmills, Macmillan, 1995.

42 Refer to Means, Gordon P., Malaysian Politics: The Second Generation, Singapore, Oxford University Press, 1991, pp. 201–3.

43 See Gullick, Indigenous Political Systems, p. 49.

44 For a dissenting viewpoint, see Funston, John, Malay Politics in Malaysia: A Study of the United Malays National Organisation and Party Islam, Kuala Lumpur, Heinemann, 1980, p. 16.

45 One of the reasons given by Tan Sri Musa Hitam upon his resignation as deputy prime minister in 1986 was Mahathir’s unwillingness to accept constructive criticism. See Aliran Monthly, 9:1 (1989), p. 38.

46 Admittedly, the prime minister’s prerogative to appoint the chief ministers predates the Mahathir administration. However, the prime minister then had to contend with the wishes of the Sultans. Such a situation did not arise following the considerable weakening of the royal power base during Mahathir’s tenure as prime minister.

47 John Funston, who knows both Mahathir and Anwar personally, has expressed reservations on this point. While willing to consider the fact that Anwar may have developed aspirations for the highest political office, he is nevertheless more inclined to believe that the differences between the two individuals were more a matter of policy, which were exploited by their respective followers. Personal communication with John Funston, 29 March 2000, Singapore. We will return to this theme below.

48 At the 1995 UMNO General Assembly, Mahathir commented on the possibility of a presidential contest in the following terms. ‘Two things could happen if there is a contest. First, I may win, at least from my point of view. It’s okay too, if I lose. After all, I’ve led the party for fourteen years, been a Prime Minister that long. But imagine if Anwar loses, that’s the end of his career.’ Cited in Milne, R. S. and Mauzy, Diane K., Malaysian Politics under Mahathir, London: Routledge, 1999, p. 154.

49 See Dae Jung, Kim, ‘Is Culture Destiny?’, Foreign Affairs, 73:6 (11 1994), pp. 189–94.

50 Anwar Ibrahim, Asian Renaissance, p. 91.

51 See Case, William, ‘Politics Beyond Anwar: What’s New?’, Asian Journal of Political Science, 7:1 (06 1999), pp. 34.

52 Ibid., pp. 4–5.

53 Generally speaking, the Malays have accepted elite displacement so long as it accorded with the broad parameters of Malay political culture. During the feudal era, political discards were not thrown on the rubbish heap but were treated with respect and allowed access to the patronage system of the Sultanate. In return, the defeated pledged their allegiance to the Ruler.

54 The theme that intense factional politics within UMNO is often played out in the public sphere has been elaborated upon in Singh, Hari, ‘Tradition, UMNO and Political Succession in Malaysia’, Third World Quarterly, 19:2 (06 1998), pp. 241–54.

55 As Mahathir himself once remarked, ‘In the Malay code of behaviour, form is so important that it is preferred to the actual substance’. The Malay Dilemma, p. 158.

56 Needless to say, the list was doctored. It omitted names of some key Mahathir loyalists.

57 The IGP was subsequently tried on a lesser charge of ‘assault’ rather than causing ‘grievous hurt’ and sentenced to two months imprisonment despite the fact that the injuries suffered by Anwar were life-threatening.

58 ‘Turning over’, a phrase used by the Special Branch, essentially means the conversion of one’s views to coincide with those of the ruling regime’s as a result of brainwashing and intimidation. Straits Times, 6 November 1998, p. 47. A good example is Datuk Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, former president of UMNO Youth who had raised the issues of corruption, cronyism and nepotism at the 1998 UMNO General Assembly. Upon his release from preventive detention, he pledged loyalty to the Mahathir regime and indicated his willingness ‘to help unite UMNO’. Straits Times, 5 October 1998, p. 23.

59 Straits Times, 15 November 1998, p. 32.

60 Straits Times, 27 November 1988, p. 72.

61 Ibid. However, it was estimated in October 1998 that six out of ten UMNO members were unhappy with Mahathir’s treatment of Anwar. Straits Times, 31 October 1998.

62 Straits Times, 19 June 1999, p. 1.

63 Thus far, the opposition has been very careful in stressing non-violence and constitutional means in seeking to displace the ruling government.

64 Musa, who resigned in 1986, was never declared the heir-apparent. Mahathir did nominate Anwar as his successor, but this was to prevent a leadership contest within UMNO. Moreover, moves were already under way to oust him. Although Ghaffar remained a Mahathir loyalist, he was never allowed to act as prime minister, even at the time of Mahathir’s emergency heart surgery. While Mahathir has stated that Datuk Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, current Deputy Prime Minister, would succeed him, the nominee is not seen as a credible choice by most UMNO members. If anything, the perception is that Mahathir, by advocating orderly succession and non-contestation for the party’s top two positions, is not so much endorsing a successor inasmuch as he wants to stave off a challenge to his leadership as a result of the Anwar saga and UMNO’s poor showing in the 1999 general election.

65 Given his conviction, Anwar can only return to active politics if he is pardoned by the Malaysian king on the advice of the prime minister. However, should Abdullah Badawi, the current Deputy Prime Minister and deputy president of UMNO, who is a rival of Anwar, succeed Mahathir, it is unlikely that he would intercede on Anwar’s behalf. Yet, it is not inconceivable that Adbullah, unf latteringly referred to as Malaysia’s ‘Habibe’ would himself form an alliance with Anwar should his position be severely threatened by the other oligarchs in UMNO.

66 As Anwar has noted, charges of sodomy were preferred as they were more embarrassing than adultery or corruption. Straits Times, 2 November 1999, p. 28.

* The author would like to thank Benjamin Wong and John Funston for their incisive comments on earlier drafts of this article.

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Democratization or Oligarchic Restructuring? The Politics of Reform in Malaysia *

  • Hari Singh (a1)


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