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Political Change in Malaysia: A Harbinger of Hope?

Mr Mohammed Shoaib Raza is Research Intern at the Southeast Asia and Oceania Centre, Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • December 27, 2022

    Malaysian society and politics is marked by racial and religious polarisation. Political parties have frequently exploited this for their purposes which has led to social unrest and the malfunction of governments at multiple times. However, Anwar Ibrahim's ascent to power, which ended his career's dry spell in the wake of turbulent political events in Malaysia, offers a glimpse of optimism for the nation's social and political climate. In the run-up to the country’s 15th general elections, the period was marked by political uncertainties, which included a hung parliament with no party having a clear majority to form the government. Ibrahim Anwar's Pakatan Harapan was in the lead with 82 seats but fell short of a majority by 30 MPs. It was finally supported by UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) to form a coalition government after being chosen by King Al-Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah.1   The coalition government, though, will have to deal with Malaysia's many issues, ethnic polarisation being the most prominent one.

    Socio-Political Landscape of Malaysia

    Malaysia has witnessed severe divisions due to the social and political ambitions of both nationalists and Islamists.2 The country’s democracy has been constrained for decades due to the injustices imposed by sectarian ideas of race and religion.3 Ethnic Malays, who are primarily Muslims, belong to indigenous communities who collectively account for around 70 per cent of the nearly 33 million people. Of the remaining, 23 per cent and 7 per cent are ethnic Chinese and Indians respectively. The multi-cultural makeup of Malaysian society has been a key foundation for political mobilisation.

    Due to Pakatan Harapan's multi-religious and multi-ethnic configuration, it was believed that racial and religious tensions would reduce when it unexpectedly defeated the ethnocentric Barisan Nasional (headed by UMNO) in the 2018 elections, ending the party's 60-year rule. However, Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership did not bring any significant change vis-à-vis racial and religious conditions in the country. Notwithstanding his criticism of discrimination against Western countries over minority-related issues, Mahathir Mohamad was unable and unwilling to put aside racial politics and work on substantive reforms.4 This was exacerbated further by the coming together of Malay nationalists of UMNO with their Islamist rival Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), stirring up divisive issues for their own political needs.

    Race-based Politics 

    In recent years, Malaysia has seen a surge in polarisation over issues related to race and religion. Previously, a significant anti-ICERD (International Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination) demonstration took place in Malaysia in 2018. Consequently, the government decided not to ratify a crucial UN anti-discrimination treaty meant to abolish all types of racial discrimination and advance interracial understanding. Both UMNO and PAS opposed the plan, arguing it would harm the rights of the majority of Malays. Human rights NGO Pusat KOMAS’ report titled, ‘Malaysia Racial Discrimination Report 2021’ suggests that ‘despite a fair amount of inclusive policies and verbal assurances that sought to incorporate the spirit of inclusivity, unity, and respect among all Malaysians, such initiatives were never implemented and governing leaders utilized the same racial rhetoric, to maintain their power’.5  

    Although Anwar's coalition Pakatan Harapan's 36 per cent seat share may be enough to create a government, it also reveals the predominance of racial and religious problems. The conservative, largely Malay Muslim alliance headed by Muhyiddin Yassin, which comprises the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), was in second position. The Discrimination Report   published by Pusat KOMAS points out that racial and religious politics accounts for the largest share of discrimination (at 28 per cent) while other incidents of discrimination include racial and religious provocation (23 per cent), racial discrimination in the education sector (11 per cent), racism in other sectors (11 per cent), racial discrimination in the business sector (6 per cent), xenophobia (13 per cent), and racism in the media and internet (8 per cent).6  The dominancy of race and religion-related issues can also be gauged through the victory of the conservative PAS, which often pushes nationwide implementation of sharia. The party won 49 of the 222 seats and thus emerged as the single largest party.

    Reason for Optimism

    Now that Pakatan Harapan is in power under the leadership of Ibrahim Anwar, his major concern will be to deal with Islamists and to tread with race-related issues carefully. Although he was the dynamic firebrand youth leader who started Malaysia's Islamic youth organisation (ABIM), a lot has happened since then. His career underwent a significant change when he joined the government-run UMNO party in 1982 under the leadership of Mahathir Mohamad. Anwar swiftly rose as he was appointed to several government ministerial positions, including deputy prime minister, finance minister and education minister. He was also imprisoned on various charges which are largely considered as politically motivated reasons.

    Anwar has frequently and boldly criticised religious and racial fanaticism, and detested the divisive and racial politics of Malaysia pointing to the potential impact on integrity of the society. Post-elections, Anwar has already emphasised on his ambition of establishing a powerful administration that can concentrate on the economy and is ‘more inclusive in terms of race, religion, or region’.7

    Even as economic, social and political cleavages remain, Anwar Ibrahim's arrival heralds a new era of optimism and change—so long as he doesn't get caught up in racial politics to further his political ambitions and re-embarks on his own "Reformasi" campaign, a social, economic, and political upheaval initiative that he started in 1998.

    Implications for the Region and India

    Though Anwar has assumed the Malaysian premiership for the first time, he has been in higher echelons of Malaysian politics for decades and has often expressed his views regarding international politics and external affairs. Anwar's recent interviews provide an early cue that some significant continuity will, most likely, exist in his government's foreign policy. Anwar has indicated that he will pursue a neutral and non-aligned foreign policy vis-à-vis US–China contestations and would refrain from militarisation in disputed marine zones, along with supporting multilateralism.8 The China–Malaysia relationship meanwhile continues to be strong, with booming trade and increased bilateral ties and military cooperation despite contentions over the South China Sea issue.9

    Malaysia is crucial to India's Act East Policy as well as its wider economic, defence and other bilateral concerns. Both have a long history of friendship and close ties, and there have been many summit-level discussions and gatherings along with an ‘Enhanced Strategic Partnership’   as well as joint military drills like Harimau Shakti, whose 2022 iteration just ended. Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs) make up one of the world's largest communities in Malaysia, at 8 per cent of the total population (2 million). India and Malaysia collaborate to defend air and maritime freedom in the South China Sea in addition to intelligence sharing and collaboration on regional counterterrorism efforts.

    The relationship between the two nations, however, appears to have soured somewhat in recent years as a result of remarks made by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad over Kashmir and other domestic issues of India. Apart from this, the granting of permanent residency to Zakir Naik in Malaysia dented the relations further. Zakir Naik is accused of inciting hatred through his provocative lectures, supporting terrorism, and money laundering. He managed to elude Indian law enforcement agents and is currently wanted for extradition. However, Anwar Ibrahim in 2019 supported action against Naik. He also strongly detested Naik’s communal remarks that created social unrest in Malaysia.10

    Anwar Ibrahim is expected to be more cooperative towards India as compared to his predecessors and will potentially prove amicable towards the geo-economic and geo-political goals of India. He has not only developed close ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi but has also affirmed India’s importance as a key strategic partner along with the US, ASEAN and Europe. Currently, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is among the top contenders to supply Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) to the Royal Malaysian Air Force. In 2021–2022, Malaysian imports of Indian products stood at US$ 6,995.04 million whereas the Indian imports of Malaysian products was around US$ 12,424 million.11  Amidst the increased cooperation in defence and commerce between both countries, Anwar has already expressed his desire to strengthen the ties further.12

    Although the long-term impact of the new electoral mandate remains to be seen, the prospects of Anwar Ibrahim’s rule appear comparatively advantageous not only for domestic politics but also for foreign policy objectives and regional stability.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.