An epoch of uncertainty: The Malaysian Political Crisis

By Arin Doshi

Malaysia is a country that is well known for its idyllic beaches, endless variety of street food and multicultural population consisting of Muslim Malays known as Bumiputeras who make up the majority of the country, Indians, Chinese and other tribal groups known collectively as the Orang Asli. Located in the heart of South East Asia, this country is surrounded by neighbours Thailand, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia with Islam being established as the official religion.

The year 2020 has proven to be chaotic with the Covid 19 pandemic causing the Malaysian economy to suffer greatly with its economy being contracted by 5.6% alongside an unemployment rate of 4.8%. Additionally, the start of the ongoing Malaysian political crisis of 2020 which led to the collapse of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition government in February 2020.

The PH coalition government together with former prime minister (PM) Mahathir Mohammed were winners of the 2018 general elections in Malaysia, ousting the long established Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition government which had enjoyed an uninterrupted reign of power since the time of its independence in August 31st 1957.

The start of the crisis

However, their court 22-month reign was short-lived. The PH coalition began to face problems on the likelihood of Mahathir passing on power over to his protégé Anwar Ibrahim who was supposed to take over the coalition in 2020 and lead the coalition up till the 15th General Elections. This major issue led to divisions in the coalition between allies of Mahathir and allies of Anwar and ultimately led to intensification of the crisis.

Tensions have always been rife between Anwar and Mahathir as he had worked as a deputy PM for Mahathir who at the time was the 4th PM of Malaysia from July 1981 up till October 2003 leading the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party. Unfortunately, Anwar and Mahathir had a fallout in 1998 on what sort of economic policies needed to be implemented during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. Anwar who was also the finance minister argued that it was necessary to accept help from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to solve the crisis as the structural and institutional adjustment reforms proposed would have helped fix the economy and liberalise it further. Mahathir on the other hand insisted that the Malaysian Ringgit (MYR) needed to be pegged to the US$ and imposed strict capital controls and rejected IMF help.

Mahathir then targeted Anwar through charges such as corruption and sodomy, which Anwar alleges were politically motivated. With Anwar jailed, he then went on to form the People’s Justice Party (PKR) which became known as the opposition party that was a force to be reckoned with. However, things changed when the two sworn enemies reconciled to join forces in order to defeat Najib Razak, the former PM and leader of the BN coalition in the 2018 Malaysian elections. Yet, this friendship soon turned sour in February 2020 when Mahathir handed in his resignation letter to the former King of Malaysia Sultan Muhammad V to relieve himself of prime ministerial duties and as head of the PH coalition.

When Mahathir had handed in his resignation to the former King of Malaysia, Mahathir had also announced that his party Bersatu was to resign from the PH coalition. Anwar criticised Mahathir for betraying the party and Malaysian citizens by forming a new coalition with other defecting members of the PH coalition that would stop him from gaining leadership of the PH coalition. In fact, within the PKR party there was a power struggle between Anwar and Azmin Ali who was the minister of economic affairs at the time. Azmin was vying to become the PM and leader of the PH coalition after the two-year transition period of Mahathir being in power, however supporters of Anwar were furious and believed that Mahathir should hand over power to him after the transition period as promised. Thus, this spat between the two then led to the Sheraton move.

The Sheraton Move

The Sheraton move was a series of meetings that occurred in the Sheraton hotel. Azmin together with his supporters from the PKR met up with the leaders from 5 political parties. These parties were Bersatu, UMNO, Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), Sabah Heritage Party (Warisan) and the Malaysian Islamic party (PAS) at the Sheraton Hotel to inform the King that they were forming a new coalition government, soon to be known as the Perikatan Nasional (PN). This swiftly led to the sacking of Azmin and Zuraida Kamarrudin who was the former minister of Housing and Local Government by the PKR vice president. Thus, with Mahathir resigning as PM of the PH coalition, Azmin Ali defecting with 10 PKR MPs and the Bersatu party leaving the PH coalition under Muhyiddin Yassin with 26 MPs, meant that the PH coalition was left with 37 seats short of the 112 seats that were needed to form a government.

With the collapse of the PH coalition, the king appointed Mahathir as interim PM in order to oversee the country’s administration until the formation of a new government. However, Mahathir took advantage of this by suggesting for all MPs to unite under a non-partisan unity government, where all parties in parliament would take part in the government. There was strong disagreement as many of the parties themselves had deep rivalries amongst each other. Eventually, Muhyiddin Yassin was appointed as the new PM of Malaysia by the current King of Malaysia Abdullah of Pahang together with the new coalition government Perikatan Nasional (PN) under him. The King stated that he had chosen Yassin as the ideal PM because based on the interviews he had conducted with the MPs in the lower house of parliament, they felt he was the best candidate.

Looming fears about Perikatan Nasional (PN)

Malaysians were gutted, shocked and in disbelief at how their newly elected democratic government had collapsed and a new coalition that was not chosen by them was leading the country. They have expressed their remorse over the continual degradation of their democracy since independence which swiftly led to Malaysian Twitter exploding with the hashtags #backdoorgovernment and #notmypm and with the rise of the 2020 protests against this government. Unfortunately, prominent activists got arrested by the Malaysian police for their attendance of 2020 protests. Activist lawyer Fadiah Nadwa was investigated for her mere video posts on social media. Police forces justified their actions with the Sedition Act of 1948 and the Communications and Multimedia Act of 1998. These laws have proven to be a thorn towards the erosion of democracy with previous Malaysian governments using it to threaten human right defenders and activists’ right to freedom of speech. Thus, the choosing of Muhyiddin as PM exposes the problem of how the Malaysian elite maneuvers the political landscape and draconian laws to work in their favour, therefore weakening Malaysia’s political openness and responsiveness towards its citizens.

Furthermore, Malaysian minorities fear that the majority Malay composition of the coalition government will not help serve the interests of minority groups in Malaysia. The PN coalition consists of parties such as UMNO and PAS that are known to be pro Malay and Islamic in their ideologies. In fact, UMNO is also the party of the former PM Najib Razak who is currently facing criminal charges relating to money laundering through a Malaysian state fund and strategic development company known as the 1 Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). With UMNO regaining power, this could push Muhyiddin to drop charges against Najib and UMNO president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who faces corruption charges. PAS has been at the forefront of criticism for pushing Sharia law further into the Malaysian constitution and instigating religious and racial tensions between the Muslim Malay population and minorities. Thus, minority groups worry about the rise of ethno-nationalistic policies that will continue to further hamper unity in the country.

Malay Supremacy

In fact, political analyst James Chin argues that with the collapse of the PH government and the revival of UMNO and PAS in the PN coalition, this can spark the rise of Malay supremacy in the country. Malay supremacy colloquially known as Ketuanan Melayu is the notion of the Malay population being the owners of Malaya. As the indigenous people of Malaysia, they must maintain and dominate political control over the country. This essentially meant that Non-Malays can live in harmony in Malaysia, but they cannot have equal political rights and can never hold the top positions in government and key institutions. This narrative became known as the Malaysian ‘social contract’ which meant providing non-Malays with citizenship in return for their recognition of Malay supremacy and the ‘special rights’ of the Malays. These special rights are part of Article 153 in the Malaysian constitution which allows for affirmative action policies to be put into place to help empower the Malay population to enter into fields like the civil service, public scholarships and public education. These policies can be likened to the Apartheid policies in South Africa which were in place from 1948 until 1990.

A well-known example of this type of policy is theMalaysian New Economic Policy (NEP) that was set in 1971 and was put in place until 1991. The NEP was set up after the May 13 race riots of 1969 with two main objectives in mind, reduce ethnic inequalities between the different groups through the eradication of poverty and also restructure Malaysian society. Credit needs to be given to the economic policy as it helped reduce the poverty rate from 49.3% in 1970 to a rate of 16.5% in 1990. Subsequently, Malaysia moved into the third stage of economic development with an enhanced role in the manufacturing and services industry. Furthermore, this thereafter led to Malaysia attaining the status of an upper middle-income country.

Ironically, the NEP facilitated the imposition of quotas and preferential treatment for Bumiputeras. The Malaysian government wanted to restructure Malaysian society by allowing for more Malaysto higher educational opportunities and participation in government-supported business projects. It was believed that Malays who consisted of the majority of the population were one of the poorest groups before the NEP. Critics of the NEP insist that this policy was instituted as part of a broader agenda to cement Malay political supremacy in the country.

The notion of Malay supremacy has been ingrained in Malaysian society for so long that Malays have been told to be distrustful of multiracial parties like the Democratic Action Party (DAP) or the PKR as they can erase and threaten the status of the Malays and Islam. The only way for the Malays to hold onto their political supremacy, is to deny the non-Malays equal political rights. In fact, in September 2019 whilst the PH coalition was in power, UMNO and PAS had formed a pact known as the Muafakat Nasional (National Consensus pact). UMNO and PAS traditionally clashed with each other due to a difference in ideology. UMNO was a Malay nationalist party whereas PAS consistently pushed for Malaysia to become an Islamic state. 

As soon as this pact was formed the Malay dignity press conference was organised in September 2019 by large right-wing Malay and Islamic groups. The main rhetoric that echoed in the conference was that Malaysia is for the Malays and groups (non-Malay minorities) that oppose the position of Malays and Islam in Malaysian society should be stripped of their Malaysian citizenship and be fought against.  Ironically enough, these same politicians have always played the race card and claimed that the Malays are under threat even though UMNO had a strong grip over Malaysia since the period of independence up till 2018. It can also be said that a lot of these affirmative action policies implemented by the government were also elitist therefore reducing the chances of a poorer Malay improving their circumstances.

Multi-racial parties and NGOs alike have condemned the divisive actions of politicians propagating Malay supremacy as it can be used to further hammer down on the unity between the different races. Critics have also called out politicians for exploiting ethnicity and religion to victimise minorities or labelling them as scapegoats.  Most Malaysians understand that this country is a multicultural country with a unique cultural fabric that it thrives upon.  Yet, with institutionalised racism being targeted towards minority groups, this has led Malaysia to facing a brain drain. Moreover, the previous administration before the PH coalition has always parroted the idea that Malays need to be coddled up and spoon fed through these pro Bumiputera policies, but has not considered that the other races in Malaysia would be more competitive as the Malays when competing globally. Non-Malay groups leaving Malaysia and finding better opportunities elsewhere outside Malaysia is a loss for the nation to develop further.

The Emergency

Fast forward to 2021, an uncertain future lies ahead for Malaysians. As COVID cases were rising by the 1000s, the King had declared an Emergency colloquially known as the Darurat upon Malaysia on the 12th of January, 2021 and would be maintained until the 1st of August, 2021. This entailed that there would be no parliamentary or state assembly sittings, new ordinances or decrees could be passed without opposition and the military were given the powers to enforce the law. Muhyiddin has supposedly assured the Malaysian public that the Emergency does not lead to military rule. On the contrary, critics have vociferously called him out for clinging on to power under the guise of rising COVID cases as he may not even have a majority himself for his own government after Anwar Ibrahim had claimed that he had the parliamentary majority to form a new government. 27 no confidence vote motions have been made against Muhyiddin claiming that he has no simple majority in the parliament. Muhyiddin had fired back on these claims, dismissing them as baseless. In fact, the PN coalition’s largest party backers UMNO have been disgruntled with the illegitimacy of the  Muhyiddin administration and have threatened to withdraw their support for the coalition. Thus, the declaration of the Emergency showcases the insecurity of the Muhyiddin administration as he knows his administration remains highly loathed by Malaysians.

Democracy under attack?

The implications of the Emergency upon the status of democracy has been worrying with the Centre of Independent Journalism ringing alarm bells questioning the sudden impulses of authorities arresting  social media users who question the Emergency measures. Worryingly enough, it was also later announced that there would be a fake news act being formed to curb misinformation on the COVID virus and the Emergency. This meant that any form of fake news published would result in increased jail time. Legitimate concerns have also shrouded the military, as they can justify arbitrary arrests and investigations that infringes upon the freedom of expression and other fundamental liberties Malaysians have. The unfolding of these draconian measures showcases the worrying direction Malaysian democracy is going towards. 

What lies ahead?

Malaysians have also pondered on the thought of whether their multicultural nation can progress without the need of race-based politics and also on whether their democracy can be sustained. The fight is on with multiracial and centrist parties DAP, PKR and MUDA, a newly formed youth based political party led by the charismatic Syed Saddiq, the former Youth and Sports Minister finding solutions on how to revise the NEP from a race-based policy towards a needs-based policy in order to combat race-based politics. These parties are also working alongside lawyers and human rights groups to keep the PN coalition in check in order to prevent the erosion of democracy and call out institutionalised forms of injustice. Additionally, the path towards a needs-based policy can be coordinated together with the sustenance of democracy and unity between the different races of Malaysia. The father of the nation Tunku Abdul Rahman proclaimed on Independence Day, “Malaysia is an independent state founded upon the principles of liberty, justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people.” Thus, importance needs to be placed for an inclusive, multiracial, economically progressive and democratic Malaysia to thrive. 

Edited by Zuzanna Mietlinska, artwork by Chira Tudoran


Bumiputera:  Derived from Sanskrit, translated as sons of the son of earth.

Orang Asli: Indigenous people of Malaysia

Sedition Act of 1948: Law that prohibits discourse that can be considered seditious.

Multimedia and Communications Act of 1998: Law aimed at regulating the converging of communications and multimedia industries and incidental matters.