Re-election of Malaysia's political coalition followed by uncertainty

With a constitutional monarchy and a democratic, Westminster-style parliamentary system of government, Malaysia has enjoyed many years of stability and growing prosperity since it achieved independence from Britain in 1957. The country is governed under a federal system, with many powers devolved to the state level. While it has inherited much from the British legal system, Malaysia also acknowledges the particular traditions of its indigenous groups and the Malay Muslim majority.

These customs – and those of the ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities – engender a vibrant political culture, with coalition building between parties built on ethnic lines an enduring characteristic. The most successful coalition has been that marshalled by the ruling National Front (BN), which has run the country in one form or another since its independence. Now, though, there are signs that the group is under some stress, as its non-Malay components lose electoral support to opposition groups and the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), a founding member of the BN and Malaysia’s largest political party, experiences some fracturing.

However, with a long tradition of democratic politics and the rule of law under its belt, Malaysia is likely to weather these stresses, particularly as a healthy business and investment climate is the aim of all parties across its political spectrum.

Long Traditions

On August 31, 1957, a day celebrated as Hari Merdeka (independence day), Malaysia’s British rulers departed, some 170 years after Penang was ceded to them in 1786. However, the self-determination of what became known as the Federation of Malaya – consisting of the 11 states that now comprise Peninsular Malaysia – was not the end of the modern-day country’s formative process.

Indeed, in 1961 Lee Kuan Yew, then prime minster of Singapore, and Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al Haj, then prime minister of Malaya, proposed a federation of former British possessions in South-east Asia, including the 11 states of Malaya, Brunei Darussalam, and Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo.

Brunei Darussalam decided against being part of the alliance, while Sarawak and Sabah continued as British-ruled entities until they joined the federation in 1963. The accession of the two Borneo states took place with certain stipulations aimed at preserving their land rights and customary laws. These provisions are conspicuous today as Malaysians have to present their passports when arriving in either state. Local immigration and other matters are also overseen and regulated from the two state capitals. Singapore, on the other hand, seceded from the federation in 1965 due to deep political and economic differences between its ruling party and Malaya’s.


The emergence of modern-day Malaysia was shaped by two conflicts. The first, known as the Malayan Emergency, was a guerrilla war against British colonial rule conducted by the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), whose members were largely ethnic Chinese citizens. The revolt was eventually defeated, but the MCP did not finally lay down its arms until 1989. Most Malay and Tamil citizens, as well as many with Chinese heritage, supported a peaceful British exit and rejected the approach of the MCP.

The repercussions of the Malayan Emergency are still evident, as the anti-communist ethnic Chinese coalesced to form the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), which has since been a stalwart of the BN. The Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) also emerged during this period as a party central to the political representation of the ethnic Tamil-Indian population. The MIC combined with the MCA and UMNO to form the Alliance Party, the forerunner to the BN.

The second conflict, known as the Confrontation, took place in the states of Sarawak and Sabah. Indonesia launched an undeclared war against the two states following their accession to the Federation of Malaya. British and Commonwealth troops joined local forces to see off the attack, and in 1966 Indonesia signed a peace agreement in which it formally recognised the federation’s territory. Sabah’s accession also proved unpopular with the Philippines, which retains dormant territorial claims over the state. It was this dispute that incited an armed incursion into Sabah by supporters of the self-styled Sultan of Sulu in 2013 – an intrusion repelled by the Malaysian army.

Political Legacy

The early leaders of the autonomous Federation of Malaya, and later Malaysia, established an enduring legacy. Succeeding Abdul Rahman Putra Al Haj as prime minister (PM) in 1970 was Abdul Razak Hussein, whose son Najib Razak is in office as the sixth PM. Abdul Razak’s brother-in-law, Hussein Onn, was the country’s third leader between 1976 and 1981, while Hussein’s father Onn Jaafar founded UMNO. Malaysia’s fourth PM, Mahathir Mohamad, served between 1981 and 2003, and he too cut his political teeth with UMNO in the 1950s. However, he left the party in 2016 to form the anti-government “Save Malaysia” campaign. The fifth PM, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, led from 2003 to 2009, and his son-in-law, Khairy Jamaluddin, is youth chief at UMNO.

The centre-right BN formally replaced the Alliance Party’s coalition in 1973. The BN had included the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) until it was expelled from the group in 1977. PAS is now a key, mainly ethnic Malay, opposition party that governs the rural state of Kelantan in the north-east of Peninsular Malaysia and has a strong in presence in the states of Terengganu and Kedah. Other parties in the BN now include Gerakan, which has a largely ethnic Chinese support base, and several regional parties from East Malaysia, such as the United Traditional Bumiputera Party (PBB), the largest party in Sarawak.

On the opposition benches, an alternative coalition – the People’s Alliance (PR) – dissolved in June 2015. It had included the PAS, along with the largely ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the more ethnically diverse People’s Justice Party (PKR). In 2015 the PR was replaced by the Coalition of Hope (PH), which comprises DAP, the PKR and the National Trust Party (PAN).

Anwar Ibrahim is the leading figure of the PH and PKR, having previously led the PR and served as finance minister under Mahathir Mohamad. However, Anwar began a five-year prison term in 2015, so Saifuddin Abdullah leads the day-to-day operation of the PH, while Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, leader of the opposition in parliament, does the same for the PKR.

Constitutional Monarchy

Malaysia is unique in that it has a rotating monarchical ruler, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. The current head of state is 88-year-old Sultan Abdul Halim of Kedah, who was elected by the Conference of Rulers (COR) in 2011. He is currently serving his second term, having ruled from 1970 to 1975. The COR comprises the leaders of the nine Malaysian states headed by hereditary royal rulers and the governors of the four that are not. The monarchs of the COR elect kings to five-year terms; however, a precedent has now been set for the office to simply rotate between the nine state monarchs. The king has the capacity to appoint the PM in accordance with the Westminster system, whereby a head of government is selected as the person most likely to command the confidence of the lower house – the House of Representatives.

The king also has the ability dissolve parliament at the request of the PM. Lastly, while the king holds wide-ranging powers of appointment, the selections of members of the Senate, judiciary and parliamentary commissions and committees are all undertaken by the PM and often the COR.

Executive Power

Executive power lies with the PM, the PM’s Department, and the Cabinet, which comprises ministers selected by the PM from the upper and lower houses of parliament. Najib Razak is currently in office as the sixth PM of Malaysia and is also serving as minister of finance, while Ahmad Zahid Hamidi is both deputy PM and minister of home affairs. The Cabinet itself formulates development programmes and economic policy, and is also responsible for setting the annual budget. Although the body acts as an arena for the debate of all matters pertinent to national interests, it does not officially discuss the special rights of indigenous people and royal privileges. Lastly, the proposal and amendment of laws fall under the mandate of the Cabinet.

Acts Of Parliament

The bicameral Malaysian parliament consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives as the upper and lower houses of Parliament, respectively. The latter has 222 seats, and members of parliament (MPs) are elected for five-year terms in a first-past-the-post (FPTP) system in individual constituencies.

This has in some instances delivered a degree of incongruity between the number of seats a party wins and its share of the popular vote. In 2013, for example, 133 deputies were elected from the ruling BN, despite the leading opposition group, the PR, claiming 50.87% of the vote. As of February 2016 the BN coalition party held 132 seats in the DR, including 88 for UMNO, 14 for the PBB, seven for the MCA, three for the MIC, and two for Gerakan; minor parties made up the remainder of the total. The 72 seats held by the PH comprised 37 for DAP, 29 for the PKR and six for the PAN. Of the other opposition parties, the PAS had the largest representation with 14 seats, while other small parties and independents held four seats in total. The House of Representatives has the responsibility of passing, amending or repealing acts of law, with members debating and voting on bills and amendments forwarded by the government, the opposition or individual MPs. Bills must be approved by the DR before becoming law. The Senate has 70 senators, 26 of whom are elected by the 13 state legislative assemblies, with the remainder appointed by the king. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong executes this responsibility on the advice of the PM, and 35 of his 44 senatorial appointments in the Senate as of 2016 are members of the BN. Senators serve terms of three years, with one opportunity for re-election. The Senate reviews legislation passed by the DR and may return it for reconsideration, though this can only delay passage for a maximum of one year, in which case the bill is passed to the king for approval.

State Authority

The Senate was envisaged as a check on centralisation, ensuring that the interests of the federal states are represented in parliament. Each of the 13 states has its own, single-chamber state assembly, with deputies elected for five-year terms using an FPTP system. These elections are held at the same time as general elections, except in Sarawak, which has its next election in 2016. The state government, headed by a chief minister, is formed from the party or coalition able to win a vote of confidence from the state assembly. The federal territories of Labuan, Putrajaya and Kuala Lumpur do not have state assemblies but are instead administered by the Ministry of Federal Territories.

The powers of state assemblies vary, often according to the original terms under which the state joined the federation. Sarawak and Sabah therefore have two of the most independent state assemblies, and their state governments maintain significant control over issues regarding land, settlement and indigenous affairs. Local governments serve beneath the state assembly level as the lowest tier of government. These bodies are led by civil servants appointed by the state government in rural districts and municipalities, while mayors are appointed in cities.

In administrative terms, local government jurisdictions reflect district boundaries in rural areas, but this is not the case in urban areas as areas of jurisdiction for municipalities and cities often extend past district lines. Districts themselves have no political or administrative body of their own.

Rule O f Law

The Malaysian legal system is based on English common law, with Islamic and native customary law forming important pillars. The Federal Court, as the highest court, is headed by the chief justice, which is currently Arifin Zakaria. The court may hear appeals from the Court of Appeal in both civil and criminal matters. Beneath the Court of Appeal lies the High Courts, of which there are two – one for Peninsular Malaysia and the other for East Malaysia. The High Courts can preside over civil and criminal cases, although matters concerning Islamic law, which are generally related to familial issues, are heard in sharia courts. These only hold jurisdiction over Muslims and in matters which carry a maximum of three years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to RM5000 ($1237.7) or six strokes of the cane. Subordinate to the High Courts are the Magistrates’ Courts and Sessions Courts, while native courts in Sabah and Sarawak have authority over local laws and customs.


While for much of Malaysia’s post-independence history, the ruling coalition has included majority parties from each of the country’s main ethnic groups, recent elections have highlighted growing levels of polarisation, with opposition parties increasingly winning votes from ethnic Chinese and Indian voters particularly. At the same time, disquiet has been developing within UMNO, with the resignation of Mahathir Mohamad a clear indication of this. Allegations of corruption and political interference in legal due process have tarnished the image of the BN and its leadership abroad, while also creating uncertainty at home. However, with the departure of the PAS from its ranks the main opposition group has shown signs of fragmentation, too.

Nevertheless, Malaysia has proven to be resilient, particularly with regard to its economy, an area which continues to engender unity between the political parties in their desire for further expansion. Foreign investment is especially welcome, and Malaysia can draw on a long history of trade and commerce, combined with its entrepreneurial acumen, to maintain growth and economic stability for years to come.

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