Spotlight - Malaysia: March 12, 2024

Malaysia’s parliament held its first session of the year on February 26. In his opening speech, the new king, Sultan Ibrahim Iskandar, demanded that members of parliament refrain from political plotting and instead focus on legislation. The king, who is one of Malaysia’s richest men with an estimated fortune of $5.7 billion, emphasized his determination to fight against corruption. The same day, Bersih (literally: clean), the coalition for free and fair elections created in 2007, called for a demonstration to demand that the government act on its promise for reform and criticized the recent decision to pardon former prime minister Najib Razak and the acquittal of Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi on charges of corruption. Despite the king’s support, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s honeymoon with civil society is over.

In 2016, Bersih led a wave of contestation against then-prime minister Najib Razak and his implication in the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) scandal that eventually contributed to the end of the 61-year monopoly on power held by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and a change in government in 2018. Bersih’s demands for clean elections, clean government, the strengthening of parliamentary democracy, and the right to dissent aligned with the agenda of the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition. Bersih and all its partners have long been associated, albeit informally, with Anwar’s party Keadilan (PKR) and its allies, including the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). Since Anwar took over the government in November 2022, Bersih and most civil society organizations have been less critical as they had been under previous administrations, torn between their de-facto historical alliance with PH and the government’s failure to implement its reform agenda. After Bersih called for Malaysians to assemble, the police responded by sending a warning to protesters stating that the demonstration was illegal. Lawyers for Liberty (LFL) and other civil rights organisations have condemned the government for its authoritarian move against its own supporters and allies. 

In the past, government attempts at legal and judiciary interference with rallies led to the arrests of Bersih organizers, including former member of parliament Maria Chin Abdullah in 2015 and 2016 and lawyer Ambiga Sreenevasan in 2015, a ban of black and yellow t-shirts (the colors of Bersih protests), traffic gridlock, accusations against Bersih for being linked to communist groups, as well as the dissemination of Friday sermons drafted by state authorities implicitly warning against participation in rallies. The Bersih coalition was finally allowed to protest in late February, with over 100 people walking to the parliament. However, no opposition sympathizers were present. 

The democratic motto is not part of the opposition Perikatan Nasional (PN) coalition’s agenda unless it suits them. While PH supporters and civil society reproach Anwar’s government for its inaction in reform, PN and the Malay majority give priority to the urgency of the economic situation and the drop of the Malaysian ringgit against the U.S. dollar. The link between good governance and economic stability is obliterated. Discussions about climate change, the future of capitalism and the development of alternative non-capitalist economic systems that are more inclusive, the rebalancing of the economy, and responding to the multiple crises that Malaysia faces society is facing are scarce, in any party. Capitalist patriarchy is the only system valued and promoted by most across the political spectrum, with the exception of the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM).

The argument for democracy and human rights is rarely part of PN’s discourse as the coalition believes that the two concepts are in contradiction to Islam and Malay rights. Malay rights are the privileges accorded to the Malay majority and indigenous groups (as defined in article 153 of the Federal Constitution). They both are considered the original inhabitants of the country and form a super-category called Bumiputera— the term is not defined in the Federal Constitution—while Chinese and Indian minorities, albeit present in the country as early as 15th century, are still defined by their ethnicity and often pointed as “pendatang” (migrants). Malaysia has developed a comprehensive set of affirmative action policies since the late 1970s. Policies of preferential development, where economic measures clearly and systematically favor the majority, only exist in three countries in the world—in South Africa and Fiji, these policies were created to redress historical prejudices. While Malays have not suffered systematic oppression by the country’s minorities, the national narrative argues that their status and position should be “preserved” and their identity “protected.”

In this scheme of thought, it is commonly believed the concept of human rights directly clash with the Malay majority’s position or Islamic principles. Good governance and democracy are viewed as the rhetoric of a westernized liberal civil society far removed from the everyday needs of the Malay community. In the past and particularly during the Mahathir era, democracy was associated with Western values in opposition to Asian values.  

In absence of civic education, information and education on government affairs, political systems and regimes, and human rights remain scarce. Political education and political propaganda are often confused, and Malaysia is not immune to the global phenomenon of the erosion of citizen’s rights, rising inequality, and fading trust in political systems. Reforming school and university curricula and supporting the actions and listening to the criticism of democratic organizations like Bersih should indeed be among the top priorities of the Anwar government. 

Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.