Mar 10

The National Flag of MalaysiaMalaysia is a great country! Unspoiled beaches, excellent diving spots, mountains surrounded by misty fog, exotic fauna and flora and a healthy, vast rain forest are attracting plenty of visitors. Islands like Pulau Langkawi, Tioman, Penang, the Perhentians or locations like Genting Highlands have a legendary reputation with travelers.

The country embraced tourism already many years ago and the slogan “Malaysia – truly Asia” will ring in your ears forever; once you saw the mesmerizing advertising campaigns on CNN, BBC or other global TV stations.

However, Malaysia’s politics were never that idyllic and recent years were no exception:

What happened so far?

When Dr. Mahathir Mohamad finally stepped down in 2003, after ruling the country with an iron fist for the last 22 years, their was a lot of hope in the country.

Don’t get me wrong!

He did everything he could and invested his heart blood to bring the country forward despite its huge diversity in culture, people and ethnic minorities. Together with Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore he was one of the longest-serving leaders in Asia and the healthy competition between both countries did a lot to improve the standard of living of ordinary Malaysians.

But he also made his mistakes. No doubt and nothing to stress too much.

Where there is progress, there are mistakes to be made. Mahathir’s career from a Banana Fritter seller to an influential and well-respected Prime Minister of many years is nothing but astonishing. His controversial handling of the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 90’s brought him not only criticism but much earned respect from business and political leaders around the world.

Some regulations like the Bumiputra policies (favoring native Malaysians over foreigners, even if Malaysian-born), subtle anti-semitism and racism, increasing corruption and cronyism, suppression of the opposition and the manipulation of Malaysia’s independent juridical system were just a few points many people believed would change for the better when finally a successor was found and elected.

Malaysia's current PM Abdullah BadawiWhen Mr Abdullah Badawi took office in 2003 he did that with the promise of fighting and reducing corruption, re-uniting the diverse population under a more gentle and moderate form of Islam (Islam Hadhari), pro-democratic and multi-religious, which supports modern development as well as economic and technological advancements while not neglecting traditions and the Muslim heritage.

The first free election after him becoming Prime Minister, showed that he had a good start, delivering him a landslide victory by winning almost 90% of seats for his party. He released political prisoners of the opposition like Anwar Ibrahim (who was accused of ‘sodomy’ and corruption charges during the Mahathir years) and tried to privatize Malaysian state-owned companies (like Proton, Malaysia Airlines), which had until then almost monopolies in the country, but were in dire state (low quality, high prices) due to being too content and lack of competition.

A programme was developed to move the industrial and agricultural sector up the value chain, to be able to compete better with cheaper-labor neighbors like India or China.

Everything climaxed on 31th of August 2007 in the celebrations of Malaysia’s 50 years of nationhood – with Abdullah Badawi standing in the front row and shouting “Merdeka!” on Merdeka Square, Kuala Lumpur.

Everything looked so well – so what went wrong?

Of course there was one controversy or the other from time to time. Here just a few examples: after some high-profile arrests a less transparent effort towards corruption, some political moves which looked like favoritism (especially concerning his son-in-law being moved into influential positions within the ruling party), the appointed judge scandal, the silencing of critics and not favorable voices in the media or blogging community.

Business Discrimination - a result of Bumiputra policiesSome latest problems included the political uprising of the Indian minority starting last October, who felt suppressed by Bumiputra policies, being unable to reach high-profile positions in business and politics, allowing them only a lower standard of living compared to the regular Malaysian, even though they were born here or lived here in the 2nd or 3rd generation already.

As well there was growing influence of clerics and more extreme figures, who tried to pull the country to a more Islamic direction, even proposing the introduction of Sharia Law and the call for stronger adaption of Arabic rules and policies. There is an increasing number of Islam-related violence in the country.

There were cases like the dis-allowance of people who wanted to change their religion away from Islam (even though the other way around is surely possible and – of course – encouraged). Ex-Muslims who changed their religion and even their new churches were harassed, prosecuted or trialled. Interreligious marriages which were not allowed or the ‘snatched corpse’ scandal, of ethnic Chinese Gan Eng Kor, who was buried under Muslim Law were all the rage in the media and public discussion.

Although these cases received huge coverage in local and foreign media – they didn’t do much to bring the country together.

The constant calls for respect from Malay Muslims, while not respecting the cultures and heritage of other minorities did the country no good as well.

Mr. Badawi was obviously not seeing the signs or was too weak or unwilling to tackle the mentioned issues.

Meanwhile the economy didn’t perform so well either, as besides some cosmetics there was no real development in aligning the country to the challenges of modern economics and globalization.

The local currency Ringgit is still not internationalized, neither Proton, Malaysia Airlines or other conglomerates are fully privatized or face real competition, to get a high-ranking business position one has to be native Malaysian, Trade Volume and Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) in this former ‘Asian Tiger country’ are currently stagnating (increase of only 2% in 2007).

What can be done?

Malaysia has a lot of potential and with its modern infrastructure, Free Trade Efforts and strong Business Environment should easily pull ahead of its Asian Neighbors.

Modern Kuala Lumpur - Petronas TowersBut the situation for the ordinary people in the country has to improve as well. In business as in religious issues. Also in the urban areas – not only in Kuala Lumpur or Cyberjaya. This can’t be done by encouraging protectionism, religious divide and favoritism of a certain group of the population.

Having worked with Malaysian Companies as customers or suppliers for 3 years – I only got a small glimpse on what is hindering them of speeding ahead; long decision cycles, endless negotiations over countless hierarchy levels, neglection of business opportunities, if one partner doesn’t have the right faith or party book, negligence or lax stand towards arranged appointments or project milestones, content and slow attitude of ‘Bumiputra’ suppliers and business partners, as there wasn’t really a serious competitor allowed.

I can only salute the Malaysian people for showing their understanding of the situation and the need for competition – by voting for the opposition parties and taking away the comfortable two-thirds majority in parliament. The people have spoken.

Time for malayziness is over!

It doesn’t look though, like Mr. Badawi got the message to its full extent, as he claimed to simply continue his path unshattered. The Stock Markets saw that as well and tumbled down – just today – by a shocking 10%; simply saved by the daily limit.

From an outside view – far from perfect – one can only offer the next obvious steps:

  • Scrap those ancient Bumiputra rules and give every potential business man or politician the opportunity to bring the country forward, towards a modern, competitive Asian society.
  • Limit the influence of extreme Clerics and Sharia Defenders – Malaysia is not the Middle East. Do it your own way! Complete and constitutionalized Religious Freedom is the way to go.
  • Embrace the multitude of cultures and religions of diverse Malaysia in a serious way, those are colorful additions and advantages the country has; not a hindrance. In its tourism campaigns, Malaysia portrays itself rightfully as a modern country and paved the way for other Asian nations, who still look in envy and disbelief at it. Indonesia doesn’t even has an internationally recognized campaign. So that worked very well. Why not apply the lessons learned from those campaigns to the whole business sector and politics alike?
  • Learn from your neighbors and other ASEAN countries, how to improve business climate and economic framework in a way that attracts FDI (Foreign Direct Investments) and increase middle-class business. Hint: Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore (sorry to mention it, fellow Malaysians; but even Dr. Mahathir noticed) lead the way here.
  • Privatize further and make your state-owned lethargic companies competitive; by bringing in new people based on skills, talent and management record – not nationality or party book
  • Allow foreign businesses to contract directly with the government, without having to team up with a state-owned (bumi) company.
  • Embrace the necessary changes and give your youth a chance. Young Malaysian are willing to take up responsibility and pull the rudder in a more modern direction. That doesn’t mean you have to give up your heritage and disregard the ideas and concepts of the elders. Modern ways and changes only come by embracing the ‘Winds of Change’. Of course Badawi can rule without a two-thirds majority, as he stated already, but by closing ones eyes and neglecting the signs, you won’t notice the decreasing numbers of your followers and again – will not see it coming next time around.

One can only wonder (or wait and see?) if the ruling party got the message from the Elections, fortunately there are some promising signs. But words are not enough and we will will find out soon enough.

What is your take on the current stand of Malaysia, especially after the Elections? Will the people be heard, the lessons learned and the policies adapted? Or are we seeing a further drift to protectionism and religious unrest? Please comment, add and criticize freely using the comment form below!

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written by Chris

16 Responses to “A Word about Malaysian Politics and the surprising Election Results”

  1. MikeNo Gravatar CHINA Says:

    Great article. I met a Chinese-Malaysian guy going to Penang and he gave me a great introduction to Malaysian politics. Discriminating policies can only do the country more harm than good. Anyway, Malaysia is a great place to travel to. Visas are free, 3-months, great food, nice food and there is even some order to the place unlike its other SE Asian neighbours.

  2. ChrisNo Gravatar INDONESIA Says:

    I feel the same about Malaysia, Mike. It’s a beautiful country with lots of potential. Traveled there numerous times north and south, east and west. I just hope they concentrate on their strengths and move the country in the best possible direction.

  3. MOnNo Gravatar PHILIPPINES Says:

    Oh, that cannot be compared to the Philippines. Our president is actually selling us to China.

  4. Global Voices Online » Malaysia: Malaysian Political History UNITED STATES Says:

    […] has written a comprehensive post on Malaysian political history leading up to the recent elections. Share […]

  5. WormieNo Gravatar SINGAPORE Says:

    I think the problem with UMNO is its feeling of insecurity with itself. The Malays most probably can already stand up for itsefl economically as reflected by the fairly large number of high profile post with multinational companies especially those based overseas. The next step is actually to use this people as the model so that the less able can emulate them. Instead, UMNO chose to ignore all this and continue with archaic rhetorics, kris-welding theatherics. The middle class created by UMNO has now turned towards PKR and PAS more as a protest rather than abandonment of UMNO. How else can you explain the loss of Selandor and Perak, two states with Malay majority and few of the most economically advanced in the country. The Malay electorates have progressed but UMNO had not. UMNO needs to have more confidence in itself. Fight the next election on a national basis and not on ethnic-based basis like in the just concluded election.

  6. cherwithNo Gravatar MALAYSIA Says:

    Well said. As a Malaysian myself I feel that the country need to come out of the box, look beyond racial lines. They have took a step forward by doing that during the latest elections which is a very positive sign. But a lot of work needs to be done for a better Malaysia. I think we have to power to change it..its just a matter of time….the Opposition run of these 5 states for the this term will determine what happens next…

  7. devariNo Gravatar UNITED STATES Says:

    Malaysian tourism? hmmm not so ‘clean’. They claimed some Indonesian cultures to be theirs, some traditional dances from Java. Also they stole Indonesian song, claiming that the song is originally theirs.

    what about rumors saying that the bali bombing was the creation of (censored) in order to destroy Bali tourism?

  8. ChrisNo Gravatar INDONESIA Says:

    Thanks for all the more in-depth additions!

    Devari – there is an age-old feud between Malaysia and Indonesia. Due to many similarities in culture, race, language, region over time there are surely overlappings in culture and other topics. One can say the same things of Indonesia and other countries. Everyone would like to claim success and the good things, so there will be always disputes. I wouldn’t bet too much on rumors. What did you censor out there? What we know today is that the Bali bombers and master minds included both countries.

  9. cathyNo Gravatar AUSTRALIA Says:

    “Truly Asia” is one title Malaysia can lay claim to. It’s doing them good in a number of areas in their national profile like tourism and culture, but is doing lots of damage in their social order and political stability :( hope Malaysians can pull it through their tough times

  10. anonymousNo Gravatar UNITED STATES Says:

    Malaysia is a country where the prime minister is also the finance minister as well as the minister for internal security act (ISA). What do you guys think about the same person holding 3 important position in the cabinet?

  11. lankapoNo Gravatar MALAYSIA Says:

    another rumors
    the opposition will rule the country when 30 MP’s make a cross over :)

    Pak Lah is in big trouble now, everybody seem to attack him now

  12. Long Plea about Corruption, Freedom of Speech and Indonesia’s road towards ‘real’ Democracy | nomad4ever UNITED STATES Says:

    […] riots, which happened many times before. Recently it looks like the country is shifting more in the direction of Malaysia, with efforts to put Sharia and other more extreme Islamic practices into place. The upside is that […]

  13. NonaNo Gravatar MALAYSIA Says:

    Ewww… your article sounds harsh for me, MALAYSIA wants to be a developed country differently that those in Europe or USA.

    You must stay in Malaysia much longer before give your suggestions about how to make Malaysia a better country.

    Races sentiments are very strong here…..

  14. ChrisNo Gravatar INDONESIA Says:

    Nona, for sure I can only give an outsider view on the subject. I believe, that sometimes it helps to step back a bit and look at the situation from a different perspective. That doesn’t mean of course, that this is the only way. ;-)

  15. roshamNo Gravatar MALAYSIA Says:

    i like the points stated up there….trust mi, i have been here for afew yrs n i can say, if they only do away with the bumputri crap…..their vision 2020 will come as soon as the year 2012…
    n its true…malaysia, u r NOT the middle east….no need for tht sharye law thingy….infact they should just get a neutral race to run the government coz chances of anatha race comming in is a chance to revenge unless the leader is truely looking into fixing this country.
    n’way, am just brainstorming here……chao

  16. ChrisNo Gravatar INDONESIA Says:

    rosham, agree. Bumiputra is probably the most openly visible and official form of racism in Asia. But hey, they will find out eventually that it just doesn’t work in the long run. Talent will leave if it feels that it is discriminated and all that will be left are the lazy cronies you just want to suck the country dry to fill their own pockets with little or no effort. :D

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