The Intricacies of Malaysian Democracy

Updated: Mar 4, 2019


A product of its colonial history, the government in Malaysia is based on the Westminster system to this day. As a federal representative democratic constitutional monarchy, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is head of state and the Prime Minister of Malaysia acts as head of government. The system of government and its respective bodies operate around the Constitution of Malaysia. As established by the Federal Constitution, the framework has three main administrative bodies of government consisting of the Executive, Judiciary and Legislative branch. The executive power which is exercised by the federal government and 13 state governments has the authority and holds responsibility for the governance of the state. In addition, the judiciary is independent of the executive and legislature. However, the executive maintains a certain level of influence via the appointment of judges to courts. The Legislative branch of the government consists of the Parliament which is divided into two parts the Dewan Negara (Upper House/Senate) and the Dewan Rakyat (Lower House/House of Representatives). The Malaysian Parliament has three functions; representing the electorate, making laws, and overseeing the government through hearings and inquiries.


Since Malaysia’s first direct election of the Federal Legislative Council of Malaya in 1955, it has operated under a multi-party system. From 1973 onwards the Alliance Party (Parti Perikatan) coalition acted as the ruling party, with its successor the Barisan Nasional (National Front) carrying on its long legacy. Along with its predecessor the Barisan Nasional (BN) government has ruled Malaysia for 61 years making it one of the world’s longest serving government. However, in the historic 14th general election of 2018 BN’s long reign as the ruling party unexpectedly came to an end. In an intense electoral struggle that gripped the nation, Barisan Nasional lost power to the Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition. Currently, the Pakatan Harapan (PH) coalition is comprised of the People’s Justice Party (PKR), Democratic Action Party (DAP), National Trust Party (Amanah) and the Malaysian United Indigenous Party (Bersatu) with Sabah Heritage Party (Warisan) as confidence and supply partner. As it stands today, the PH coalition acts as the ruling party while oppositional forces include BN, Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and other smaller parties.


Despite its electoral success in the 14th general election, the PH government headed by PM Mahathir Mohammad faces an unending series of challenges ahead. The once oppositional leaders (with the exception of Mahathir and a few ministers) now find themselves in the positions of those they have long criticised and with little to no experience in the governance of Malaysia. The PH government has found it increasingly difficult to uphold its promises outlined in its 14thgeneral election manifesto. At its current pace, some researchers have estimated that it would take the PH government 41 years to honour all its promises. However, it has upheld some of its promises such as the abolishment of GST, the stabilisation of oil prices, the formation of the Royal Commissions of Inquiry on 1MDB, FELDA, MARA and Tabung Haji, and reformed the governance of these bodies. It has also introduced the ‘Skim Peduli Sihat’ since 1st of January 2019 which aims to provide and improve the Cost of Living Aid for the B40 group with more targeted assistance. Nonetheless, it is clear that while members of the PH government have successfully ended the long reign of Barisan Nasional, it must grapple with the difficulties of governance and staying in power.


Throughout BN’s years serving the country, the party has extensively influenced the course of development of Malaysia and its politics today. The legacy it has left behind is still a subject of controversy among the Malaysian public, arguably leading to topics such as corruption and racial tensions being at the forefront of Malaysian political discourse. The political party has produced a number of notable (and controversial) figures such as the 4th and current (7th) Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and the previous 6th Prime Minister Najib Razak. Although Malaysian politics has been relatively stable, critics have pointed to the Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)which scores Malaysia at 6.88, classifying it as a ‘flawed democracy’. Malaysian politics has been scarred with corruption scandals such as the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal and the Murder of Shaariibuugiin Altantuyaa case. However, its peaceful transition of power during the 14th general election has earned Malaysia praise from the international community with foreign media such as Forbes calling it “…a peaceful-and remarkable-transition of power” and Malaysia holding the runner up position in the Economist 2018 ‘Country of the Year’. For the Malaysian public, politics has never been as volatile, with questions still swirling around the world’s biggest financial scandal as well as the power transition deal between PM Mahathir Mohammad and Pakatan Rakyat leader Anwar Ibrahim. In addition, rising racial tensions threaten to divide the country further. All that remains certain for Malaysian politics appears to be more turbulence.

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