Malaysia is a country in South East Asia with a population of other 32 million people and a land area of around 330,000 square kilometres. Malaysia is unique amongst the nations of South East Asia in a number of respects. Malaysia was created in the 20th Century out of what were British colonies, and the area it encompasses, and the diverse range of people who live it, often has little shared history except for the fact that they were all under the rule of the British Empire. The Muslim majority of the country accounts for only slightly over 60% of the population and there are underlying tensions around ethnicity and religion which impact on the cohesiveness of the social structure. Nonetheless, the country’s economic success has provided massive benefits to the people of Malaysia and in part explains why the country functions despite these social divisions.
History of Malaysia
Malaysia came into existence as a separate political entity in 1957 with the establishment of a fully independent Federation of Malaya, which encompasses what is now Peninsula Malaysia or West Malaysia as it is also known. North Borneo and Singapore joined the Federation of Malaya in 1963 when they too were granted independence from Britain, and at point the Federation of Malaya changed its name to simply Malaysia. Singapore left the federation to become a separate independent state in 1965, although the states of North Borneo remained and are now commonly referred to as East Malaysia.
The history of the areas that would eventually form Malaysia is long and diverse. There is some common history, but until the British Empire took full control of the area, each part of the future Malaysia was ruled independently and there was little sense of people being part of the same nation in the same sense that there was across Germany or Italy prior to their achieving nationhood. Indeed, until 1909 four of the states in the northern part of West Malaysia were formally of neighbouring Siam (Thailand). For hundreds of year the rest of the country had been ruled either independent Sultanates or colonial powers.
It was the desire to be independent of the British rule that brought these diverse states together; freedom from colonial rule was the driving force behind the development of a Malaysian national identity. This divided history has been a guiding principle in determining the governmental structure of the modern nation, which gives a wide range of devolved powers to regional government and for different laws to apply to different religious groups.
Democracy in Malaysia
Malaysia is divided into 13 states and three federal territories. Each state has its own legislative assembly with wide ranging powers over the administration of government within that region. At the national level there is is a bicameral legislative assembly with a fully elected lower house and an upper house, Senate, where about two-thirds of the members of appointed. The Head of State is Malaysia’s King. The King is appointed by the 9 royal families of West Malaysia from amongst themselves to serve a term of 5 years. The King’s role in politics is for the larger part ceremonial, although at certain crucial points, for instance when elections have not resulted in it being clear who should hold the office of Prime Minister, the King of Malaysia takes on an enormously important role in Malaysian politics.
Since independence, Malaysian politics have been dominated by a single coalition, first the Alliance Party, and then the ideologically very similar Barisan Nasional. This dominance was only briefly ended in 2018 with a short lived new alliance, the Pakatan Harapan, won the general election. For this reason party politics has mattered less than power struggles between the members of the long running Alliance Party/Barisan Nasional.
For many foreign observers and Malaysian critics the existence of a ‘One Party’ state has given rise to very high level of corruption evident the high level of inequality of wealth in Malaysia and the recent allegations of massive corruption by former Prime Minster Najib Razak. Malaysia is a difficult country to govern because of the many different ethnic identities and the geography of the country, but there are also good reasons to believe that the political system itself is not fit for purpose particularly in terms of lacking what political scientists call ‘checks and balances’ on the exercise of political power in Malaysia.