Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Defining Events in Malaysian Politics

Written by johnleemk on 7:40:42 pm Feb 28, 2007.
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In politics, analysts sometimes divide the population into discrete generations. Each generation has a different political make-up, a different leaning, than the others.

This is because each generation has had a different defining moment that makes it what it is. Although there will always be outliers in any statistical distribution, these critical events shift the distribution towards particular tendencies.

In Malaysian politics, there are several defining events which I hope to revisit in future articles. To touch on them briefly, however, is something which I hope can be done in one summary without any detriment towards factual accuracy.

I think there cannot be said to have been much meaningful Malayan politics before World War II. Although the Malays were involved in the civil service and Malayans could make representations to the Federal Council, etc., they did not have any ability to jockey for power to change and shape their country's future. Even the Sultans were mere figureheads.

Thus, the first political generation in Malaya (and thus Malaysia, since meaningful politics in East Malaysia only really came about in the 1960s) was that of the post-World War II period. And what was the defining moment of this period? The Malayan Union.

The Malayan Union became a defining moment because of the massive outpouring of popular Malay sentiment against the Union. Some might present the arguments against the Union by focusing only on the aspect of Malay special rights and citizenship for non-Malays, but other issues were involved. The Sultans would now no longer be de facto but also de jure figureheads, and the states would lose their importance under the unitary Malayan Union polity.

The popular sentiment against the Union crushed it, and to this day, we are still feeling the impact of the Union on our history. Several of the elements that were key in turning the tide against the Union remain heavily influential in Malaysian politics today.

After the Union, I think the next generation could be said to have had not one but two defining moments. (As you can see, I'm going by decade here as a rough approximation for generation — if you have any better ideas for defining a generation, please let me know.) The first was the outbreak of the Malayan Emergency, which was in fact a full-fledged civil war. The second was Merdeka — independence.

The nature of the armed communist insurgency forever shaped that generation, and the politics of our country, by turning popular opinion against communism and socialism in general. Till today, people often resent a communist or socialist proposal without rationally considering it, simply because of how people were brazenly murdered and property blatantly plundered during the Emergency.

Merdeka shaped our country by forever defining the Alliance (today the Barisan Nasional) as the political coalition that won independence for the country on peaceful grounds. Even today, this is a heavy gun in BN's arsenal.

After that, for the next generation, the defining event was clearly the May 13 Incident. The communal rioting in the nation's capital seems to have forever scarred our consciousness, and remains a huge political trump card, with the ruling coalition constantly accusing the opposition parties of fomenting racial discord and threatening another May 13.

Thanks to May 13, several laws infringing on basic liberties such as freedom of speech were promulgated by the executive, without Parliament's consent. To make matters worse, most of these laws stand till today — and we are still legally under a state of emergency from May 13, allowing the government to legislate on almost any matter without referring to Parliament. May 13 did more than just define the generation that came of age in the 1960s. It has huge repercussions even today.

It is difficult to pin down any specific event in the 1970s as defining that generation, but I think one could point to the steady implementation of aggressive pro-Malay affirmative action policies as defining that generation. Thousands of qualified non-Malays were denied places in universities and public scholarships to make way for less-qualified Malays in an attempt to quickly create a Malay bourgeouis class. The heavily racial sentiment that was engendered by these policies continues to haunt the nation today.

The defining event of the 1980s should be obvious — Operation Lalang, where hundreds of political dissenters from both government and opposition ranks were jailed without detention for speaking freely against government policy. This really cemented the chilling effect of our anti-freedom of speech legislation, and till today makes people fear speaking out against any policy that they feel is wrong.

Equally obvious is the defining event of the 1990s — the Asian economic crisis and the sacking of Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. This sparked a huge movement for reformasi (reform), and led to the birth of a new opposition party, Keadilan. The 1999 general election which followed these events was marked by a Muslim religious party, PAS, becoming the largest opposition party in Parliament. Thousands of Malaysians, Malay and non-Malay, became politically involved thanks to the sacking of Anwar.

And as for this decade? Since history is in the process of being written, we cannot say for sure. It is possible that the defining event of our decade has not even occurred yet. But one might contend provisionally that the slow expansion of ketuanan Melayu to the forefront of political debate has defined this generation. The non-Malay youth of today are growing more discontent with these racial policies, and not having been exposed to the tragedy of May 13 or the Malayan Union, they are not going to back down so easily.

Perhaps, if one is an optimist, one might say that this generation could be the one that saves Malaysia and ends its dark past of racial and corrupt policies. One thing is for sure: if this generation can't make the best of what it's got to work for change, things are going to be a lot harder for the next generation to come.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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