March 27, 2009: Dr. Pek Koon Heng and Dr. Bridget Welsh

(Click to Enlarge) Dr. Pek Koon Heng and Dr. Bridget Welsh describe the challenges facing Malaysia

Change, Continuity or Crisis? Malaysia at a Crossroads

(Washington D.C.) March 27– On March 26, Malaysia’s United Malays National Organization (UMNO) elected Najib Tun Razak as president, ushering in a new era of Malaysian politics. In an East-West Center in Washington Democracy & Human Rights Seminar, Dr. Pek Koon Heng of American University and Dr. Bridget Welsh of Johns Hopkins University examined the political dynamics in Malaysia and addressed ongoing governance, constitutional, and human rights concerns.


Many have argued that Malaysia’s government is on the brink of crisis and that the country is in danger of becoming a failed state. Neither speaker agreed with this assessment, arguing that while the country and its political system face serious challenges, the Malaysian people have often shown a great capacity to weather crises. The UMNO leadership transition will bring some of these challenges to the forefront, highlighting the changes, continuities, and crises that Malaysia will face in the near future.


The most important change that Malaysia faces in the near-term is a generational change in the leadership of the UMNO, as a group of politicians who matured during the Mathahir period take the helm. Dr. Welsh explained that these leaders believe in promoting the supremacy of their party, protecting the rights of native Malays, and are not averse to curbing civil liberties. This new generation is generally believed to be corrupt, insecure and factionalized, and unlikely to stray too far from the party line. The leading coalition, which includes the UMNO, is also facing a serious challenge in the next election from the opposition party, which Dr. Heng noted is receiving a great deal of support from a younger generation of Malaysians who are becoming increasingly active politically.


Despite the political changes, many aspects of Malaysian politics are expected to remain the same. UNMO’s new president Najib Tun Razak will have to address the continuing concerns that the Malaysian people have about corruption in politics and the governance of their country. Dr. Heng noted that only 41% of Malaysians believe that he will be a good prime minister. To win the trust of the people, she argued that he will have to clean up his party and his own image, restoring confidence in the police, judiciary, and civil service. Dr. Welsh explained that the corruption of political leaders remains one of the key factors in the decision-making process of Malaysian voters.


Malaysia’s new leaders will also face a series of challenges, most notably that of racial division within the country. While Dr. Heng noted that Malaysians are proud of the coexistence of different ethnicities in their country, significant racial problems remain. She explained that political parties are still very much divided by race and that the government is dominated by Malays. Politics continues to be affected by racial issues: Malays worry about losing the special rights accorded to them under the constitution, Chinese fight against proposed changes in the school systems, and Indians are disturbed by recent attacks. Dr. Welsh explained that the Indian-Malay relationship has become quite bad: ethnic Indians are not well represented in the government and their interests are given insufficient attention.


Another serious challenge to Malaysia revolves around the current financial crisis. Dr. Welsh argued that rising commodity prices coupled with drops in manufacturing are leading the Malaysian economy into difficulties. She noted that the government has not yet implemented effective measures to alleviate the crisis. Dr. Welsh explained that the government will spend a lot of energy during the coming months on this crisis to the possible exclusion of other issues.


Both Dr. Welsh and Dr. Heng believe that Najib Tun Razak and the UMNO have a struggle ahead of them: upcoming elections may bring a significant shift to other parties for the first time in 60 years. Yet the decisions that the new president makes will determine the future of Malaysian politics. If he chooses the correct path, addressing economic concerns, government corruption, and ethnic alienation, there is hope for a bright future. But these are not changes that can be made overnight, and it seems that Malaysia has a bumpy road ahead of it.


Pek Koon Heng is assistant professor and coordinator for Southeast Asia at the Center for Asian Studies at American University's School of International Service. She also directs SIS's summer program on “Globalization in East Asia” in Malaysia, and is the course chair for the Insular Southeast Asia Advanced Area Studies program at the State Department's Foreign Service Institute. Dr. Heng specializes in comparative politics and international relations of East/Southeast Asia. Her current research focuses on regional integration in East/Southeast Asia, and identity politics in Malaysia. She is the author of Chinese Politics in Malaysia: A History of the Malaysian Chinese Association (Oxford University Press, 1988) and has published several book chapters on political and economic developments in Malaysia, including "The Mahathir Generation", in Welsh B., ed., Reflections: The Mahathir Years (John Hopkins University Press, 2004).


Bridget Welsh is associate professor in the Southeast Asia Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University-SAIS. Her primary research interest focuses on 20th century Southeast Asian politics. Dr. Welsh is the former chair of the Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei Studies Group and a consultant to Freedom House. She is the editor of Reflections: The Mahathir Years (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004) and co-editor with Ann Marie Murphy of Legacy of Engagement in Southeast Asia (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008). Her forthcoming books include Impressions of the Goh Chok Tong Years in Singapore (co-edited), and Reflecting on Reformasi: The Habibie Period (co-edited). Additionally, Dr. Welsh is the Asia Barometer Survey Malaysia Director and, in collaboration with the Merdeka Center, has conducted surveys of political attitudes in Malaysia to be published in a forthcoming monograph, How Malaysians Think About Politics . She is currently completing an analysis of Malaysian voting behavior and the electoral system during the last ten years and a project examining the local dynamics in elections.