Political Turmoil in Malaysia

Interviewee: Bridget Welsh, Assistant Professor, Southeast Asian Studies, John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies
Interviewer: Jayshree Bajoria, Staff Writer, CFR.org
September 30, 2008

Malaysia has been in a political flux since March 2008 when the long-governing multiethnic coalition lost its two-thirds majority in the parliament. The biggest party in the coalition, United Malays National Organization, has ruled Malaysia for fifty-one years, first under the leadership of Mahathir Mohamad, and since 1993, under current Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi. But recently, calls for Abdullah’s resignation (BBC) have grown louder and the opposition under Anwar Ibrahim has been claiming power.

Bridget Welsh, assistant professor of Southeast Asian studies at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, says Abdullah’s failure to implement reforms, to control his party effectively, and to deal with racial relations have led to calls for his resignation. She says Abdullah has alienated most of the minorities in the country, mainly the Indians and the Chinese, who contributed to the ruling coalition’s electoral upset in March. These two groups, which make up one-third of Malaysia’s 27 million people, resent the government’s decades-old policy that gives preferential treatment to ethnic Malays, and the lack of religious freedom in the Muslim-majority country. Now they have moved toward the opposition, says Welsh, allowing it to offer a “multiethnic alternative” to the current coalition.

Under Abdullah’s leadership, Malaysia’s position in Southeast Asia as well as the Islamic world has declined, says Welsh. She says Malaysia’s former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad put the country on the international stage. “Some of that was controversial, some of that was alienating to the West, but it fundamentally gave Malaysians a sense of pride.” But now, she says, Malaysian foreign policy is reactive and lacks coherence.

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