A Malaysian Spring?

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WHEN will the ‘Malaysia Spring’ be? The next elections,” said Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, answering his own question during a recent media interview. The reference was to the “Arab Spring”, a pro-democracy movement that has brought down several authoritarian governments in the Arab world this year.

Malaysia has witnessed important political changes since 2008, when voters denied the ruling national front coalition government its traditional two-thirds majority in Parliament. Just last month, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced his intention to lift curbs on the media and repeal two controversial security laws. National elections are not due until April 2013. But Datuk Seri Najib is widely expected to call them early next year.

The idea that Malaysia – and South- east Asia in general – is experiencing profound political change is certainly beguiling.

Elections in Singapore in May saw opposition parties make landmark gains. And in July, a political party supporting former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was elected to power in Thailand despite strong opposition from the conservative forces that backed his ouster in a military coup in 2006. Meanwhile, a military-backed government in Myanmar has recently freed hundreds of political prisoners, postponed construction of a controversial dam and showed signs of renewing dialogue with pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

Datuk Seri Anwar’s attempt to link recent developments in the Arab world with events in Malaysia may be self-serving. But he isn’t the only one to have made the connection.

Several other government critics have seen the recent reforms announced by Mr Najib in a similar light. Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, a member of the executive committee of Hakam, a human rights organisation founded by two former prime ministers, commented: “I think they (the government) freaked out because of the Arab Spring happening at the same time.”

Foreign commentators have made a similar point. Writing in the Business Standard (an Indian daily newspaper) on Nov 7, former Pakistani finance minister Shahid Javed Burki said he believed that Malaysia, together with Indonesia and Pakistan, formed part of a group of non-Arab Muslim-majority countries outside the Middle East likely to be influenced by developments in the Arab world.

A closer look at the situation in South- east Asia, however, suggests that such statements need to be treated with caution. The fact that many important political changes in the region pre-date the Arab Spring certainly makes it difficult to argue that opposition groups have taken their cue from it.

Unlike their Arab counterparts, South-east Asians do not share a single language or religion that could facilitate communication and cooperation among opposition groups. And while countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines may have their shortcomings, they are far more democratic that those in the Middle East. They are certainly less inclined to use the sort of deadly force that triggered many of the uprisings in the Arab world.

Moreover, it is these South-east Asian nations – rather than more authoritarian South-east Asian states such as Vietnam and Brunei – where political change has been most noticeable. Myanmar may appear to be an exception, but it is interesting to note that its reform agenda is being dictated by the government rather than by popular pressure.

Ms Ambiga, who is also chairman of Bersih, a Malaysian organisation advocating political reform, put it well: “We (members of the reform movement) are nothing like the Arab Spring,” she told Radio Australia in a recent interview. “The problems (in the Middle East) are vastly different from what we’re facing”. Bersih, she continued, was not seeking to overthrow the government. It simply wanted free and fair elections.

This, of course, is not to say that Malaysian opposition groups cannot expect to experience at least some of the benefits of the Arab Spring. The fact that opposition groups in the Arab world have successfully overthrown several hated governments could invigorate at least some opposition supporters.

Several of Malaysia’s business leaders also appear to be paying attention. Speaking at a seminar in Seri Kembangan, Selangor on Nov 5, former Malaysian Airlines chairman Munir Abdul Majid told his audience that the greatest challenge facing the world today was “political change management”. Referring specifically to the Arab Spring, he noted that “politicians don’t know how to manage change properly”, adding that Malaysia still had a long way to go in realising its goals.

In an apparent reference to Mr Najib’s 1Malaysia slogan, a much-criticised national motto that professes equality for all, he also noted: “Sometimes Malaysia is good at sloganeering, but not execution.”

How the government in Kuala Lumpur deals with these issues, rather than any flow-on effect from political developments in the Arab states, will determine the outcome of Malaysia’s next general election.

Copyright Singapore Press Holdings, 2011

Key Political Risks

Now that the general assembly of UMNO, the senior partner in the ruling National Front coalition government, is over, the long-awaited general election could be held at any time. Constitutionally, Prime Minister Najib Razak has to call elections before April 21st 2012, after which the Elections Commission must hold the election within 60 days.

Widely expected to be the most hotly contested in Malaysian history, the polls will pit Mr Najib's government against a rival political coalition led by charismatic opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. 

While the opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance attacks what is says are the corrupt and authoritarian ways of the government, Mr Najib has been describing the opposition coalition as an unnatural alliance of Islamic fundamentalists and multi-ethnic and liberal parties.

The strong economy is likely to favour the government.


  • The size of the expected government victory, particularly the ability of the ruling party to retake control of key states such as Selangor. Mr Najib needs to win convincingly if he is to implement long-delayed economic reforms. These include reducing oil and food subsidies and introducing a goods and services tax to boost government revenue.
  • The ability of Mr Najib to placate conservative elements of his Muslim-based UMNO party who disapprove of his policy of boosting national unity through greater inter-faith and ethnic tolerance.
  • The extent to which the government is able to convince the public that the coming elections will be free and fair. If the election result is close, influential organisation such as Bersih could declare them illegitimate, and stage major protests.

About Me

My name is Dr Bruce Gale and I am a senior writer with the Singapore Straits Times. I studied at  LaTrobe University (BA Hons) in Melbourne and later at the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University (MA). My PhD thesis, which focussed on Malaysian political economy, was completed at the Malaysian National University (Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia) in 1987.

From 1988 to 2003 I was Singapore Regional Manager for the Hong Kong based Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC). 

I have written several books and articles on Southeast Asian affairs, including Political Risk and International Business: Case Studies in Southeast Asia (Pelanduk Publications, 2007). Books on language include Mastering Indonesian: a guide to reading Indonesian language newspapers (Pelanduk Publications, 2008)

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