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MALAYSIA – Struggle for Democracy Intensifies

On July 9, 2011, thousands of Malaysians defied the government ban and marched through the streets of Kuala Lumpur demanding democratic rights for the people. The march was organized in response to the clarion call issued by Bersih – 2, a coalition of 62 non-governmental organizations, who have been demanding a level playing field and free and fair elections.

The unprecedented demonstration was in defiance of the Malaysian Government which had detained many Bersih leaders in the false pretext that they were planning the violent overthrow of the Government and were preparing to wage a war against the Agong (Head of State). The Government declared Bersih-2 to be an illegal organization and, what is more, banned the use of yellow colour (the followers of Bersihwear yellow shirts). The access roads to Kuala Lumpur were closed, private buses were prevented from transporting passengers to Kuala Lumpur and those wearing yellow shirts and scarfs were detained before they reached the city.

However, the people in a rare display of courage and determination marched hand in hand and were singing “we shall overcome”. They were greeted with tear gas shells, chemical laced water cannons and police batons. The use of force, according to international human rights organizations like the Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch was “excessive”. The unprovoked attack resulted in 1670 arrests; one demonstrator, a Malay leader, Baharuddin Ahmad, died in the hospital.

Never before in the history of contemporary Malaysia has such a demonstration taken place. The demonstration represented all ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese and Indians. The only comparable show of peoples’ strength took place on November 25, 2007 when the Hindraf mobilized the Indian community in a demonstration before the British High Commission in Kuala Lumpur. It was an exclusively Indian gathering and they were protesting against the marginalization and impoverishment of the Indian community since the dawn of independence. Anwar Ibrahim, the charismatic Malaysian leader, warned the Government of a “hibiscus revolution” (hibiscus is the Malaysian national flower) if the government did not heed to popular demands and introduce far reaching democratic reforms.

Bersih stands for Coalition for Free and Fair Elections. The July demonstration was called Bersih – 2because the first was organized in 2007. The Bersih is headed by Ms. Ambiga Sreenivasan, a leading lawyer and former President of the Malaysian Bar Association. Ambiga is the recipient of the US State Department’s International Women of Courage Awards.  Recently Ambiga was awarded the honorary doctorate by her alma mater,the University of Exeter. She dedicated the award to the “brave people of Malaysia” who had overcome “fear of intimidation and harassment”. In her acceptance speech she referred to the July 9 rally and underlined the truth that “while it brought out the worst in some, it brought out the best in others and this is where our hope lies”.

Malay Political Dominance

In order to put the present crisis in perspective, it is necessary to keep in mind certain basic political realities of Malaysia. When the British extended their political influence in the Malay Peninsula in the 19thand 20thcenturies they introduced Direct Rule in the Straits Settlements and Indirect Rule in the Federated and Non-Federated Malay States. As far as the Malay states were concerned, the fiction of sovereignty was still vested in the Sultans, but the Sultans had to seek and administer the State on the advice of British Residents/Advisors whose advice was binding on all matters “except Malay religion (Islam) and customs (adat)”. What is more, the Malays were recognized as the Bhumiputras (sons of the soil). The British encouraged large scale immigration of the Chinese and the Indians for the economic development of Malaya. Before the Second World War, there was not much of an anti-British feeling; politically the country, unlike Vietnam and Indonesia, was a backwater. As the British novelist Somerset Maugham has written “Malaya was a first rate country for third rate English men”.

However, the political awakening of the Malays following the introduction of the Malayan Union proposals and the unity that they forged under the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) had far reaching consequences in the political evolution of Malaya. Not only did it compel the British to withdraw the Malayan Union proposals, but it also clearly revealed that the Malays will never surrender the pre-eminent position in Malaya. While in later years, the Malay leaders did take the co-operation of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC) in the larger interests of Malaya as a whole, the dynamic leadership of Malaysian nationalism had always come from the Malays. The ruling Alliance, later expanded into Barisan Nasional, was not an alliance of equal partners; it was an alliance in which the UMNO was the dominant partner. The Malay political supremacy continued unabated until Anwar Ibrahim raised the banner of revolt against the undemocratic and high handed policies of Dr. Mahathir. After the split in the UMNO, the non-Malay votes have become extremely important in coming to power, but unfortunately this has not resulted in any dilution of Malay pre-eminence.

Two important changes in the political system should be highlighted. While, in early years of independence, the leaders of the Chinese and the Indians – Tan Siew Sin and Sambanthan – accepted the political supremacy of the Malays without any reservation, the new generation of the Chinese and the Indians has started questioning the basis of Malay political supremacy. These Indians and Chinese  – third or fourth generation Malaysia born – resent the special rights enjoyed by the Malays and ask, with certain amount of justification, for how many more years they should live in Malaysia to enjoy equal status with the Malays. What is more, they have started questioning the rationale behind many undemocratic features of the Malaysian political system. Equally important are the leadership qualities of Malaysian Prime Ministers. While the first three Prime Ministers since independence – Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak and Hussein Onn – had overwhelming support of Malays and non-Malays, the same cannot be said about Dr. Mahathir and his political successors.

The long spell of Mahathir’s rule brought about a fundamental transformation in Malaysia.  From being a producer of primary commodities, Malaysia has become an industrialized country, virtually an economic power house in the ASEAN region. But the negative side of the story was increasing authoritarianism and pro-Islamic policies. The unfair trial of Anwar Ibrahim and the third degree methods employed against him by the police officials have given a bad image to Malaysia. What is more, the fruits of development have not percolated to the poorer sections of Malaysian society, especially the Indians. The cumulative result was the political Tsunami in the 2008 election and the Barisan Nasional suffered unprecedented reverses. Not only it lost its two thirds majority in Parliament, it failed to regain power in Kelantan and lost power in Kedah, Perak, Penang and Selangor. The victory of the opposition parties had been a morale booster to pro-democratic forces in the country.

Misuse of the Internal Security Act

An important political reality in Malaysia must be underlined. It is extremely difficult for opposition parties to function in Malaysia. The draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) provides for detention without trail. It was introduced by the British colonialists when they were fighting against the Malayan Communist Party which had launched an armed struggle for power. But the ISA continued even after independence and it has been used (misused) by the government mercilessly against both Malay and non- Malay opposition. It may be recalled that even Dr. Mahathir was detained under the ISA after the communal riots in May 1969 and his book, Malay Dilemma, was banned. Many observers of the Malaysian scene believed when Mahathir came to power in 1981 he will remove the ISA and usher in an era of democratization. Not only the hopes were shattered Mahathir turned out to be more authoritarian than earlier Prime Ministers.  So stifling was the political atmosphere during Mahathir years that it used to be said that in Malaysia “the wise conform, the otherwise land in prisons”.

The Internal Security Act is inhuman, because it denies the victim a fundamental human right, the right to a fair trial. Anwar Ibrahim underlined some of the evils of the Malaysian political system in an international conference in New Delhi few years ago: “What is an election if the political parties in the opposition do not have access to freedom of speech, assembly and movement, necessary to voice their criticisms of the government openly and to bring alternative policies and candidates to the voters? Where I come from, the opposition is banned from the air waves, rallies are not allowed and opposition newspapers operate underground”. Prof. Harold Crouch, an astute observer of the Malaysian political scene, has remarked, “It is hard to place Malaysia in a clear cut category between democracy and authoritarianism”. He concludes “Malaysia is neither democratic nor authoritarian — as the Malaysian political system has been oscillating between repression and responsiveness”. I am fond of comparing the Malaysian political system to the freedom enjoyed by the animals in the circus ring, the animals are free within the ring, but if they dare disobey the ring master, they meet severe punishment. At the same time, one notable feature during recent years should be mentioned. The opposition has started using internet in an effective way in highlighting the anti-people policies of the government. On the eve of Bersih rally important leaders ofParti Sosialis Malaysia – Choo Chon Kai, Sarat Babu, Sarasvathy Muthu, Sukumaran Munisamy, A Letchumanan and Dr. Jeyakumar Devaraj – were all detained under the Internal Security Act. At the time of writing this essay, they still continue to be in detention.

Delimitation of Constituencies favouring Malays

A notable feature of the Malaysian electoral system is that the electoral system favours the electorate in rural areas. And the rural areas are predominantly inhabited by the Malays. This legislation was introduced on the eve of the formation of Malaysia in 1963. In Malaysia, as is well known, the Chinese were the single largest minority, 42.2 per cent, the Malays 39.2 per cent, the Indians 9.4 per cent, the indigenous people of Sabah and Sarawak 7.0 per cent and others 2.2 per cent. The new electoral system meant that rural constituencies need have fewer voters than urban constituencies. What is more, one of the main objectives of Malay leaders was to retain Malay political supremacy in Malaysia. This could be accomplished by reducing the political influence of predominantly Chinese Singapore in the proposed Federation. Thus Singapore was allotted only 15 seats in the Federal parliament, while Sarawak was given 24 and Sabah 16, though the population of Singapore was more than that of Sabah and Sarawak put together. Singapore leaders accepted these limitations because, Singapore, unlike other federal units, was given greater measure of autonomy and a larger share of revenue. Singapore separated from Malaysia in August 1965, but the delimitation of constituencies favoring Malays still continues in Malaysia. The Author made an in-depth study of the 1978 parliamentary elections and found that the predominantly non-Malay urban constituency of Petaling in Selangor State had an electorate of 90,611, whereas the rural Malay parliamentary constituency of Kuala Kari in the State of Kelantan had only 19,627 voters. In other words, Petaling had four times more voters than Kuala Krai.  The number of voters has increased in Malaysia since 1978, but the urban-rural divide continues to dominate the Malaysian electoral scene even today.

Demands of Bersih

The Bersih, as mentioned earlier, is a coalition of 62 non-political organizations. It was founded in November 2006. Bersih in Malay language means clean. It has received the support of three political parties – Parti Kedilan Rakyat (PKR), Partai Islam (PAS) and Democratic Action Party (DAP). The demands put forward by Bersih include independence of the Election Commission, elimination of electoral practices deemed unfair for the opposition candidates, elimination of corrupt campaign practices, equal access to the media for all political parties and institution of a care taker government during election periods. The immediate demands of Bersih before the July rally were 1) Clean the electoral roll; 2) Reform postal voting; 3) Use of indelible ink; 4) A minimum campaign period of 21 days; 5) Free and fair access to mainstream media; 6) Strengthen public institutions; 7) Stop corruption and 8) Stop dirty politics.  Bersih’s original plan was to have protestors gather at the KL Sogo shopping centre, KL City hall centre and Kampong Baru Mosque and then march to the Istana Negara to deliver the memorandum. After discussions with the Agong, the organisers decided to hold the rally inside a stadium. Their request for permission to hold the rally in Merdeka stadium was rejected by the police. Bersih accused the Government of reneging on its earlier promise.

Unfortunate Fall Out

The Indian observers of the Malaysian political scene are disturbed by one unfortunate development i.e.Bersih and Hindraf failed to make common cause on this important issue. The Hindraf leaders felt let down by many leaders of opposition parties who went back on their promise to look into the grievances of Hindraf once they assumed power in various states. The end result was the division in the ranks of the opposition, who have the same objectives. But it is heartening to note that many Indian political activists, especially those belonging to the Parti Sosialis Malaysia, were in the forefront mobilizing public opinion for strengthening democratic forces.

Again from an Indian point of view, it is heartening to note that the Bersihhas considerable following among the Malaysian Indians. Mention has already been made of Ms. Ambiga Sreenivasan who is the President of the Bersih. Equally important is the inspiring role being played by Dr. Jeyakumar Devaraj, Dr. Devaraj shot into political fame when he defeated the President of the Malaysian Indian Congress Samy Velu in the Sungei Siput constituency in the 2008 parliamentary elections. As a  medical doctor, he undertook medical practice in Sarawak and also among the Orang Asi, the indigenous people of Malaysia. He used his professional abilities to bring the much needed medical attention to the poor and the marginalized. One of the founding members of  Alaigal, which championed the cause of the plantation workers of Sungai Siput in Perak State, he is in the forefront of championing the role of the State in providing medical care. Naturally he is active in the democratic socialist movement in Malaysia. He is the only member of the Socialist Party in Malaysian parliament.

Reading about the life and socialist convictions of Dr. Devaraj, I am reminded of my field work in Malaysia in the late 1960’s. In particular I recall meeting the great Malay socialist leader Ahmad Boestaman. Boestaman was inspired by the Indonesian nationalist movement, especially the vibrant democratic socialist elements in it. Even before the UMNO championed the cause of Merdeka,Boestaman, along with thousands of Malay youth, demanded complete independence for Malaya. What is more, he spent his life popularizing socialist ideals in Malaya. He was the founder of the Partai Rakyat(People’s Party) He was convinced that the formation of Malaysia was a British conspiracy and the objective behind its formation was to retain vital British economic and strategic interests in Southeast Asia. But, at the same time, he believed that Malaysia provided an opportunity for socialists in the Federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak to come together and champion the democratic socialist ideals. Boestaman’s abiding faith that socialism alone could provide a solution to Malay poverty inspired many idealistic young people.

Like Boestaman, who was detained under the ISA several times, Dr. Devaraj is also in detention today under the obnoxious Internal Security Act. But if the Malaysian political leadership thinks that his voice can be stifled it is mistaken. The famous lines of Richard Lovelace come to my mind:

Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage; Minds innocent and quiet take That for a hermitage.

(Dr. V. Suryanarayan is former Senior Professor and Director, Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. He is currently Senior Research Fellow in the Center for Asia Studies, Prof. Suryanarayan is also the President of the Chennai Centre for China Studies.Chennai. His e mail address:

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