Striving for regime change, 1998-2014: opposition contestation in multi-ethnic Malaysia

Huat Hock David Chew

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Until 1998, opposition contestation in Malaysia had lacked focus, with parties attacking one another even more ferociously than they separately clashed with the government. Different ethnic compositions, divergent ideologies and varied agenda caused the fragmentation of opposition parties when the country became independent in 1957. They found themselves disadvantaged vis-à-vis a more cohesive inter-ethnic government coalition which articulated ethnic issues in order to mobilise electoral support. Over the next forty years, government initiatives such as the New Economic Policy (NEP) favouring the Malays alienated the Chinese and Indians. The exploitation of religious differences further accentuated the Malay/non-Malay divide in contestation, extending the schism between Malay and Chinese-based opposition parties in the peninsula to Muslim and non-Muslim parties in Sarawak and Sabah. As opposition contestation weakened, the government increasingly turned authoritarian and by 1997 it was openly asserting Ketuanan Melayu or Malay/Muslim supremacy. However the Asian financial meltdown which led to the collapse of authoritarian regimes in the region exposed many of the government’s weaknesses such as human rights abuses, cronyism, nepotism and corruption. It paved the way for opposition contestation to become more cohesive in the 1998-2014 period with the formation of broad-based opposition coalitions having significant support from both Muslims and non-Muslims. Opposition contestation resonated with large sections of civil society that grew increasingly sceptical of government propaganda disseminated in the pro-establishment mainstream media. News, analyses, opinions and editorials consistently underlined the NEP’s ethnic approach to redress Malay economic backwardness. Denied meaningful access to the mainstream media to convey its views, the opposition embraced the social media, especially the internet which succeeded in breaking the mainstream media’s monopoly of news dissemination. The opposition was able to link the NEP to corruption, cronyism and nepotism as well as human rights abuses. Its measures to address these inter-linked issues through a needs-based affirmative action agenda formed the basis of Ketuanan Rakyat or People’s sovereignty. Ketuanan Rakyat, which prioritized a common Malaysian citizenship ahead of ethnic divisions, posed a strong challenge to Ketuanan Melayu in several general elections from 1999 to 2013. The two-coalition system which it ushered in from 2008 and reaffirmed five years later, has become the stepping stone for the opposition to take over the federal government in the Fourteenth General Election which must be held in 2018 at the latest. But the path towards regime change is fraught with many obstacles, not only because of government determination to reinforce ethnic politics with religiosity, but also intra-opposition differences. These continue to underline the fragility of the opposition coalition despite moves by opposition parties at mutual accommodation. The opposition pins its hopes for regime change on a growing post-1971 generation of Malaysians of all ethnic groups forming the majority of voters in future elections. Being educated and urbanized, and more significantly with no emotional baggage of the 1969 ethnic riots, this Malay-led multi-ethnic group can prioritize politics of need and class over ethnic/religious politics.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2015


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