Articles & Commentaries

2024/35 “The Impacts of Supply Chain Reconfiguration on ASEAN Economies” by Aufa Doarest and Maria Monica Wihardja


Forcing ASEAN to choose sides – whether to be in the US or China supply chain system – will be impossible and disruptive, and ASEAN should continue to take the pragmatic approach and reject choosing sides. Picture: Facebook page of the ASEAN Secretariat.


  • At the centre of the US-China trade war are the semiconductor chip and green industries.
  • ASEAN is clearly benefiting from the resultant reconfiguration of the global supply chains in these two industries in terms of trade, value addition and foreign direct investment, at least in the short run. However, these benefits can be more than offset by the greater disruption to the global supply chains should US-China tensions continue to escalate.
  • Its high trade reliance on China while having the US as its largest investor (by far) and key source of technology transfers puts ASEAN in an increasingly precarious situation should the US-China supply chain decoupling intensifies.
  • Forcing ASEAN to choose sides – whether to be in the US or China supply chain system – will be impossible and disruptive, and ASEAN should continue to take the pragmatic approach and reject choosing sides.

* Aufa Doarest is Private Sector Specialist at the World Bank Group’s Finance, Competitiveness and Innovation and Maria Monica Wihardja is Economist and Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore.

ISEAS Perspective 2024/35, 17 May 2024

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Interdependence within the global supply chain has been exacerbated by the growing dependence for intermediate inputs on only a few firms and a few countries (Pangestu, 2023). The semiconductor industry and the green technology industry are two examples of highly concentrated supply chains where firms from East Asia (e.g., China, Taiwan and South Korea) are now the dominant suppliers (Miller, 2022; Nguyen-Quoc, 2023).

The heightened dependence of the US on China has raised geopolitical rivalry between the two countries and driven the reconfiguration of supply chains. Countries and companies now seek to ‘decouple’, ‘diversify’ and ‘de-risk’ their supply chain configuration away from their adversaries. Consequently, supply chains in Asia are undergoing major changes.

At the country level, a number of strategies are being adopted, including re-routing trade flows through intermediary countries; home-shoring investment through investment subsidies and tax credits; and increasing self-reliance through import substitution and research and development (R&D). At the corporate level, multinational companies (MNCs) in Asia and worldwide are adapting by adopting the ‘China Plus One’ or ‘China Plus Two or Three’ model to broaden their supply base outside China while maintaining a presence in China (Nguyen-Quoc, 2023).

This essay reviews and analyses how ASEAN economies have been impacted by the changing dynamics in the global supply chain. We focus on two industries, namely the semiconductor industry and the electric vehicle (EV) industry,[1] and look at the impacts from three angles: trade, investment and R&D.


Since 2018, during the Trump administration, the US has been restricting the exports of “emerging and foundational technologies” to entities abroad whenever those technologies are “essential to the national security of the US” (Bradford, 2023). This started with the Export Control Reform Act of 2018 enforced through the maintenance of a Commerce Control List and a licensing system as well as a narrower export control instrument known as the Entity List. Although the idea was to restrict exports exclusively for advanced technologies that could endanger national strategic interest – dubbed as the ‘small yard, high fence’ strategy – these export restrictions were later expanded in terms of both technologies and entities. For example, in 2020, the 2018 export restrictions to ban Huawei’s access to semiconductors were extended to cover all foreign technology companies (instead of only US firms) that use US chipmaking equipment and software tools.

In August 2022, the CHIPS (Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors) and Science Act allocated USD280 billion to catalyse investments in domestic semiconductor R&D and manufacturing capacity. In October 2022, a set of export restrictions were issued to cut off China’s access to advanced AI chips and choke point technologies[2] (Ing and Markus, 2023). Later, these export restrictions were expanded into restrictions on direct investment (Shalal and Freifeld, 2023) and financial investment (private equity and venture capitals) (Siqi, 2024), as well as on individuals who hold US passports to work for Chinese chip companies (Lin and Hao, 2022). 

In a spirit similar to the CHIPS and Science Act, in August 2022, the US also signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) to catalyse investment in R&D and domestic manufacturing capacity in leading-edge green technologies, including carbon capture and storage as well as EV (Badlam et al, 2022b).[3] The law will direct USD400 billion into a mix of tax incentives, grants, and loan guarantees.

The concentration of green technology production and the critical minerals associated with it in China—and in a few Chinese firms—has sounded an alarm bell for the US. For example, China dominates 75 percent of Solar Photovoltaic technology and battery manufacturing compared to the small share the US has of only 5 percent in the production of both technologies (Li and Zhao, 2023). Similarly, China commands 55 percent of wind technology manufacturing.  

IRA is the US’ biggest and most significant national policy to combat climate change. However, it is unclear whether IRA will leave any room for collaboration in low-carbon technologies where China is a major player, or lead to race-to-the-bottom protectionist industrial policies and strategic competition similar to that now found in the chip industry (Li and Zhao, 2023). Given the high concentration of green technology in China, diversification of trade source is commendable. However, focusing on where the green technologies are built could risk slowing down the low-carbon transition in the US and globally.  


At the centre of the US-China trade war and supply chain reconfiguration are chip and green technologies. Chip production-related activities, including assembling, packaging and testing, account for a significant share of the GDP and/or exports of ASEAN countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines (EDB, 2022a; EDB, 2022b).[4]

Supply chain reconfiguration in this context refers to aspects of production being shifted to countries or firms which are not necessarily the most competitive and efficient, due to geopolitical and national security factors. The new countries and firms may even have siloed technologies and production processes that are disconnected from others in the supply chain.

The impacts of supply chain reconfiguration on ASEAN economies can be strongly noted in three areas, namely (1) trade diversion through several intermediary countries to avoid goods flowing directly from China to the US, (2) relocation of FDI, (3) Research and Development (R&D) activities. The following sections discuss these separately.


China’s dominance as the world’s manufacturing superpower (Baldwin, 2024) is partly reflected in a significant increase in China’s export of EV (including Completely Build-Up and Completely Knocked Down cars but not parts such as batteries) and chips between 2017 and 2022. Within that period, China’s export of chips almost doubled, from USD 72 billion to USD129 billion, while China’s export of EV increased by almost 13 times, from USD2 billion to USD25 billion (Figure 1 and Figure 2).

Figure 1: China’s export and import of chips (in million USD)

Source: World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS, accessed February 2024), authors’ calculations

Figure 2: China’s export and import of EVs (in million USD)

Source: World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS, accessed February 2024), authors’ calculations

The US-China tech war, especially the escalating restrictions on China’s access to US technologies that started in 2018, are reflected in the trade in chips between the two countries in 2022. After an increasing trend since 2017, China’s import value of chip from the US declined from USD15.1 billion in 2021 accounting for 10.2 percent share of China’s total import of chips, to USD11.6 billion in 2022 accounting for 8.0 percent share (Table 1). Mirroring China’s import value decline is US’ export value decline of chips to China.

Table 1: US’ export to China and China’s import from the US in chip

 US’ export to China in chipChina’s import from the US in chip
 Value (in USD billion)Share of US’ Chip Export (%)Value (in USD billion)Share of China’s Chip Import (%)

 Source: World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS, accessed February 2024), authors’ calculations

The US decision to diversify its trading partners and move away from China affects international trade in chips. First, China’s chip export destination pattern has slightly shifted. The share of China’s chips export to the US dropped from 19 percent in 2018 to 11 percent in 2022. At the same time, the share of China’s chips export to ASEAN countries increased slightly from 18 percent in 2018 to 20 percent in 2022 (Table 2). While the changes in the destination pattern may be due to lack of domestic demand in the US, the positive trend of US import of chips, increasing from USD79.7 billion in 2018 to USD87.2 billion in 2022, reveals that US domestic demand has actually gotten stronger. It is predicted that the demand for chips will continue to increase as AI, robots and EV become the new normal in people’s everyday lives.

Table 2: Chip export shares of China, ASEAN and Mexico (%)

 China’s Chip Export Share (%)ASEAN’s Chip Export Share (%)Mexico’s Chip Export Share (%)
 China to ASEANChina to MexicoChina to USAASEAN to USAMexico to USA

 Source: World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS, accessed February 2024), authors’ calculations

Second, this export diversion is reflected in the import pattern of chips. The US import share of chips has shown an increasing reliance on ASEAN and a decreasing reliance on China (Figure 3). Both ASEAN and China accounted for 34 percent of US chips import in 2017; but while ASEAN’s share increased to 48 percent in 2022, China’s share was halved to 17 percent. Meanwhile the share of Mexico in US chips imports has barely changed while the share held by other countries has increased by 4 percentage points in the same period. This shows that ASEAN is clearly benefiting from US’ import diversion away from China.     

Figure 3: US import of chip

Source: World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS, accessed February 2024), authors’ calculations 

Unlike the chips trade, the trend of EV trade between the US and China continued to be robust in terms of value until 2022 but declined in terms of reliance (or share) (Table 3). The US used to account for 28.1 percent of China’s export in EVs but this fell to only 7.9 percent in 2022. At the same time, China had accounted for 52.5 percent of US’ import in EV but this declined to 12.8 percent in 2022.; ASEAN’s export of EVs has been increasingly going to the US (Table 4) while ASEAN’s import of EVs has been increasingly coming from China (Figure 4). The two-wheeler EV has been driving the increase in ASEAN’s export of EVs to the US. The main exporter before the COVID-19 pandemic was Vietnam.      

Table 3: US’ import from China and China’s export to the US of EVs

 China’s export of EVs to the USUS’ import from China of EVs
 Value (in USD billion)Share (%)Value (in USD billion)Share (%)

 Source: World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS, accessed February 2024), authors’ calculations

Table 4: EV export value (in USD million) and share (%)

 China to ASEANChina to MexicoChina to USAASEAN to USAMexico to USA
Note: Value in USD million. Share in %.

Source: World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS, accessed February 2024), authors’ calculations

Figure 4: Source countries for ASEAN’s import of EVs (%)

 Source: World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS, accessed February 2024), authors’ calculations

In short, while the US-China trade in chips shows signs of ‘decoupling’ (reduced trade values), the US-China trade in EVs shows signs of ‘diversifying’ (reduced trade shares) but not ‘decoupling’.


Looking at trade in total value or volume may not give the complete picture of trade diversion. China might divert its trade to the US through intermediary countries to avoid sanctions or higher tariffs placed on goods coming directly out of China and exports coming out these intermediary countries to the US may actually be high in Chinese content.

It is therefore important to also look at trade in value-added (TiVA) data of goods and services, which measure the value added by each country in the production of goods and services that are consumed worldwide (gross production minus the purchased intermediates). We use the OECD TiVA data used in Baldwin (2024) to analyse the changes in ASEAN participation in the global value added:

  • ‘Foreign Production Exposure: iMport side (FPEM)’: Share of imported input from a source country out of all industrial inputs (including domestically source inputs) used by a country on a scale of 0 to 100. Industrial inputs extend beyond the manufacturing sector and includes the agriculture and service sectors as well. The higher the index, the more reliant (and exposed) a country is to the source country on the production side.

  • ‘Foreign Production Exposure: eXport side (FPEX)’: Share of a country’s manufactured production from the manufacturing sector that is exported to a particular partner on a scale of 0 to 100. The higher the index, the more reliant (and exposed) a country is to the destination country on the sales side. 

Data for ASEAN are taken as the average of all ASEAN countries. Instead of looking at reliance of trade in value-added in the chip and EV industries, we look at realiance of trade in value-added in the whole economy. With a lag in the OECD TiVA data (the latest TiVA data is for 2020),[6] we may not be able to see the impacts of the more current policies such as the CHIPS and Science Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. However, we can observe a longer-term trend of trade in value-added, including China’s increasing dominance and ASEAN’s increasing participation in global value added.

The US reliance on China’s industrial inputs skyrocketed since the mid-1990s to decline since 2015, albeit with a slight up-tick in 2022 (Figure 5a). Despite this decline, in 2020, US’ reliance on China’s industrial inputs was still three times higher than China’s reliance on US industrial inputs. On the sales side, China’s reliance on the US was more than 17 times higher than US reliance on China in 1995, but the ratio declined since the early 2000s to two times in 2020 (Figure 5b).   

Figure 5a and 5b: US-China reliance on the production side, and US-China reliance on the sales side

Source: OECD TiVA (updated 2023, accessed February 2024), authors’ calculations

How has the participation of ASEAN economies in global value added changed?

China replaced the US as the dominant industrial input source for ASEAN countries in 2003 (Figure 6a). In 1995, ASEAN’s reliance on US industrial inputs was three times ASEAN’s reliance on China inputs. In 2020, ASEAN’s reliance on China’s industrial input was more than five times ASEAN’s reliance on that of the US. Similarly, China replaced the US as the dominant industrial output destination for ASEAN countries in 2011 (Figure 6c). In 1995, ASEAN’s reliance on the US market was more than eight times ASEAN’s reliance on that of China. In 2020, this flipped, with ASEAN’s reliance on China’s market coming close to 1.5 times ASEAN’s reliance on that of the US. Conversely, China’s reliance on ASEAN’s industrial inputs and market is increasing and is higher compared to US reliance on those of ASEAN (Figure 6b and Figure 6d). 

Intensification of ASEAN’s reliance on both China’s industrial inputs (production side) and the US market (sales side) since 2016 indicates ASEAN’s growing role as an intermediary region for Chinese goods to the US. This is supported by evidence at the country level with the correlation between Vietnam’s exports to the US and Vietnam’s imports from China doubling from 0.4 in 2020 to more than 0.8 in 2024, where 1 shows perfect correlation (The Economist, 2024).       

Source: OECD TiVA (updated 2023, accessed February 2024), authors’ calculations


General FDI trends

Export-oriented FDI inflow positively correlates with the trade pattern. As the trade war intensifies, trade through intermediary countries and the investment inflow going to these intermediary countries surge, including investment to build new manufacturing factories. International investors have relocated or diversified their production locations away from China and sought other Asian economies as destination for FDI to de-risk their businesses from uncertainties arising from geopolitical tensions, pandemic-induced supply chain disruptions, and rising production costs in some countries while seeking potential gains from the new global value chain and emerging sectors such as chips and EVs.

The ASEAN region is a major beneficiary of this FDI relocation (ASEAN and UNCTAD, 2023). FDI inflow to ASEAN-6 (Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Philippines) reached an all-time high of USD227 billion in 2022 and surpassed the FDI inflow to China (Figure 7). Meanwhile, China’s FDI fell to its 30-year low in 2023.

Figure 7: FDI (in USD mn) in China and ASEAN-6

Source: CEIC (accessed February 2024); authors’ calculations.

Note: ASEAN-6 is used instead of ASEAN since other ASEAN countries’ investment data is not up to date.

Reconfiguration of supply chain-related FDI in ASEAN can be categorized into two groups:

  • Existing investors expanding their production capacities in the region.
  • New investors with/without plant/business presence in China establishing in the region while keeping their presence in China, including Chinese and Taiwanese firms (e.g., the ‘China Plus One’ strategy), or moving their plant and businesses out of China because of the intense US-China conflict.  

EVs, EV batteries, electronics and chips, data centres, and the digital economy received robust new and expanded investment in 2022 (ASEAN and UNCTAD, 2023). Manufacturing investment notably scored much stronger growth than in previous years with its share in total FDI in ASEAN rising more than three folds from just nine percent in 2020 to 28 percent in 2022.

FDI by Industry

The electronics and electrical industry accounted for more than 70 percent of new manufacturing investments at USD37 billion, with chips and electronic components alone making up 27 percent of the 70 percent (ASEAN and UNCTAD, 2023), reaching close to USD9.5 billion in 2022, six times the annual average between 2010 and 2019.

Besides chips and electronic components, the ASEAN region also attracted strong investment in EVs and EV battery production as well as charging stations. New investment in batteries rose by 656 percent in 2022 compared to 2021 to USD8.4 billion, accounting for 23 percent of new manufacturing investment (ASEAN and UNCTAD, 2023). Chips, electronic components and battery production combined accounted for half of new manufacturing investment in 2022. FDI in EV-related sectors shot up from USD2.1 billion in 2019 to USD18.1 billion in 2022 (ASEAN and UNCTAD, 2023).

FDI by source and host countries

It is predicted that FDI flows are being increasingly concentrated to countries that are geopolitically aligned with the investor (Ahn et al, 2023). The US, which recently upgraded its bilateral economic relationship with Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia, was the largest investor in ASEAN with investment reaching USD37 billion in 2022.[7] It was also the largest investor by far in the manufacturing and financial sector. Japan was the third largest investor after intra-ASEAN investment. Japanese FDI in ASEAN was concentrated in the transportation and storage industry, accounted for 88 percent of investment in the industry, reflecting its interest in the automotive industry, including EVs. FDI from China fell by USD1 billion to USD16 billion in 2022, with investment predominantly being in infrastructure projects, EV-related activities and the digital economy.

How ASEAN countries benefit from the reconfiguration of the global supply chain depends on their specialized capabilities (Varas et al, 2021). For example, outsourced chip, assembly and testing (OSAT) firms have been diversifying their global footprints in Southeast Asia such as in Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Meanwhile, Singapore captured new investment in new chips factories and hosted one of the world’s leading global semiconductor research institutions, A*STAR, whose research goes beyond chip technology.


The recent trade and technology war between the US and China has spurred R&D subsidies. The CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 directs USD200 billion of its total USD280 billion spending for scientific R&D and commercialization into chips (Badlam et al, 2022a). Similarly, the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 increased and expanded tax credits for R&D activities including to jump-start R&D and commercialization of cutting-edge green technology such as EV (Badlam et al, 2022b). In the same year, China upgraded the country’s tax credits for investment in semiconductor R&D from existing chips subsidies worth at least USD150 billion. The R&D subsidies in chips and green technology spill over to other countries including the European Union and Japan. Although most R&D investment is made to unlock financial constraints in the upstream and midstream industries, it usually has a chain synergy effect that catalyses R&D in the downstream industry and the overall innovation ecosystem.

How does the R&D subsidy race affect ASEAN economies? First and foremost, most ASEAN countries do not have the capability (e.g., human capital, physical capital, and regulatory ecosystem) to do cutting-edge R&D. Second, not all ASEAN countries can afford to engage in a subsidy race. Third, technology has become synonymous with geopolitical alignment and trust is a prerequisite to technology transfers. The US as the largest investor in ASEAN is key to bringing new technology to ASEAN as investment often times comes with technology transfers.  At the same time, countries with a good reputation in patent and copyright law have an additional advantage in getting R&D investment.

ASEAN economies will not and should not rush into the R&D subsidy race and could instead promote an ASEAN R&D hub, perhaps located in Singapore, as a way to create a production ecosystem in the region.     


ASEAN’s high trade reliance on China while having the US (by far) as its largest investor and key source of technology transfers puts it in an increasingly precarious situation if US-China supply chain decoupling intensifies. Forcing ASEAN to choose sides – to be in the US or China supply chain system – will be impossible and disruptive, and ASEAN should continue to take the pragmatic approach and reject that option. In the short run, some ASEAN countries are benefiting from the relocation of global supply chains as shown by trade, value addition and FDI data, but the high level of interdependence of global supply chains and  the many hubs in China suggests that these benefits could be more than offset in the long term by the greater disruption to the global supply chains if the US-China tensions continue to escalate. 


Ahn, J., Carton, B., Habib, A., Malacrino, D., Muir, D. and Presbitero, A., 2023. ‘Geoeconomic fragmentation and foreign direct investment’. Chapter 4, IMF World Economic Outlook: A Rocky Recovery. IMF Publication.

The ASEAN Secretariat and United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (ASEAN and UNCTAD). 2023. A Special ASEAN Investment Report 2023. International Investment Trends: Key Issues and Policy Options. Jakarta: ASEAN Secretariat.

Badlam, Justin, S. Clark, S. Gajendragadkar, A. Kumar, S. O’Rourke, and D. Swartz. 2022a. ‘The CHIPS and Science Act: Here’s what’s in it’. McKinsey & Company Publication. Link:

Badlam, Justin, J. Cox, A. Kumar, N. Mehta, S. O’Rourke, and J. Silvis. 2022b. ‘The Inflation Reduction Act: Here’s what’s in it’. Link:

Baldwin, Richard. 2024. ‘China is the World’s Sole Manufacturing Superpower: A Line Sketch of the Rise’. CEPR Publication. Link:

Bradford, Anu. 2023. Digital Empires: The Global Battle to Regulate Technology. Oxford University Press.

Curran, E., S. Donnan, M. Cousin, N.D. Tu Uyen, Q. Nguyen, M. Martewicz, M. Averbuch, B. Murray, A. Lee, G. Sihombing, and C. Jiao. ‘These Five Countries Are Key Economic ‘Connectors’ in a Fragmenting World’. Businessweek, Bloomberg New Economy.

Dahlman, Abigail, and Mary E. Lovely. 2023. ‘US-led Effort to Diversity Indo-Pacific Supply Chains Away from China Runs Counter to Trends’. Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE) Publication. Link:

Ebrahimi, Arrian. 2023. ‘China Boosts Semiconductor Subsidies as US Tightens Restrictions’. The Diplomat. Link:

Economic Development Board Singapore (EDB). 2022a. ‘Southeast Asia’s Rising Semiconductor Fortunes’. Link:

Economic Development Board Singapore (EDB). 2022b. ‘Diverse Capabilities, Infrastructure Help Drive Chips Industry in Singapore’. Link:

Ing, Lili Yan, and Ivana Markus. 2023. ‘ASEAN in the Global Semiconductor Race’. Fulcrum. ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute Publication. Link:

Li, Cheng, and Xiuye Zhao. 2023. ‘Renewable energy should not be the next semiconductor in US-China competition.’ Brooking Institution Commentary. Link:

Lin, Liza, and Karen Hao. 2022. ‘American Executives in Limbo at Chinese Chip Companies After US Ban’. Wall Street Journal. Link:

Miller, Chris. 2022. Chip War. The Fight for the World’s Most Critical Technology. Scribner Publication. 

Nguyen-Quoc, Thang. 2023. ‘The Deglobalization Myth: How Asia’s Supply Chains Are Changing’. Hinrich Foundation Publication. Link:

Pangestu, Mari Elka. 2023. ‘Critical Minerals: Challenges for Diversification, Climate Change and Development’. Slide Presentation at Peterson Institute for International Economics Webinar, on 27 April 2023. Link:

Ross, Laura. 2020. ‘Inside the iPhone: How Apple Sources from 43 Countries Nearly Seamlessly’. Link:

Shalal, Andrea, and Karen Freifeld. 2023. ‘US starts process to restrict some investment in key tech in China’. Reuters. Link:

Siqi, Ji. 2024. ‘US Congress considers new legislation to further restrict investment in Chinese tech sectors’. South China Morning Post. Link:

The Economist. 2024. ‘How Trump and Biden have failed to cut ties with China’. The Economist. Link:

Varas, Antonio, Raj Varadarajan, Jimmy Goodrich, Falan Yinug. 2021. Strengthening the Global Semiconductor Supply Chain in an Uncertain Era. Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Semiconductor Industry Association (SIA) Publication. Link:


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

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“Delivering Development, Enforcing Shariah: PAS’s Dilemma in Terengganu“ by Azmil Tayeb



• Whenever the Islamist party PAS comes to power in Terengganu, its political agenda has been to combine populist-type development programmes with the wish to turn Terengganu into a shariah-compliant state.

• Terengganu’s state budget is however heavily dependent on the federal government, to the tune of 80–90 per cent. This hinders the state government’s policymaking and implementation, especially when the federal government is controlled by its political opponents.

• This article argues that the politics of development play a more central role in determining the durability of the PAS state government in Terengganu than it does in neighbouring Kelantan. In other words, PAS cannot simply carry out its Islamic agenda without being complemented by tangible economic progress if it aspires to govern beyond a single term; PAS’s loss in the 2004 election after being in power for one term is a prime example of this dynamic.

• One reason that the current PAS state government managed to get re-elected in 2022 was the unimpeded flow of oil royalty payments into state coffers since 2018, which allowed the state government to fulfil its campaign promises; PAS’s inclusion in the Perikatan Nasional federal government in 2020 further improved the state government’s financial standing.

• When the reins of the federal government changed hands to PAS’s political opponents in 2022, the oil royalty payment to Terengganu again became an acrimonious issue, in many ways reprising the post-1999 situation.

Trends in Southeast Asia 2024/14, May 2024


2024/34 “Malaysia’s Out-of-Sync Federal and State Elections: The Good, the Bad, and the Untimely” by Francis E. Hutchinson


Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim (centre) speaking at a press conference after the release of state election results at the World Trade Centre in Kuala Lumpur on 12 August 2023. Malaysians in six states went to the polls on 12 August to vote for state assembly members in elections widely seen as a barometer of support for Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s unity government. (Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP).


  • Elections in Malaysia are held at the national and state levels, and in holding these concurrently, disruptions and costs have been reduced.
  • As with the federal government, state governments can decide when to hold their elections. In the past, when Barisan Nasional (BN) was in power at the centre and in most states at the same time, this discretion was largely discounted.
  • Following BN’s fall from power in 2018 and the country’s political context becoming more fluid, state government elections have been increasingly held out of sync with federal elections. In the last four years, state polls have been held on six separate occasions.
  • Concerned about rising costs, prolonged campaigning as well as implications for the country’s political stability, some have proposed clustering state elections or ensuring that they are held alongside national polls.
  • There are pros and cons to such arrangements. Concurrent polls can be cheaper, encourage higher turnout rates, and reduce the length of campaign seasons. Conversely, state leaders would be forced to hold elections at times not of their choosing, and state-level issues could be overshadowed by national ones.
  • The challenges inherent in pursuing such a reform in Malaysia are considerable and would involve amending the federal constitution, as well as the various state constitutions.
  • Consequently, it is likely that the Unity Government will head into the next electoral season under the current arrangement. The Sabah and Sarawak state elections are due in 2025 and 2026 and can be held without much concern for the current coalition arrangements.
  • In contrast, the Melaka and Johor elections will be crucial barometers for the Unity Government. Due by late 2026 and mid-2027 respectively, they may expose internal weaknesses in the run-up to the general election due some 9-12 months later.

* Francis E. Hutchinson is Senior Fellow and Coordinator of the Malaysia Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. The author would like to thank Lee Hwok Aun, Ong Kian Ming and Sara Loo for their comments, feedback, and inputs.

ISEAS Perspective 2024/34, 15 May 2024

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Malaysia has a multi-levelled political system, which is comprised of a federal government and 13 state counterparts – all of which hold their own elections.[1] Influenced by the British Westminster system, the federal government holds elections for parliament – and the state governments for their assemblies – at least once every five years. With the exception of Sarawak, which has run on its own electoral cycle since 1963, elections for the federal and state governments have traditionally been held simultaneously.[2]

This arrangement has been a tradition, rather than a result of any specific legislation. According to the Constitution, elections at the federal and state levels are called by the King or Sultans and Governors on the advice of the elected leadership in parliament or respective state assembly. Given this, state leaders have the prerogative to call for elections at any time, independently of the federal government.[3] Elections at both the national and state levels are organized and overseen by the Election Commission, whose establishment is stipulated by the Federal Constitution.[4]

What minimized dispersion in election dates in the past was the fact that, up until 2018, the Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition was in power at the federal level and also in most states. Consequently, elections were held at the behest of the BN leadership and taken with national interests at the forefront. While BN state leaders may or may not have been in agreement with the timing, internal party mechanisms served to ensure compliance. BN state leaders often aspired to subsequent national cabinet positions and were reluctant to defy orders from national leaders which could compromise their career trajectories. Furthermore, recalcitrant menteri besar or chief ministers could be toppled by votes of no confidence passed by BN assemblypersons.[5]

In recent years, this homogenizing influence has lost force. In 2008, Barisan Nasional was beaten unprecedentedly in five state governments. In 2018, BN was defeated at the national level and in most states for the first time. Following a two-year interlude, BN returned to federal power – but in a subordinate position in the Perikatan Nasional and then the Unity Government groupings. The relative decline in BN’s power at both federal and state levels allows more autonomy for state leaders to prioritize local considerations when calling for elections.

Out-of-cycle elections can occur for several reasons. First, state governments can rise and fall due to local-level machinations. Motions of confidence and no-confidence can be passed in state assemblies, and – similar to the Sheraton Move in February 2020 that led to the fall of the Pakatan Harapan administration – local coalitions can come undone. Thus, the precipitous Sabah election in 2020 arose due to a faction of the ruling coalition crossing the floor to join the opposition. Deprived of his majority, then-chief minister Shafie Apdal opted to call an election.[6] In a similar move, the 2021 Melaka election was held because a group of UMNO representatives withdrew their support for the sitting administration, thereby denying it a majority in the state assembly.[7] The Johor election in early 2022 was ostensibly called because the death of an assemblyperson meant the sitting coalition commanded only the slimmest of majorities.[8]

Second, elections can be held out-of-cycle when the federal government decides to hold its own polls early. National-level leaders often seek to hold elections in circumstances that are favourable to them, such as following budget launches or when economic tailwinds are particularly favourable. Of course, national-level political dynamics may also push for earlier polls. While the fifteenth general election could have been held as late as in September 2023, in October 2022 the Ismail Sabri-led administration ceded to pressure from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to ride on the momentum generated by the Melaka and Johor state elections, maximize the political bounty from the October budget release, and avoid the worst of the monsoon season.[9]

However, the November 2022 date meant that state governments also holding their polls then would have effectively lost almost a full year of their terms. Despite the recommendation by the Prime Minister Ismail Sabri that all eligible state governments hold their elections along with the national government, only the BN-led state governments of Perlis, Pahang, and Perak opted to do so.[10]

Conversely, states led by the opposition grouping Pakatan Harapan (PH) and the Islamist party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) opted to go to their full terms.[11] Among other reasons, party leaders argued that they needed to prepare for the year-end flooding season.[12] Despite being led by different coalitions, the leaders of these six states were able to arrive upon a mutually-agreed schedule to dissolve their assemblies.[13] Following this, the Electoral Commission established 12 August as the common date for elections in Negri Sembilan, Selangor, Penang, Kedah, Kelantan and Terengganu.[14]

Faced with the cost of holding elections more frequently, as well as the potential for instability, there have been calls for measures to make the political system more structured.[15] There are arguments in favour of, and against simultaneous elections. While relatively few countries have mandated simultaneous polls and some actively discourage them, this reform is currently being debated in India, for example. This country’s constitutional similarities to Malaysia and the related discussions illustrate the complexities inherent in pursuing such a reform.

As Malaysia transitions towards a more dynamic and fluid political context, this issue will continue to simmer. This Perspective examines this issue in four sections. Following this introduction, the second will look at the costs and benefits of synchronous and asynchronous elections. The third section will look at the experience of other countries. The final section will look at how such a reform could work for Malaysia going forward.


There are theoretical arguments for and against holding simultaneous elections.

The first argument in favour of simultaneous elections is cost. Holding national and state elections on the same day means that the election workers, physical infrastructure, and associated logistics are only used once. For example, the August 2023 state elections cost an estimated RM 420 million.[16] Had they been held alongside their national equivalent in November 2022, they would have added little to the RM 1.1 billion budget earmarked for those polls.[17] It is also important to note that the costs involved in organizing the elections are borne by the federal government. This means that state governments actually wield the discretion of when to hold elections but do not incur the associated costs.[18]

The second argument concerns political participation. National polls usually have higher rates of voter turnout than their state-level equivalents. Thus, holding elections simultaneously would increase the proportion of people voting for their respective state leaders.[19] This issue is of particular importance to outstation or overseas residents, who need to travel back to their constituencies to vote. Holding simultaneous elections would increase the probability of them voting for both levels of government, rather than requiring them to return more than once over a five-year cycle.

Analysts also argue that holding national and state elections simultaneously would concentrate political activity to one specific period, allowing life to return to normal soon after. Despite the Unity Government’s large parliamentary majority, many argued that the August 2023 state polls constituted a de facto referendum on the new administration. Consequently, much bandwidth and political capital were consumed in preparing for these polls, held a mere nine months after the November 2022 election. Furthermore, frequent elections, persistent campaigning, and prolonged periods of political uncertainty can undermine public trust in polls altogether.

Nonetheless, there are valid counterarguments to such an arrangement. First, it can be argued that forcing state governments to align their electoral cycles with national ones goes against the spirit of federalism, which seeks to incorporate different political, cultural, and social aspirations within one framework. Additionally, such a measure would deny autonomy and agency to state leaders. As with their national equivalents, states have their own political rhythms and dynamics, and a specific state administration may have valid reasons for holding polls at another time. Furthermore, holding elections simultaneously would reduce the salience of state-level political issues, as attention to national-level issues and debates would be prioritized.[20] Last, making politicians face more frequent electoral tests increases their accountability to voters.[21]

There is an additional argument that holding smaller subsets of elections makes the logistics more manageable. This is because the election machinery is not overly stretched and can focus on specific polls in different parts of the country.[22] This argument has more traction for demographically and geographically large polities, as large numbers of officials need to be mobilized and immense logistical challenges addressed all at once.[23]

Asynchronous elections can also provide crucial information for national leaders. Thus, state or provincial elections held in the run-up to national polls can yield crucial information for party leaders and strategists. Results can be used as a barometer for prevailing opinions and support for flagship policies. In addition, electoral weaknesses and swing voters can be identified to allow more focussed messaging during national campaigns. However, these elections can also create instability should support levels in key states drop or exacerbate existing electoral vulnerabilities.


Despite the theoretical advantages to holding concurrent elections, there are relatively few countries that currently have this electoral arrangement. South Africa and Sweden are two notable cases where national and subnational elections are held at the same time.

In South Africa, the electoral arrangements were the result of protracted negotiations between different ethnically-based parties that were concerned about issues such as voter turnout and representativity. The end result was an agreement that national and provincial elections would be held simultaneously in order to enable out-station voters to return to vote, but that voters would use different voting forms for each election in order to underline their different purpose.[24]

In Sweden, simultaneous elections have been credited with the country’s high turnout rates, particularly for subnational elections. That said, there have been calls to separate the elections in order for more media coverage of local issues. This is due to the perception that national-level issues tend to dominate elections.[25]

Most federal countries prefer to hold national and subnational elections on different dates and, in some cases, follow distinct electoral cycles. Australia and India are useful comparators for Malaysia, as they are both federal systems with a central government and state counterparts. Indeed, these two countries’ federal systems influenced the eventual structure adopted in Malaysia upon its independence. The Reid Commission, charged with designing Malaysia’s federal system, had constitutional experts from the United Kingdom, Australia, India, and Pakistan.[26]

Turning to Australia, its electoral system is specifically designed to ensure that federal and state elections do not coincide. Federal elections for the lower house are on a three-year cycle although, following the Westminster tradition, parliament can be dissolved and elections held earlier than this.[27] In contrast, most state elections have a fixed four-year cycle, with stipulated dates and days of the week when these elections must take place.[28]

While some states have held elections on the same day, federal elections have never been held concurrent with a state election.[29] There is, at present, no discussion about moving towards simultaneous elections in Australia, although extending federal government terms to four years is being debated.[30] Constitutional amendments are onerous to organize and require the bill to be passed in parliament and then decided via a national referendum.[31]

India offers another instructive comparator. Being a federal system like Malaysia, the Indian constitution provides state governments the authority to hold their own elections. During the first two decades following independence, the Congress party was in power at the centre and in most states and all shared the same electoral cycle. However, after 1967, elections began to be held out of sync, as first several state governments and then the central government dissolved early.[32] Today, with the federal government and 30 state and territory governments holding their elections, polls are a frequent event.

In a bid to promote national unity, reduce time and resources spent on campaigning, as well as lessen administrative costs, the Modi administration has been promoting ‘One Nation, One Election’. The arguments have focussed on cost efficiency, reducing the time spent on elections and campaigns, lessening demands on the armed forces who are mobilized to ensure safety and security, and reducing the salience of polarising discourse during campaigns.[33] The biggest pushback has come from state- or regionally-based political parties who argue that this measure would lessen the time and importance spent on local issues, and voters would be encouraged to vote the same way for national and state leaders. Others such as Congress leader Rahul Gandhi have argued that it goes against the country’s formation as a ‘Union of States’.[34]

Beyond the theoretical reasons for or against this reform, the practical challenges inherent in this reform are formidable. Homogenizing national and state elections would require curtailing the tenures of more recently elected state administrations and lengthening the terms of other administrations that had been elected earlier. However, while this could be done as a one-off exercise, unless the legislation bestowing autonomy to the state governments to call for their elections is amended, there is nothing to prevent them from reverting to their own cycles if they so wished.

Ensuring a more permanent arrangement would involve adding an elaborate framework of rules. These would govern how state administrations can be dissolved, as well as provide for the frequent use of President’s Rule or Emergency powers by the central government to run states for the intervening periods between when their assemblies are dissolved and when the next scheduled elections take place.[35] 


How, then, does the scenario look for Malaysia?

In the short term, it is unlikely that the Unity Government administration will be able to persuade the leaders of the different states to adopt timings for elections that are against their interests. Internal party hierarchy can influence state administrations run by Pakatan Harapan, given that this coalition is at the core of the sitting government. However, given that it is not yet clear whether BN will remain a coalition partner with PH going into the next national election,[36] it is likely that BN will decide election dates for the states it controls based on its interests alone. This is even more likely for states run by the opposition coalition, Perikatan Nasional.

Consequently, the Unity Government has two options for addressing this issue. The first would be an ambitious structural reform along the lines being debated in India. This would require some amendment to the timing of a national election, perhaps along the lines of a fixed term. Such a reform would require a constitutional amendment. The Unity Government ostensibly has more than a two-thirds majority in parliament which could be used to pass this measure. However, this would only apply to the federal government. Amendments to provisions surrounding the dissolution of legislative assemblies are stipulated in the various states’ constitutions and changes would also require amendments to these foundational documents.[37] For any reform of this nature, it is likely that extensive preparation would be necessary, including studying electoral processes elsewhere.

In addition, discussion of political reform is currently more focussed on separating the offices of the attorney general and public prosecutor, as well as the extension of citizenship to children born overseas to Malaysian mothers.[38] Consequently, it is highly unlikely that substantial changes to the electoral system will be implemented ahead of the next round of elections.

This then leaves the more organic approach of having the state elections follow their current cycle. The table below has the dates of the most recent election for Malaysia and for the thirteen states, along with the latest date on which parliament or the respective state assemblies can dissolve. This date is five years from the day of the first parliamentary or assembly sitting. Following dissolution, elections need to be held within the subsequent 60 days.

State/nationalDate of last electionLatest date for dissolution
Sabah26 September 20208 October 2025
Melaka20 November 202127 December 2026
Sarawak18 December 202114 February 2027
Johor12 March 202221 April 2027
Malaysia19 November 202219 December 2027
Perlis19 November 202219 December 2027
Perak19 November 202219 December 2027
Pahang19 November 202219 December 2027
Negri Sembilan12 August 202326 September 2028
Selangor12 August 202319 September 2028
Penang12 August 202329 August 2028
Kedah12 August 202325 September 2028
Kelantan12 August 20235 September 2028
Terengganu12 August 202324 September 2028

Looking ahead, Sabah and Sarawak are among the earliest state elections to be held. The political configuration of these two states is quite different from the peninsula and the results of the elections are likely to be relatively self-contained. For Sabah, it is quite likely that the eventual ruling coalition at the state level will seek to align itself with the ruling coalition at the federal level. For Sarawak, past trends indicate that the coalition in power at the state level, Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS), is likely to remain in power. GPS is also a current member of the Unity Government and it is unlikely that there would be a reconfiguration of this relationship so far ahead of national polls.

This is not the case for Melaka and Johor, whose elections are due roughly one year and eight months ahead of the next general election. These two states are particularly important for UMNO, lying in the southern part of the peninsula, which is one of the last redoubts of Malaysia’s grand old party. Of the two, Johor is the most important, given the party’s founding in the state and traditional strong reputation of people from the state at the party’s apex.[39]

There will be several dynamics at the forefront when UMNO party strategists plot the ideal date for the various state elections. The first will be the popularity of UMNO party president Zahid Hamidi particularly among UMNO grassroots members. In Melaka and Johor, the party is exceptionally disciplined and able to mobilize contingents of supporters to turn up to vote. However, should Zahid’s leadership be contested or should there be signs of unrest within the party, the turnout levels could be affected. Indeed, party members could even use these polls as a way of signalling their discontent. An upset in one of these states would affect UMNO’s momentum in the run-up to the national election. 

Conversely, should the UMNO leadership feel confident, it could contemplate holding the Melaka, Johor, and even the Perak and Pahang state elections together. This would cost the latter states almost a year of their terms and would represent a huge gamble for the party. That said, solid wins across these states would put UMNO in a very solid position ahead, both of national polls and of inter-coalition bargaining in preparation for national polls.

Another option would be to delay elections in some of these states to cluster them. The way to do this would be to declare an Emergency in the states running on an earlier electoral cycle. This was done most recently in 2021, when the Sarawak state election was delayed from June to December 2021, due to the COVID pandemic.[40] That said, a plausible reason would need to be given, and consent obtained from both the King and the Prime Minister. This, in turn, would require delicate inter-coalition negotiation between PH and BN.

Relatedly, the other determining factor would be the relationship between PH and BN as they plan their electoral strategies for the next general election. Will they contest jointly or separately? From PH’s point of view, the Melaka and Johor elections would be held uncomfortably close to national polls if they were to run their full terms. However, any move to bring the national election forward to coincide with the elections in these states would entail sacrificing almost a year of the current term. This is unlikely.

Another option would be for the current schedule to run its course, with the Sabah, Melaka, Sarawak and Johor elections taking place in that order. Then, if the Unity Government and particularly Pakatan Harapan is feeling confident, they can bring the Penang, Selangor, and Negri Sembilan elections forward and hold them alongside the federal election. This would allow them to accumulate political capital and begin the second term on the front foot. Given that Perikatan Nasional is solidly in power in Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu, there will be little that the Unity Government can do to influence the timing of their state elections. However, in reducing the number of states holding their elections just after national polls, the ‘mid-term’ effect on the sitting administration (should it be elected) would be reduced. Conversely, should Pakatan Harapan feel unsure about its chances at the federal level, it may seek to allow the elections in the states it currently controls to proceed to their full term, thus spreading the risk across two sets of polls. It is also possible that different PH component parties have different preferences regarding the timing of the polls in the states they control.[41]

The end of BN’s dominance in 2018 has had multiple effects on Malaysia’s political system. The reduction of the coalition’s influence at both the federal and state levels has uncovered the underlying autonomy of state governments. Given the challenges inherent in adding more structure and predictability to the timing of elections, the most likely scenario is that out-of-cycle polls will remain a characteristic of Malaysia’s political system for the foreseeable future. Political leaders will continue to cross the river by feeling the stones and seeking to determine the direction of the wind. Now, however, the wind blows from different directions.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

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Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


2024/33 “A Study of the Emerging Electric Vehicle (EV) Supply Chain in Malaysia” by Tham Siew Yean and Neo Hui Yun Rebecca


The Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA) has been tasked to promote and facilitate the investments needed to create the EV supply chain for the country. Screengrab of the Facebook Page of the Malaysian Industrial Development Authority at taken on 7 May 2024.


  • Hybrids and Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) comprised a mere 4.9% of total four-wheeled vehicles sold in Malaysia in 2023. The government is, however, targeting to achieve at least 15% of Electric Vehicles (EVs) penetration in the country by 2030. This is in line with the Low Carbon Mobility Blueprint (LCMB 2021-2030), whose figures include hybrids and electric motorcycles. The basis for the target is unknown and therefore it is also unclear whether the target has been set at too high or too low a level.
  • The Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA) has been tasked to promote and facilitate the investments needed to create the EV supply chain for the country.
  • EV investments in Malaysia over the last few years show a diverse and diffused pattern, covering different segments of the supply chain, and distributed across various states in the country.
  • While the emerging supply chain sees the entry of new automotive players spread across different states, the main foreign brands assembling in Malaysia, namely Toyota, Honda, and Mitsubishi, have yet to introduce battery electric vehicles (BEVs). These are instead still assembling at the Energy Efficient Vehicle (EEV) segments, which include hybrids.
  • The demand for EVs continues to be deterred by the unavailability of affordable BEVs and the slower than expected installation of charging infrastructure. The capital costs for the latter are relatively high, while EV adoption rates remain low.
  • This chicken-and-egg problem requires the government to intervene in the development of public charging infrastructure and to provide a clear roadmap for the transition from internal combustion engines (ICE) to BEVs, rather than just set aspirational targets alone.

ISEAS Perspective 2024/33, 9 May 2024

* Tham Siew Yean is Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Emeritus Professor at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. Neo Hui Yun Rebecca is Research Officer at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. Both authors would like to thank Manggi Habir, Siwage Dharma and Cassey Lee for their comments on an earlier draft.

Download PDF Version


Malaysia has announced an ambitious plan to boost Electric Vehicles (EVs) development within the country, proposing to achieve at least 15 percent EV usage of the country’s total industry volume (ITV)[1] by 2023, and 38 percent by 2040.[2] To facilitate this ambitious plan, the government formulated the National Automotive Policy (NAP) and the New Industrial Master Plan 2030 (NIMP 2030). The NIMP 2030 is an industrial policy document formulated to provide national strategic directions for industrial development. It mainly oversees all manufacturing and manufacturing-related service sectors, and facilitates collaboration between the government and the private sector.[3] The NAP, on the other hand, focuses more on the development of energy-efficient vehicles (EEVs) through specific strategies.[4] These include establishing a framework, roadmaps and blueprints for developing next-generation vehicles (NxGVs) or EEVs with some degree of automation, designed to make Malaysia a regional hub for NxGVs.[5] In that sense, the NAP’s primary aim is to develop various types of EEVs, while the NIMP specifically highlights the development of EVs as part of Malaysia’s industrial policy mission to push to net zero.

New investments are needed to create an EV ecosystem. This includes having multiple stakeholders who effectively cover the end-to-end value chain for EVs, such as power utilities providers, infrastructure developers, manufacturers (for example, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), component suppliers etc), battery providers, policymakers, regulators, EV-related business associations, and researchers for research & development (R&D) purposes.[6] To facilitate investments in this new sector, the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA), which is the main government agency tasked to promote and facilitate investments in manufacturing and services in the country, has provided incentives such as Pioneer Status or Investment Tax Allowance for a list of promoted products in the EEV and NxGV supply chain. The products promoted include the critical components needed in the assembly of EEVs and NxGVs, such as electric motors, batteries, and battery management systems.[7]

According to MIDA, 58 projects worth RM26.2 billion were approved for EV and its related ecosystems from 2018 to March 2023.[8] This includes foreign marques establishing a presence to sell and distribute cars in Malaysia as in the case of Tesla, which has just established an office as well as an experience and service centre for the import of Tesla EVs that are assembled in Shanghai.[9] Tesla is also building a network of Supercharger fast-charging stations, with its latest installation in Pavilion Bukit Jalil, the sixth Supercharger deployment within six months of its debut in Malaysia.[10] These charging stations differ from the government’s network of charging stations, given that they are designed only for Tesla vehicles. That being said, the Malaysian government has stepped in to ensure that foreign investors like Tesla can contribute to the expansion of the EV ecosystem in the country. As part of the approval process for Tesla’s establishment, the company is required to set up at least 50 Superchargers within three years, with 30% of these being accessible to other EV brands.[11]

This article attempts to shed light on various little-known investments that are being made to support the entire EV supply chain, focusing on what and where these investments are located, as well as which parts of the supply chain these involve. This article will also elaborate on the key challenges faced in establishing an EV ecosystem in Malaysia.


Four-wheel vehicle sales fell in 2019-2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but recovered from 2021 onwards to grow to 774,600 units for passenger and commercial vehicles in 2023 (Figure 1). Sales of hybrids grew by 3.5 times while battery EVs (BEVs) grew from a low base of 278 to 10,159 from 2021 to 2023 (Figure 1). Demand picked up after the government provided various incentives, facilitated by the post pandemic economic recovery and the market entry of EV versions of popular premium cars like the BMW and Mercedes Benz as well as new and well-known EV marques like Tesla, BYD and GMW.[12] Be that as it may, in 2023, hybrids and EVs comprised a mere 4.9% of total vehicles sold in 2023. The government is targeting to achieve at least 15% by 2030, based on the Low Carbon Mobility Blueprint (LCMB 2021-2030), whose calculations include electric motorcycles. Although electric motorcycles were also provided purchase rebates[13] by the government, the uptake has been slow; these bikes have reportedly a market share of only 1.7%.[14]

The government has targeted to have 100,000 electric cars on the road, including 2,000 electric buses and 125,000 charging stations in the country by 2030. Achieving this depends on several factors including how fast the EV ecosystem evolves to meet the aspired demand.[15] Overcoming challenges such as EV’s affordability, and accessibility to charging infrastructure is important if the EV ecosystem is to advance.

Figure 1. Sales of Total Vehicles, Hybrids and BEVs, 2021-2023

Source: MAA and Chan 2024[16]


The EV supply chain comprises several key components, starting with the sourcing and transportation of raw materials, followed by battery manufacturing, vehicle design and assembly, EV sales and dealership, and lastly EVs’ end-of-life management, such as battery recycling.[17] This differs from the supply chain of ICE, in having fewer mechanical parts, with the EV battery being the key component and representing over 40% of the total cost.[18] However, as the technology develops, the cost of EV batteries is also expected to fall over time.

Investments in Malaysia over the last few years show a diverse and diffused pattern. These cut across all segments of the supply chain, and are distributed across various states in the country (Figure 2). The following sections illustrate the various components of the EV supply chain, and the companies involved.

Figure 2. Manufacturing Plants for EVs in Peninsula Malaysia

No.Technology Partner(s)Local partner/companyName of companyProducts/Service
1Stellantis (US)NoneStellantis (US)ICE, hybrids and EV Assembly plant
2Infineon and Siemens (Germany)NoneInfineon Technologies AG EV electronic chips
3Eve Energy (China)
*Unconfirmed site
NoneEve Energy Malaysia Sdn BhdBattery assembly
4Shenzhen Serious Technology Material Co. (China)n.a.INV New Material Technology (M) Sdn. BhdBattery separators
Enovix (US)NoneEnovixBattery for four-wheelers
5United E-motor (Indonesia)Antroniq (Malaysia)Antroniq Bhd. E-motorbikes
6Volvo (Germany) Federal AutoVolvo MalaysiaAssembly of EVs
7China’s Sharkgulf Technologies Group Ltd, Blueshark (China)EP Manufactuing BerhadEP Manufactuing BerhadElectric motorcycles
8Tron Bradbury Energy (Taiwan)NoneTron Bradbury Energy (Malaysia) Sdn BhdCommercial EVs and energy storage systems (including Battery R&D)
9Thamlev (USA-based)NoneKulim Thamlev Mobility Sdn. Bhd (Malaysia)Electric motorbikes
10Graphene Synergy (Malaysia)Graphene Synergy R&D Berhad (Malaysia)Graphene Synergy R&D BerhadGraphene-based raw materials
Negeri Sembilan
11Samsung SDI Co Ltd (Korea)NoneSamsung SDI Energy Malaysia Sdn Bhd (SDIEM)Lithium-ion battery by 2025
12Chinese companies like Higer and Yu Tong and Hozon AutoJoint venture between Careplus Group Bhd and GoAuto Group Sdn Bhd with Chinese companies like Higer and Yu Tong and Hozon AutoNexV Manufacturing Sdn Bhd (NMSB)Assembly of Neta brand and other completely-knocked-down (CKD) operations
13BAIC and Great Wall (China)EP Manufacturing Bhd (EPMB)EP Manufacturing Bhd (EPMB)Manufacture and assembly of four-wheel EEVs, EVs, and electric commercial vehicles
14United E-motor (Indonesia)
*Unconfirmed site
Antroniq (Malaysia)Antroniq Bhd. E-motorbikes
15Mercedes Benz (Germany) DRB HicomMercedes Benz MalaysiaAssembly of EVs
16Graphjet Technology Sdn Bhd (Malaysia)Graphjet Technology Sdn Bhd(Malaysia)Graphjet Technology Sdn Bhd(Malaysia)Transform palm industry waste materials, palm kernels, into graphite and single-layer graphene.

Notes: n.a.: Not available

Source: Compiled by authors



Critical minerals like nickel, lithium, cobalt, manganese, rare earth, and graphite are needed for battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs). Indonesia, for example, has used its nickel reserves to develop an EV battery supply chain as well as the manufacture and assembly of EVs.[19]

Although Malaysia has some critical minerals such as rare earth elements (REE),[20] policies regarding its extraction, processing and usage are still being formulated. A Parliamentary Caucus for Critical Minerals was established in March 2024 to strengthen understanding of matters relating to critical minerals as well as advocate for a legal and regulatory framework to manage Malaysia’s critical mineral sectors.[21] Malaysia currently has domestic sources of nickel, cobalt, manganese, and graphite, which should ease the country’s efforts to develop its own EV supply chain.

Nevertheless, foreign investments in minerals have begun to emerge in Malaysia. From Figure 3, Sarawak in East Malaysia is venturing into graphite manufacturing, including synthetic graphite, in Bintulu, under a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Sarawak Economic Development Corporation (SEDC), and Gallois New Energy Materials (M) Sdn Bhd.[22] The latter is a subsidiary company of the established Madagascar graphite miner, Gallios.[23] Although graphite is used for EV batteries, Sarawak has announced that it also intends to use it for the development of hydrogen fuel cells. The state is championing the use of such cells in public transportation.[24]

Figure 3. Manufacturing Plants for Mineral and Batteries in Sabah and Sarawak

No.Technology Partner(s)Local companyProducts/Service
1SK Nexilis (South Korea)KKIP (Kota Kinaablu Industrial Park) Sdn Bhd (Malaysia)Copper foil manufacturing for EV batteries
2Gallois New Energy (HK)SEDC Energy (Sarawak), Gallois New Energy Materials (M) Sd BhdGraphite plant

Source: Compiled by authors

Peninsular Malaysia is also pursuing the development of alternative mineral resources, namely graphene. In fact, a National Graphene Action Plan was launched in 2014, which focuses on the commercialisation of graphene, including for the use of lithium-ion battery anodes.[25] The most important development on this front is the emergence of an initially private local company, Graphjet Sdn. Bhd, in 2019. Graphjet has patented technology to produce graphene from recycled palm kernel shells, which can then be used for EV batteries, medical devices and home appliances.[26] The company was also identified as one of NIMP’s national mission-based projects or catalytic projects, at the launch of the plan in 2023.[27] It is building a factory at Malaysia-Kuantan Industrial Park (MCKIP) in Pahang, where it is expected to produce 10,000 tonnes of graphite and 60 tonnes of single-layer graphene annually.[28] In March 2024, the company went public on Nasdaq Global Market.[29] It also aims to be the leading source of graphite and graphene in the US market, thereby offering itself as an alternative source to China, which is the largest synthetic graphite manufacturer in the world.

Another local R&D company, Graphene Synergy R&D Sdn. Bhd, is also producing graphene and graphene-based materials at Teknologi Park Malaysia, in Selangor. It is exploring partnerships with producers and manufacturers.

EV Batteries

Malaysia also has investments in EV battery assembly for two and four wheelers as well as the manufacture of key components for EV batteries. The government has initiated various incentives to attract investors, including having tax break extensions for the production of various components in battery assembly.[30] For battery assembly, investments come from different countries such as China, the US, Taiwan, and South Korea. Their new manufacturing plants are primarily concentrated within Kedah, Negeri Sembilan, Penang and Sabah. Table 1 illustrates the investors involved in the development of EV battery components.

Table 1: List of Investors for EV batteries and its components

StateName of Investor(s)Details of investment
KedahEve EnergyManufacture lithium-ion batteries at a new factory in Kulim.[31]
PenangJoint-venture between Enovix Corporation (lithium-ion manufacturer listed in Nasdaq), and YBS International of MalaysiaManufacture silicon battery at Penang Science Park.[32]
INV New Material Technology (M) Sdn Bhd, which is a subsidiary of Shenzhen Senior Technology Material Co. LtdManufacture wet process and coated separators for lithium batteries, key components in ensuring battery safety
Negeri SembilanTron Energy Technology Corporation, in partnership with Bradbury Asset Management (Hong Kong) LtdPlanning to build a battery research and development facility at Malaysia Vision Valley
Samsung SDIBuilding a battery factory
SabahSouth Korea with SK NexilisProducing copper foil for EV battery materials manufacturer SKC


Germany’s Infineon Technologies and Siemens will expand their facility in Kulim Hi-Tech Park to manufacture chips for different uses, including in EVs. These are crucial components in EVs and can affect their optimal and efficient performance.

Vehicle Assembly

Luxury cars with plants in Malaysia have already started assembling EV models locally. For example, Mercedes Benz in Pahang launched locally assembled CKDs in early 2023.[33] Volvo is also assembling EVs at its plant in Shah Alam and plans to export locally assembled EVs to other countries in ASEAN.[34]

There are also new vehicle players coming from new source countries. Stellantis from the US has acquired Naza Automotive Manufacturing Sdn. Bhd. and the latter’s manufacturing plant in Gurun, Kedah.[35] This company assembles various marques such as Peugeot, Alpha Romeo, and Citroen, and is reportedly planning to assemble ICEs, hybrids and BEVs for Malaysia and the regional market, using Malaysia as its ASEAN hub.[36] The targeted plan is to assemble the first EV in Malaysia by the second half of 2024, followed by the production of its BEV series (STLA medium vehicle) in 2025.[37] Tron Bradbury Energy (Taiwan) and Bradbury Asset Management (Hong Kong) Ltd, are also planning to assemble commercial vehicles at Port Klang.[38]

Locally assembled electric motorcycles are also emerging. The first is a partnership between Malaysia’s Antroniq, an investment holding company, and Indonesia’s United E-motor in Batu Kawan, Penang and Johor.[39] US-based Thamlev, which was started by a Malaysian, is assembling at Balakong in Kuala Lumpur.[40] A local parts and components manufacturer, EP Manufacturing Berhad is partnering with China’s Sharkgulf Technologies Group Ltd, to assemble, manufacture and distribute the latter’s Blueshark two-wheeler at Glenmarie in Shah Alam, Selangor.[41]

Two local companies have been given the license to assemble EVs with technology partners from China, in Melaka and Negeri Sembilan. While new players make an entry into the automotive market in different states, main foreign brands assembling in Malaysia, namely Toyota, Honda, and Mitsubishi,[42] have yet to introduce BEVs and are in fact still assembling at the EEV segments, including hybrids. According to Toyota, their stand remains at providing a broad range of engine options for their consumers, which includes petrol, diesel, hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and hydrogen. As much as electric cars can be a solution to carbon neutrality, Toyota believes that there is still value in investing in other fuel types such as hydrogen fuel cell, synthetic fuel etc.[43] This could account for their slow entry into the BEV markets, including in Malaysia.


Slow take-off of affordable EVs

EVs continue to remain out of reach for most Malaysians, primarily due to their high prices. According to MITI’s Franchise AP policy, the import of completely built-up (CBU) EVs is capped at the road price tag (OTR)[44] of RM100,000 to prevent dumping and to provide time for local car manufacturers, primarily Proton and Perodua, to develop their EVs for the local market. As much as the restriction aims to protect the interest of local players, it has nevertheless led to a slow introduction of affordable EVs in the market. This effectively means that the majority of EVs are priced much higher than petrol-powered vehicles (the cheapest EV in the market still costs around RM140,000[45]), a price unaffordable for most Malaysians. While Proton and Perodua have announced intentions to produce their own EVs by 2025,[46] no concrete plans have been released.

Difficulty in developing an EV supply chain that can support local assembly could be the reason for slowness in pushing out affordable EVs. Both Proton and Perodua will have to deal with the need to upgrade the capabilities of existing vendors or facilitate their exit since EVs use a smaller number of moving parts compared to ICE engines. Proton has reportedly 116 vendors[47] while Perodua has 120.[48] Handling the transition therefore requires careful planning to phase out existing suppliers and concurrently introduce new suppliers with the right capabilities. This is not such a simple matter in Malaysia since national car producers have to nurture localization, especially Bumiputera auto parts suppliers.[49] Moreover, there are also implications on the company’s approved permits (AP) if such localisation is not properly managed within their supply chain. A potential relaxation of Bumiputera equity requirement for AP qualification could hasten the development of a local EV supply chain.[50]

Apart from that, foreign suppliers for Proton will also have to shift their current capabilities to support EV assembly. To illustrate, Camel Power Battery (CPB) from China entered Malaysia and built a factory at Malaysia-Kuantan Industrial Park (MCKIP) in 2018. It is a key supplier of batteries for Proton.[51] To stay relevant in the transition and beyond, CPB will have to shift from traditional ICE batteries to EV batteries. The same goes for other suppliers. This could be difficult if the company is not equipped to manage the transition, given that moving into EV production means shifting from developing an electromechanical intensive vehicle (such as ICE) to an information intensive vehicle (such as EV).[52] This also entails demands such as software designing and supporting electronics, all of which require higher capital and technological advancement. High costs could deter companies from moving into this field, especially when the demand in Malaysia is still relatively low.

Nonetheless, both Proton and Perodua may be able to produce their own EVs in the coming years. Proton has been distributing the SMART EV for Malaysia and Thailand since 2023 and will be exploring the local assembly of this vehicle at its Tanjung Malim plant. Apart from that, Proton is planning to shift progressively to hybrid engines for existing models, while developing Range-Extender EVs (primarily driven by an electric motor but using a small combustion engine functioning as a battery generator) as a bridging technology before migrating to full BEVs from 2028 onwards (Figure 4).[53] Perodua is also reportedly planning to launch a new energy vehicle by end 2025, which may possibly be a hybrid rather than a full BEV.

Interestingly, two other local companies have also been given the license to manufacture EVs. Listed auto parts producer and distributor, EPMB, has ventured into EV assembly operations with technology from China’s BAIC and Great Wall. Another company, NexV has also announced local assembly of Neta cars produced by China’s Hozon Auto. While pricing is still not known at this juncture, the cars assembled by these two new EV assemblers with Chinese technology can pose serious competition to Proton and Perodua’s planned hybrid/EV cars.

Figure 4. Local companies planning to assemble BEVs, March 2024

Need for policy coordination

While Malaysia manoeuvres the shift in the supply chain, policy coordination is needed to shift the demand. Demand is largely affected by the slow uptake of charging infrastructure needed to reduce range anxiety, especially for intra-state travel. The government’s aim of having 10,000 EV charging infrastructure by 2025 may be quite challenging; by January 2024, only 1,500 have been installed.[54] Private investors are slow to invest as the capital costs are high; it is estimated that installing 10 rapid charging stations costs RM1.5-RM2 million. At the same time, demand is held back by the lack of affordable EVs.

Furthermore, the removal of general fuel subsidies which is to take place in 2024, is facing challenges due to lower than expected registration at the Central Database Hub (PADU), which is to provide information on who will be receiving subsequent targeted subsidies.[55] If the subsidies are given back as cash transfers to the targeted groups, as planned, it may not facilitate any shift towards the use of electric vehicles since these groups can still choose to use ICE, especially in view of the slow development of charging infrastructure and affordable EVs.[56]

There is essentially a chicken-and-egg situation; both supply and demand must move forward at the same time to accelerate EV adoption. Hence the government has to review the incentives for the private sector to participate in EV adoption, and increase public provision especially along the highways for inter-state travel.

The government should also reveal its EV policy for 2026 onwards. At present, it is not known what will happen to the import cap of RM100,000 after 2025. It appears likely that Proton and Perodua will be introducing hybrids as a transition to BEVs.[57] Should the government further extend the import cap, then the availability of affordable BEVs will be further delayed, and it will be difficult to overcome the chicken-and-egg problem.


Malaysia has planned to draw in foreign and domestic investments to build an EV supply chain in the country. The investment pattern that has emerged is diverse and diffused across different segments of the EV supply chain, stretching from minerals to the assembly of batteries and vehicles in the two-wheeler and four-wheeler markets.

Be that as it may, Malaysia still faces outstanding challenges for the EV market to take off. This can be attributed to the slow emergence of affordable EVs; the number of BEVs still remains small, though growing. The demand for EVs is also deterred by the slower than expected installation of charging infrastructure. This chicken-and-egg problem requires the government to intervene in developing public charging infrastructure and providing a clear roadmap for the transition from ICE to BEVs. Setting aspirational targets alone is not enough.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS. Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.   © Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok   Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong   Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha   Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng   Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng   Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


“Malaysia’s Responses to Issues Pertaining to Palestine” by Mohd Faizal Musa



• Malaysia’s support for Palestinian independence has always been based on religion. Historically, Malaysia has had warm relations with Palestinian leaders including the Palestine Liberation Organization—during Hussein Onn’s and Mahathir Mohamad’s administrations—and Hamas since Najib Razak’s administration.

• However, Malaysia’s support is not just based on their affinity to Palestinians as fellow Muslims but is also a matter of domestic politics. Support for Palestine has been used as a political tool for various quarters to prove that they are more Islamic than the other.

• Malaysia is now led by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, a former student leader who rose to prominence in the 1970s for his activism on issues regarding the Muslim ummah, including Palestinian independence. Over the years, Anwar has demonstrated consistency in his support for Palestinians, and this has especially been the case since the outbreak of Israeli aggression against Gaza which began on 7 October 2023.

• As a result, Malaysia has gained global prominence for its aggressive stand against Israel. Thus, this paper discusses the Malaysian government’s responses to issues pertaining to Palestine over the years. In doing so, it illustrates that while Islam has been a crucial rallying point in supporting the rights and independence of the Palestinians, it is also arguable that Malaysia’s foreign policy outlook is also influenced by domestic politics and the need for the government of the day to maintain its support from the Muslim voter base.

Trends in Southeast Asia 2024/13, April 2024


2024/32 “Assessing Prabowo-Gibran’s Victory: An Exit-Poll Aftermath Analysis of the 2024 Presidential Election” by Burhanuddin Muhtadi and Kennedy Muslim


Indonesia’s president-elect Prabowo Subianto (Left) speaks to the media with vice president-elect Gibran Rakabuming Raka (Right) as they arrive at the plenary session of the General Elections Commission (KPU) after his main rivals’ challenges to his election victory were rejected at the KPU office in Jakarta, on 24 April 2024. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA/AFP).


  • Prabowo-Gibran’s landslide victory in the 2024 presidential election can be explained by two major factors: Jokowi’s high approval rating, and support from young voters (Gen Z and millennials).
  • Ganjar Pranowo’s failure to develop a political brand and a narrative outside the influence of Jokowi, together with his chosen strategy of attacking Jokowi, led to election defeat. This left him with little appeal outside his own PDIP base.
  • In turn, Anies Baswedan’s strategy of offering change appealed to anti-Jokowi voters. But given Jokowi’s high approval rating, this did not boost support for him to any significant extent.
  • The social assistance (Bansos) programme indirectly boosted support for Prabowo-Gibran by way of maintaining Jokowi’s high approval due to the fact that the recipients of Bansos were generally spread across the camps of all the three candidates.

* Burhanuddin Muhtadi is Visiting Fellow of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and Professor of Politics at the State Islamic University, Jakarta; and Kennedy Muslim is Senior Researcher at Indikator Politik Indonesia.

ISEAS Perspective 2024/32, 6 May 2024

Download PDF Version


After a long and widely criticized vote recapitulation process, the General Election Commission (KPU) finally announced the results of the 2024 presidential and legislative elections on March 20, 2024. Prabowo Subianto-Gibran Rakabuming Raka were declared the winner with a landslide margin of 58.6%, beating rivals Anies Baswedan-Muhaimin Iskandar at 24.9% and Ganjar Pranowo-Mahfud MD at 16.5%.[1]

The KPU’s final vote tally surpassed the predictions of several leading Indonesian pollsters which had estimated Prabowo-Gibran’s victory in the range of 52-54%. How could someone with a track record of human rights violations, who had repeatedly lost elections, suddenly manage to defeat two strong rivals by such a large victory margin? Using exit poll data, this article investigates the factors that contributed to the overwhelming triumph of Prabowo-Gibran.

Survey trends ahead of the election had indicated a landslide victory for Prabowo.[2] Once Prabowo had picked Gibran as his vice-presidential candidate, his electability had continued to rise. Jokowi’s high approval rating throughout the election cycle favoured the candidates who promised to continue Jokowi’s programmes. Picking Gibran as running mate was a clear political cue from Prabowo to voters that he was the only candidate running in “Jokowi’s lane,” which he previously had had to share with Ganjar. From then on, support for Prabowo was accompanied by a sharp decline in Ganjar’s poll numbers. This trend continued until election day, February 14, 2024. Ganjar voters had migrated to Prabowo.

At the same time, Anies’ electability trend tended to stagnate. Even though he overtook Ganjar in mid-December 2023, Anies failed to increase support in Prabowo’s traditional electoral base, except in Aceh and West Sumatra. He also failed to attract Jokowi voters in Central Java, East Java and in the non-Muslim bases.

Prabowo also benefited from the presence of so-called ‘shy voters’. Almost all ‘shy voters’ who did not reveal their choice at the time of the survey gave their votes to Prabowo. One reason could be as predicted in the spiral of silence theory,[3] which asserts that when individuals notice that their opinion is shared by their like-minded community, for example, in social media like Twitter, they will in time become more confident and outward with their opinion. However, if the individual notices that his opinion is unpopular in the group, he will be more reserved (shy to reveal their opinion). People who backed Prabowo, especially middle-class people who knew Prabowo’s background and who were active on social media, especially Twitter, tended to hide their preferences before the election.


An exit poll conducted by Indikator Politik, a leading pollster, covering 2,975 respondents after they cast their votes across the country[4] helps us understand the demographic base of supporters of the three presidential candidates. In terms of gender, there is no significant difference between male and female voters who supported the three candidates. In terms of age, the younger voter group displayed greater support for Prabowo. On the other hand, the older voter group showed higher support for Ganjar. In contrast to previous trends where the participation of young voters tended to be lower than the national average, the findings of the Indikator exit poll showed that Generation Z and millennial voters’ participation rates were very high. This explains Prabowo’s convincing majority in the 2024 presidential election.

The Central Statistics Agency (BPS) recorded the proportion of Indonesian Zillennial (Gen-Z and millennial) voters at 53% whereas the exit poll recorded the turnout rate of the Zillennial voters at 58.7%.

Graph 1: Candidate support based on demographic variable (%)

In contrast to the widely held assumption that Gen Z voters tend to be progressive, recent studies show a tendency for them to be more conservative than expected in their political preference.[5] In this regard, Indonesian young voters seem to follow the global trend. Indonesia’s young generation, raised in an environment where democratic elections and the safeguarding of civil liberties are considered ‘normal’, may be taking for granted their democratic rights and are exhibiting reduced sensitivity towards the potential risks associated with anti-democratic and illiberal state policies.[6] Moreover, Prabowo’s smart campaign strategy, recasting him as a cute, cuddly—gemoy in Indonesian—grandpa and his signature gemoy dance, also connected well with the young.

Based on ethnic background, support for Prabowo was dominant in almost all ethnic groups, except for Minang voters, who tended to vote for Anies. Interestingly, Prabowo received huge support from both Muslims and non-Muslims. Meanwhile, Ganjar relied too much on non-Muslim voters, and was weak among Muslim voters. In contrast, Anies depended too much on Muslim voters and was very weak among non-Muslims.

Interestingly, the magnitude of support among NU members for Prabowo was much higher than among members of Muhammadiyah or other mass organizations. Prabowo’s prominence within NU circles is interesting because neither Prabowo nor Gibran has NU background. This was different from the cases of Muhaimin Iskandar and Mahfud MD who are closely associated with NU. Studies show that the mobilization of support by NU leaders, or Pengurus Besar Nadhlatul Ulama (PBNU)[7] and popular NU-affiliated figures such as the Governor of East Java Khofifah Indar Parawangsa, boosted NU support for Prabowo. Again, the Jokowi factor was at play here. Jokowi’s popularity and traditional support base at NU’s grassroots level and his patronage relationship with current NU Chairman, Gus Yahya, strongly influenced NU members to support Prabowo.

Regarding social class categories, Prabowo dominated all lower-, middle-, or upper-class segments based on education level or monthly income level. The assumption that Prabowo was only supported by lower educated groups, while Anies was supported by educated circles, proved to be incorrect. Overall, Prabowo supporters from educated circles were much more than those favouring Anies. This finding confirms that many from the educated middle class were not worried about Prabowo’s human rights record or the ethical controversies surrounding Gibran’s nomination process in the Constitutional Court. They were not especially concerned about dynastic politics either. The issue of political dynasty and democratic regression were voiced by intellectuals and civil society activists. Yet, these only resonated in a limited circle, even among the educated.


The 2024 Presidential campaign narrative was overshadowed by the electoral referendum on Jokowi’s approval rating. The dominant campaign theme revolved around two messages, namely, continuity of and change in Jokowi’s programmes. In mid-2022, almost two years before election day, Ganjar was the frontrunner in the presidential race, ahead of Prabowo and Anies.  He was widely seen as Jokowi’s natural successor, given the President’s endorsement in public at the time. Along the way, voters eventually split between those satisfied with Jokowi’s rule and wanted continuity of his programmes, represented by Ganjar and Prabowo, and those dissatisfied with Jokowi’s rule, who gravitated toward a new oppositional camp symbolized by Anies. The opposition camp always faced a daunting challenge in enlarging their electoral base. This was due to the high popularity of Jokowi, who had approval ratings consistently above 75%.

Once Jokowi shifted his endorsement to Prabowo after his eldest son was chosen to be the latter’s running mate, Jokowi supporters shifted dramatically to support Prabowo. This situation suddenly left Ganjar and PDIP in a dilemma. They started attacking Jokowi for political betrayal and for intervening in the electoral process and sidelining democratic and ethical principles. Yet, their strategy was counterproductive. Ganjar’s poll number started to collapse as voters observed a growing rift between Jokowi and PDI-P. They then started to follow the electoral cue from Jokowi to support Prabowo; who had now suddenly become the sole candidate promising continuity of Jokowi’s programmes.

Graph 2: President Jokowi’s Approval Trend

Graph 3: Three-way Candidate Poll Trend

The strong reaction from Ganjar and PDIP against Jokowi also highlighted their failure to develop a political persona and narrative unique and apart from Jokowi.  Without Jokowi’s brand, Ganjar’s poll number crumbled as he was left without a clear campaign message or identity. In contrast, Jokowi and Prabowo had their own political identity and electoral support base. The latter had developed over the past two elections to transcend each their own political party, PDIP and Gerindra respectively. Ganjar failed to develop an independent political persona which could appeal to voters outside his own party base. Even Anies had managed to develop a clear political persona as a smart and religious figure, not to mention his reputation as the icon of opposition to Jokowi’s regime.

With more than 200 million voters spread across the archipelago, reaching those voters directly presented a daunting challenge for any candidate in any election. Each presidential candidate therefore had to have a public identity that stood out without the need for him to visit all constituencies physically. Prabowo positioned himself as Jokowi’s successor at a time when eight out of ten voters approved of Jokowi. Prabowo and Gibran were less active compared to Anies and Ganjar when campaigning. Instead, they spent more time as Minister of Defense and Mayor of Solo than campaign. This lack of footwork was more than compensated for by a solid coalition strategy and an effective social media campaign. Using TikTok, Prabowo’s campaign team managed to reach and win over many young voters. One of the turning points in Prabowo’s social media campaign came after one of the presidential debates, which showed Anies and Ganjar jointly attacking Prabowo’s track record. Prabowo’s poor performance during the debate was then effectively reframed by his social media campaign team to create a perception of nasty bullying by his opponents. This then garnered widespread sympathy among voters who watched the debate clip on social media.[8] An outpouring of support could be seen in the millions of new followers which Prabowo gained on his personal social media accounts, such as Instagram and Tiktok. This shows that political campaign are not always about appealing to rational voters; affective means are often very effective.

During the campaign period, Anies’ and Ganjar’s camps criticized Jokowi for initiating massive government social assistance or bansos programmes such as direct cash assistance (BLT) to influence the electorates.[9] To verify this, we asked respondents and their families if they had ever received government assistance (basic food assistance, cash social assistance (BST), direct business assistance (BLU), family hope programmes (PKH), and so on). Graph 3 shows that 45.6% of respondents reported that they had received social assistance, while 51.7% said ‘no’. For those who said ‘yes’, we asked if they continued getting help on a regular basis. On this question, 53.7% said ‘yes’, while 43.9% said ‘no’. Nonetheless, the exit poll results showed that the effect of social assistance was not directly visible since the recipients were spread quite evenly among the three candidate’s supporters (Graph 4).

Graph 4: Whether respondents have ever received bansos? (%)

Graph 5: The electoral effect of bansos (%)

This was also true for the ten kilogrammes of rice assistance programme.[10] 66% of respondents said that they were aware of the programme. Of those who knew, 45% admitted to receiving it. However, there was no significant difference between those who received and those who did not receive the assistance in terms of their choice of candidate (Graph 5). Kompas exit poll results also revealed similar findings, in which social assistance programmes did not significantly increase Prabowo’s electability.[11] Meanwhile, Prabowo’s electability was higher among those who did receive direct cash assistance (BLT)[12] compared to those who did not receive it (Graphs 6a and 6b). Overall, the majority of voters who did not receive BLT assistance still voted for Prabowo.

Graph 6a: The electoral impact of 10-KG rice assistance (%)

Graph 6b: The electoral impact of Direct Cash Assistance (BLT)

This does not mean that social assistance had no electoral impact at all. Graph 7 shows that the social assistance programs had direct effect in maintaining and even increasing Jokowi’s popularity as well as his approval rating. We found a significant positive correlation between bansos, 10Kg rice assistance and 3-month lump sum cash transfer (or BLT) and Jokowi’s approval rating. Similar significant positive correlations were also found between Jokowi’s approval rating and people’s support for Prabowo. Apparently, the effect of bansos for Prabowo’s electability poll happened indirectly, by way of Jokowi’s high approval rating. But it did happen.

Graph 7: President approval based on the recipients of bansos, 10KG rice, and BLT


From the beginning of the election cycle, the 2024 presidential election zeitgeist and narrative were set by Jokowi, who was seen as the most influential political actor on the Indonesian electoral scene. His constantly high approval rating, above 75%, throughout the election cycle benefited Prabowo-Gibran as the candidate-pair who claimed a continuity of Jokowi’s programmes and legacy. Another major factor contributing to Prabowo’s landslide victory over his two opponents also rested on his own effective electoral strategy in recasting his old strongman image in the last two elections into a more friendly image of a “cuddly grandpa”; this attracted many Gen-Z and millennial voters through social media platforms like TikTok. The exit-poll analysis clearly shows an overwhelming support  from young voters, which made up more than half the electorate, towards Prabowo-Gibran. The 2024 election also saw a high young voters turnout, unlike in  previous elections. This young voters turnout and their support for Prabowo-Gibran was evident in the exit-poll.

Despite some incidents of electoral irregularities, various exit-poll analyses show that Prabowo’s commanding lead and one-round victory were simply too convincing for any electoral fraud allegation. Controversies surrounding the mobilization of the state apparatus and the utilization of bansos to overturn the landslide election result are difficult to prove due to weak evidence. The most dominant factor in explaining Prabowo’s victory lies in Jokowi’s high approval rating. In this sense, we could argue that the 2024 presidential election was a “referendum” on whether Jokowi’s legacy should be continued or not.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

ISEAS Perspective is published electronically by: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute   30 Heng Mui Keng Terrace Singapore 119614 Main Tel: (65) 6778 0955 Main Fax: (65) 6778 1735   Get Involved with ISEAS.
Please click here: /support/get-involved-with-iseas/
ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute accepts no responsibility for facts presented and views expressed.   Responsibility rests exclusively with the individual author or authors. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.  
© Copyright is held by the author or authors of each article.
Editorial Chairman: Choi Shing Kwok  
Editorial Advisor: Tan Chin Tiong
Editorial Committee: Terence Chong, Cassey Lee, Norshahril Saat, and Hoang Thi Ha
Managing Editor: Ooi Kee Beng  
Editors: William Choong, Lee Poh Onn, Lee Sue-Ann, and Ng Kah Meng  
Comments are welcome and may be sent to the author(s).


“Why Young Malay Voters in Malaysia Are “Turning Green”” By Syaza Shukri



• There is an increasing trend among young Malay voters in Malaysia to support the Perikatan Nasional coalition, with a particular emphasis on the Islamist party PAS.

• Despite recognition of the weak economy as a significant national concern, young Malay voters continue to place a higher emphasis on Muslim leaders who assert their commitment to safeguarding the rights of Islam in Malaysia.

• Consistent with theories on political socialization, the influence of family members significantly affects young Malay voters in Malaysia, particularly due to their limited political awareness of alternative channels like formal schooling.

• Young Malay voters acknowledge the significant impact of social media and TikTok, particularly in how these shape the voting patterns of their peers. They nevertheless maintain a perception of their own impartiality in this regard.

• Interestingly, the influence of Islamic institutions, with their own educational philosophy, on the political behaviour of Malay youth is minimal, as their political ideas are already shaped by their early experiences.

Trends in Southeast Asia 2024/12, April 2024


2024/31 “Islamist Figures and Their Limited Role in Indonesia’s 2024 Presidential Election” by A’an Suryana


Indonesia’s president-elect Prabowo Subianto (L) and vice president-elect Gibran Rakabuming Raka (R) wave to journalists after the plenary meeting of the general election commission (KPU) announcing the 2024 presidential election in Jakarta on 24 April 2024. Under the upcoming Prabowo Subianto government, which begins its term in October 2024, Islamists are expected to have greater room to manoeuvre. (Photo by ADEK BERRY / AFP).


  • This article discusses the role of Indonesian Islamists in the 2024 Presidential Election. Their role merits discussion because they have been impactful during various episodes of Indonesia’s political history.
  • This article argues that unlike previous elections, the Islamists did not play a significant role in the run-up to the 2024 Presidential Election.
  • Their dwindling social and political influence can be attributed to state repression under President Joko Widodo’s regime and the shifting of political alliances among nationalists and religious elites.
  • However, under the upcoming Prabowo Subianto government, which begins its term in October 2024, the Islamists are expected to have greater room to manoeuvre.
  • Under Prabowo’s regime, they are expected to be under less social and political pressure, judging from Prabowo’s history of working together with Islamists.

ISEAS Perspective 2024/31, 29 April 2024

*A’an Suryana is a Visiting Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and is a lecturer at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Universitas Islam Internasional Indonesia.

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This article discusses the role of Indonesian Islamists in the 2024 Presidential Election. Although Islamists are generally peripheral players in Indonesian politics, they have had significant influence on Indonesia’s social and political conditions, due to their religious legitimacy and their skills in mobilising the masses.

A case in point was their role in the anti-Ahok protests in the run-up to the Jakarta gubernatorial election in 2017. Despite being small in numbers, the Islamists rallied as the 212 Aksi Bela Islam Movement (Defending Islam Movement) and managed to mobilise Muslims from various backgrounds to stage a series of protests against Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), former governor of Jakarta whom they accused of committing blasphemy against Islam. The protests, one of which was the biggest in Indonesian history, successfully prevented Ahok, who held a double minority status, a Christian and a Chinese Indonesian, from winning the election. At the same time, the protests also brought Habib Rizieq, the leader of the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI) and a long-time fringe player in Indonesian politics, to the apex of his social and political status. The Islamists also played a significant role in instigating anti-Ahmadiyah and anti-Shia protests nationwide; these were rampant during the presidency of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (2004-2014).

“Islamists” in this article loosely refers to Islamic activists who operate outside the formal political structure. In other words, they do not occupy positions as leaders of political parties, councillors, legislators or state actors. Instead, they promote their ideas and interests through street protests and religious events. A substantial number of Islamists are leaders and members of FPI, Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI), and the Salafi movement.[1] According to scholar Greg Fealy, they aspire “to make Islamic law and values a central part of public life and the structure of the state.”[2] Unlike moderate Muslims, Islamists tend to support the establishment of Sharia law and reject the appointment of non-Muslim leaders in strategic leadership positions such as governorship or presidency (and vice-presidency). However, Islamists do not support acts of terror and, therefore, are distinct from extremist Muslims.

It is important to note that Indonesian Muslims are diverse in orientation. For the purpose of this research, the definition of Islamist used in this article excludes moderate Muslims of the modernist and traditionalist type (people who follow religious beliefs and practices of Muhammadiyah and Nadhlatul Ulama, respectively) as well as religious figures and organisations that support terrorism such as Jamaah Ansharut Daulah or other supporters of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Recent academic literature discusses Islamists resorting to populism or riding on blasphemy issues to gain religious legitimacy. Some scholars have argued that populism among Islamists arose due to deepening religious conservatism,[3] while others contend that this is instead due to experiences of social injustice.[4] Islamists have also used blasphemy to attain their objectives.[5]

This article seeks to expand the existing scholarship on the role of Islamists in Indonesian politics. This article will also discuss the future of Islamists in the post-Joko Widodo era as his term ends in October 2024. It argues that the Islamists’ loss in significance in the 2024 Presidential Election was mainly due to their social and political influence being weakened by state repression under Joko Widodo, and to shifts in political alliances among nationalists and religious elites.


The protests against Ahok in 2017 sharply increased Islamists’ political influence. The effective framing of the blasphemy case saw the National Movement to Safeguard the Indonesian Ulema Council’s Fatwa (GNPF-MUI) successfully mobilising thousands of Muslims to participate in the series of protests.

While the protests targeted Ahok, the ultimate aim of the Islamists was to undermine Joko Widodo’s popularity and power going into the 2019 Presidential Election.[6] Following the successful anti-Ahok protests, the Islamists formed the Persaudaraan Alumni 212 (the 212 Brotherhood Alumni) to sustain the momentum of the Aksi Bela Islam movement and uphold public support for them.

However, the political influence of the Islamists weakened when Joko Widodo began consolidating his power by controlling security apparatuses, building stronger ties with civil society, and expanding a coalition of parties to control seats in the parliament. Joko Widodo granted strategic security positions to at least two individuals with whom he had established relationships during his tenure as mayor of Solo between 2005 and 2012. Hadi Tjahjanto, the man Joko Widodo installed as the chief of the Indonesian military on 8 December 2017, was a military airport commander in Solo between 2010 and 2011, while Listyo Sigit Prabowo, chief of the Solo police between 2010 and 2012, was appointed as national chief of police on 27 January 2021.

Joko Widodo also obtained support from civil society by building partnerships with Nadhlatul Ulama, for example, by appointing Ma’ruf Amin, a senior NU cleric, as his vice-presidential candidate. Nadhlatul Ulama is Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation whose moderate ideology stands in contrast to that of the Islamists. Good ties with NU is strategic as a vote-getter and the move proved hugely successful in the 2019 Presidential Election. Partnership with NU provided the government with an effective counterbalance to the power of the Islamists.

Joko Widodo also successfully expanded a coalition of political parties to have a firmer grip on the House of Representatives. At the beginning of his administration in 2014, he controlled 207 seats out of the total 560 seats in the parliament.[7] In 2022, he added more parties to the pro-government coalition, increasing the number of seats under his control to 471 seats – equivalent to 81.9 percent of the total seats.[8] He consolidated his power through a carrot-and-stick approach. On one hand, he offered governmental positions, including ministerial positions, to parties in exchange for their support.[9] On the other hand, he ensured that none of these positions were offered to opposition parties, including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS). 

As Joko Widodo’s power base grew, the Islamists faced contrasting fates including legal prosecution. Their frontman, Habib Rizieq Shihab, was jailed for spreading fake news while another prominent figure during the 212 protest, Mohammad Al Khaththath, was arrested on treason charges. In addition, seven FPI executives were arrested on various charges including terrorism. Islamist organisations also became a target of state repression. HTI was banned in 2018, followed by FPI two years later. The criminalisation and the banning of these organisations weakened the Islamists, and explains their limited influence during the 2024 presidential campaign.


Another factor that has weakened the Islamists is the shift in political alliances. In the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections, Islamists had rendered their support to Prabowo Subianto. However, Jokowi successfully convinced pro-Prabowo Islamist supporters to switch allegiance to his camp. In 2014, only one Islamic party supported Jokowi, but the number increased to three in the 2019 election: the Nation Awakening Party (PKB), the United Development Party (PPP) and the Crescent Star Party (PBB). Some politicians who had been known to support Islamist causes also left Prabowo in favour of Jokowi, including Ali Mochtar Ngabalin, Kapitra Ampera, Yusril Ihza Mahendra and Zainul Majdi.[10] Their departure not only weakened the Islamists, it also made them vulnerable.

A political bombshell was dropped when Prabowo accepted Jokowi’s offer to join his administration and cast aside his Islamist allies while seeking political support from moderate Muslim figures and organisations such as Nadhlatul Ulama.[11] Islamists felt that Prabowo abandoned them, and called him “a traitor.”[12]

Going into the 2024 Presidential Election, support for Islamic parties was fragmented. The Prabowo-Gibran pair obtained support from PBB and the National Mandate Party (PAN), whereas the Anies-Muhaimin and Ganjar-Mahfud pairs received support from PKS and PPP respectively. As a result of the three-way race and the fragmented support from Islamic parties, identity politics became a non-viable weapon. This resulted in little demand among candidates to engage with the Islamists to mobilise the masses.

Initially, none of the presidential and vice-presidential candidate pairs sought support from the 212 Brotherhood Alumni. Anies-Muhaimin ultimately did, and on 21 November 2023, they signed an integrity pact with 212 on 14 December 2023. 


The following paragraphs examine the loss in stature of some prominent Islamist personalities in the face of state repression and shifting political alliances.

Mohammad Al Khaththath,also known as Gatot Saptono, the Secretary General of Forum Umat Islam (FUI),played a prominent role as GNPF MUI’s secretary general during the protests against Ahok. However, after his arrest on 31 March 2017 on treason charges, he remained inactive. He was released in July 2017 at the request of his wife and an influential ulema. Mohammad Al Khaththath only appeared once in public on 10 October 2023 when he normatively called for the public and government to promote a peaceful election.[13]

Islamists who played a more active role, albeit with limited influence, in the 2024 Presidential Election were Habib Rizieq Shihab, Novel Bamukmin, Bachtiar Nasir and Yusuf Muhammad Martak. All, except Bachtiar Nasir, remain active in the 212 Brotherhood Alumni movement.

The controversial firebrand cleric, Habib Rizieq Shihab, was rather muted throughout the election.This founder ofFPI in 1998, who then expanded it into a national-scale organisation,   was known for leading his men in street protests for a variety of causes. Rizieq, who is now the chairman of the 212 Brotherhood Alumni’s governing board, is known for his combative and divisive sermons publicised at various religious and community events nationwide. His social and political career has experienced several ups and downs. He was imprisoned for provoking violence in 2008 and for defamation in 2003, but he enjoyed the peak of his Islamic activism career after successfully inspiring and mobilising people for the anti-Ahok protests between 2016 and 2017. His role made him one of the nation’s prominent political players as well as influential ulema. In 2018, a survey found that he was among the five most influential ulema in Indonesia.[14] His political career suffered a setback in 2020 after he was found guilty of spreading fake news and lying about the results of his Covid-19 test. He was released on parole in July 2022 which is to end in June 2024. During the 2024 Presidential Election campaign, he often appeared at religious events both offline and online. He appeared most frequently on the Islamic Brotherhood Television, the official media of the Front Persaudaraan Islam (Islamic Brotherhood Front), the organisation that replaced FPI. Perhaps bound by parole regulations, Habib Rizieq appeared less critical of Joko Widodo’s regime and mostly addressed general topics relating to the presidential election. He eventually expressed his support for Anies-Muhaimin. Unlike in past elections, Habib Rizieq did not organise or participate in any movement to support his preferred candidates.

Novel Bamukmin is the 212 Brotherhood Alumni’s deputy secretary general. He was active at FPI’s Jakarta chapter, but was fired from his position and had his membership revoked in December 2017, for internal insubordination. He joined the 212 Brotherhood Alumni in 2018 where he has since served as one of the executives in the Islamist organisation. He remained outspoken and often created social controversies through comments in the mainstream media. In 2023, he opposed the organising of Coldplay concert in Jakarta, accusing the music group of promoting Lesbian, Gay, Bi-sexual and Trans-Sexual (LGBT) interests.[15] He also often participated in street protests that promote the interests of FPI, and later, PA 212. Recently, he made public comments regarding the 212 Brotherhood Alumni’s political position in the 2024 Presidential Election. The organisation eventually supported the candidacy of Anies Baswedan and Muhaimin Iskandar. However, as explained above, the organisation’s power had weakened to such an extent that the candidate pair took their support reluctantly.

Bachtiar Nasir, a Salafist, is a seasoned activist. He is an educator, ulema and the secretary general of the Council of Indonesian Intellectuals and Young Ulema (MIUMI). He became widely known after assuming the position of chairman and guarantor of GNPF MUI in 2016. He was mainly responsible for formulating the protest agenda, ensuring the protests received sufficient funding and making sure that the protests ran smoothly without major incidents. After stepping down in 2018, Bachtiar faced several charges including treason and money laundering. However, his cases have remained stagnant; the police has neither continued their investigation nor officially closed the matter. In the run-up to the 2024 Presidential Election, he attended some huge events such as Gontor Islamic boarding school alumni’s declaration of support for Anies and Muhaimin, and the biggest outdoor campaign for Anies-Muhaimin in Jakarta International Stadium in North Jakarta on 10 February 2024.[16] However, he did not partake in organising these events, in stark contrast to the central role he played in organising the anti-Ahok protests.

Unlike other Islamists, Yusuf Muhammad Martak, the chairman of the 212 Brotherhood Alumni’s advisory council, is quite new to Islamic activism. He comes from a family of businessmen who have an interest in politics. His uncle, Faradj Martak, donated his house to Soekarno, Indonesia’s independence fighter and the country’s first president.[17] He spent much of his career as a businessman. His social and political career began when he served as MUI’s treasurer in 2015. He later joined the 212 movement and remains active in it. Representing the movement, he demanded that the Indonesia Election Commission cancel Joko Widodo-Ma’ruf Amin’s victory in the 2019 Presidential Election for electoral fraud. In the recent presidential election, he was one of the executives in the campaign team for Anies-Muhaimin.

The above cases show that a majority of the Islamists, except for Yusuf Martak, are  ulema who are also capable of mobilising the masses. The Islamists had been able to collaborate militant or conservative causes, as demonstrated in the anti-Ahok and anti-Ahmadiyah protests. Such collaborations had boosted their political power. However, they played a limited role during the 2024 Presidential Election following state repression by the Joko Widodo regime and the shifting political alliances among political actors.


To conclude, this article has explained that Islamists failed to play a significant role in the 2024 Presidential Election due to repression under President Joko Widodo and the shifting of political alliances. This was further proven by the limited role some Islamist key figures played, such as Rizieq Shihab, Novel Bamukmin, Yusuf Martak and Bachtiar Nasir.

However, under President Prabowo Subianto, the Islamists are anticipated to have more room to manoeuvre. It is expected that they will no longer face stiff social and political pressure from the state given Prabowo’s history of working together with Islamists. It is unlikely that Prabowo will resort to social and political repression. Prabowo is a secular nationalist, and hence, uninterested in Islamic activism. He is nevertheless pragmatic, and working together with the Islamists to further his agenda remains on the table. Despite setbacks under President Joko Widodo, the Islamists will continue to have influence in Indonesian social and political spheres.


For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

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“Myanmar’s Resistance and the Future of Border Trade: Challenges and Opportunities” by Jared Bissinger



• Since the start of Operation 1027, Myanmar’s resistance groups have gained control over large parts of key overland trade routes and a number of important border crossings, fundamentally changing the realities in the control of border trade.

• Despite these losses, the State Administration Council (SAC) retains control-of-trade-related institutions that are vital for accessing an international trading system characterized by state-to-state interactions—giving them significant influence over trade even if they do not control trade routes and border crossings.

• International precedents from territories such as Palestine, Transnistria, Abkhazia and South Ossetia show that non-state actors face significant challenges engaging in trade, and are vulnerable to frequent changes in trading arrangements. Perhaps the most important factor shaping trade in these territories is the state of their relationship with either the state of which they are nominally a part, or a neighbouring state.

• Thailand allows small-scale trade and limited movement of people through “checkpoints for border trade”, which exist outside the formal system and are unilaterally established by Thailand. These checkpoints represent an alternative opportunity to reshape border trade.

• If Myanmar’s resistance hopes to transform trade from a revenue source to a meaningful strength, their prospects are best if they collaborate and develop a status-neutral plan (e.g., not requiring diplomatic recognition nor denying recognition to the SAC) for trading arrangements with neighbours, and enhance dialogue with them about this plan.

Trends in Southeast Asia 2024/11, April 2024


2024/30 “The Power of a Vote in Malaysia: Malapportionment Under UNDI18, AVR, and MA63” by Kai Ostwald


A university student talks with her mobile in front of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) banner at a campaign rally on the eve of the 15th general elections in Bera, Malaysia’s Pahang state on 18 November 2022. (Photo by Mohd RASFAN / AFP).


  • While often overlooked, electoral boundaries can strongly shape political competition and policy priorities. In Malaysia, the long-dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) manipulated boundaries in ways that amplified the power of votes in its stronghold areas. This created significant discrepancies in the number of voters across electoral districts—known as malapportionment—and is strongly associated with distortions to governance and disillusionment with the political process.
  • The 2019 UNDI18 constitutional amendment lowered the voting age to 18 and introduced automatic voter registration. This increased the size of the electorate by a remarkable 40% between the 2018 and 2022 general elections. More recently, Anwar Ibrahim’s unity government has pledged to increase the parliamentary seat share of East Malaysia’s Sabah and Sarawak from the current 25% to 35%, despite the states already being significantly over-represented. Both these developments worsen the malapportionment in the country, potentially causing further political distortions.
  • Against the backdrop of already high levels of malapportionment, the impact of UNDI18 on malapportionment is more modest than most narratives suggest, though it is responsible for creating a number of problematic mega-districts. By contrast, implementing the proposed seat increase for Sabah and Sarawak would substantially worsen state and district level malapportionment. While this may be justified, given East Malaysia’s unique position in the federation—as well as a newfound political agency—there is little obvious justification for the ongoing discrepancies within Peninsular Malaysia, particularly the under-representation of Selangor.
  • A dominant narrative in Malaysia, voiced by numerous political elites in recent months, holds that reducing malapportionment is disadvantageous for ethnic Malays. This however reflects assumptions that are no longer valid following demographic developments and changes to Malaysia’s party system since 2013. To the contrary, in terms of electorate size, there are substantial similarities in the seats won by the Malay-majority Parti Islam se Malaysia (PAS) and their arch-rival Chinese-majority Democratic Action Party, while on average the largest seats were won by the Malay-majority Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and Amanah.
  • In short, there is no empirical basis for the ethnic-focused narrative. Recognizing this would facilitate constructive discussions around addressing malapportionment, particularly in light of the significant political reordering that a seat increase for East Malaysia would produce.

* Kai Ostwald is Associate Senior Fellow with the Malaysian Studies Programme at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is also Director of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, and Associate Professor in UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs.

ISEAS Perspective 2024/30, 25 April 2024

Download PDF Version


The size and shape of electoral districts can profoundly impact political outcomes. Malaysia is a case in point: the strategic manipulation of district boundaries over decades played a key role in sustaining the electoral dominance of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition partners prior to their 2018 defeat. This was achieved primarily through malapportionment—the unequal distribution of voters across electoral districts—which amplified the influence of voters in the BN’s stronghold areas, allowing the coalition to consistently secure parliamentary majorities well above their level of popular support.[1] 

While Malaysian politics have evolved dramatically since 2018, manipulated electoral districts continue to shape political representation and competition. Three key questions stand out. First, the UNDI18 constitutional amendment (in 2019) significantly increased the size of the electorate and appears to have exacerbated malapportionment, although to what extent and effect is yet unclear. Second, the BN’s defeat in 2018 decoupled East Malaysia’s party system from the Peninsula’s and catalyzed demands for greater East Malaysian influence in federal politics, including via an increase in parliamentary seats from the current 25% to 35% — which the manifesto of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition pledged to do. If implemented, this move would further increase malapportionment, but it is likewise unclear to what extent. Finally, given the broader fragmentation of the party system, it is uncertain whether previous patterns of who benefits and who is disadvantaged from malapportionment still hold.  

This Perspective addresses those questions and reaches several conclusions. Malapportionment, which entails myriad costly distortions to politics and governance, remains high and would increase significantly through the introduction of new East Malaysian seats. While the unique position of East Malaysia may justify that, the extensive malapportionment in Peninsular Malaysia is less defensible. Importantly, constituency-level demographic changes and new coalition compositions mean dominant narratives around who benefits from malapportionment are now outdated and flawed. Updating the underlying assumptions provides an opportunity to address the most problematic boundary distortions.


Malapportionment arises when there are disparities in the number of voters across electoral districts. The figure below illustrates the effect through two hypothetical districts: District A has one voter, while District B has eight voters. Since each district has one seat in parliament, District A’s voter has significantly more power to shape parliamentary outcomes than does a voter in District B. In short, malapportionment amplifies the influence of voters in districts with relatively few voters, while diluting the influence of voters in districts with relatively many voters. As a result, the preferences of District A’s voter are overrepresented, which contradicts the normatively important “one person, one vote” principle. By creating incentives for political leaders to focus resources and policy decisions on over-represented voters, this dynamic creates extensive political distortions and fosters clientelistic behaviours.[2] On the side of voters, perpetual under-representation is associated with political disengagement.

Malapportionment illustrated

During its decades in power, UMNO systematically reshaped Malaysia’s electoral process in ways that provided it and its coalition partners fundamental advantages (Lim 2002, Ostwald 2017). This included reducing the size of electoral districts in areas where the coalition enjoyed strong support, allowing it to inflate its parliamentary seat share relative to its vote share. The effect of this cannot be overstated: in the 2013 general election, for example, malapportionment allowed the BN to secure a 20% parliamentary seat advantage despite losing the popular vote by 4%. By 2018, decades of manipulating electoral boundaries left Malaysia with unusually high levels of malapportionment by global standards (Ong, Kasuya, and Mori 2017).[3]

The Pakatan Harapan (PH) government that took power in 2018 pledged extensive reforms, including of the electoral process (Ting and Horowitz 2023). Among its successes was the UNDI18 constitutional amendment that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 and introduced Automatic Voter Registration (Weiss 2022). The measures were implemented prior to the 2022 general election, increasing the number of eligible voters by over 40%. A disproportionate number of these new voters were registered to districts that already had a relatively high number of voters, exacerbating the disparity in district sizes. The figure below illustrates this by arranging Malaysia’s 222 electoral districts from smallest to largest (in terms of registered voters) for both the 2018 (dark grey) and 2022 (light grey) elections. Several things are striking. First, the range in district-level electorate size has grown even larger: the largest district (303k) in 2022 had over ten times as many voters as the smallest (28k). Second, the disparities are significant even beyond the extremes: the 75th percentile district (117k) in 2022 is almost twice as large as the 25th percentile (62k). Finally, the largest increases in electorate size appear to be in districts that were already disproportionately large.

UMNO’s defeat in 2018 fundamentally altered the political dynamic between the peninsula and the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak. Specifically, major East Malaysian parties that once belonged to the BN left the coalition post-election and leveraged their seats to play a stronger role in federal-level politics. Since 2018, this has included more prominent cabinet positions, including the current Deputy Prime Minister from the Sarawak-based PBB. Notably, the manifestos from the three major coalitions contesting the 2022 election all outlined intentions to empower East Malaysia through such things as greater revenue sharing from petroleum exploitation and political empowerment (Lee 2022). 

The PH manifesto—from current Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s coalition—went furthest in offering Sabah and Sarawak a 35% parliamentary seat share, a significant increase from the current 25%. This reflects demands from East Malaysian political leaders, who see the increase as integral to fulfilling the original terms of federation under the 1963 Malaysia Agreement (MA63), as well as critical to ensuring that the peninsula’s domination of politics is kept in check. It is unclear whether, how, and when this rebalance might occur, but there are signs of growing momentum in its favour.[4]

Given the political difficulty of removing seats from peninsular states, the path of least resistance is likely through adding new seats in East Malaysia. Procedurally, this can be done through a two-thirds majority parliamentary vote, which is theoretically attainable given the supermajority that Anwar’s unity government currently holds.

Assuming the number of peninsular seats remains unchanged, East Malaysia would require 33 additional seats to reach the 35% seat target. At present, the seat split between Sabah and Sarawak is 45% and 55% respectively; the electorate split is similar at 46.5% and 53.5% respectively. Assuming the new seats are divided at that proportion, Sabah and Sarawak would receive 15 and 18 new seats respectively. That would bring Sabah’s total to 40 and Sarawak’s to 49 seats. Given that existing seats in Sabah and Sarawak already tend to be smaller than their peninsular counterparts in terms of electorate size, the proposed seat additions would further elevate malapportionment.

There is real and growing urgency to this question, given the complex sequencing challenge that arises due to the redelineation exercise currently in motion for Sarawak and on the horizon for Sabah (in 2025).[5] The key question is how many seats the Electoral Commission is basing the exercise on. If it is the current number, then a resource intensive redelineation exercise would have to be re-conducted following any Parliamentary approval of new seats. If it is an expanded number (for example, the promised increase to 35% of the total), then the exercise assumes Parliamentary approval that has not yet been attained. This has further implications for redelineation of state-level seats, which are likewise highly malapportioned.[6] 


Both the UNDI18 increase in electorate size and the proposed MA63-related seat increase impact malapportionment in ways that affect political competition and representation. We now turn attention to systematically measuring the magnitude of those changes, which provides insights into their effects.

The starting point is inter-state malapportionment, in other words, the unequal distribution of seats across Malaysia’s thirteen states and three federal territories. The figure below illustrates this, comparing inter-state malapportionment in the 2018 election (light grey), 2022 election (medium grey), and under the potential MA63 plan that increases East Malaysia’s seat share to 35% (dark grey). The figure shows how many seats above or below a state has relative to its share of the total electorate. For example, in the 2018 election, Terengganu had approximately 5% of Malaysia’s electorate but only 3.6% of seats, making its voters underrepresented in parliament: based on its electorate size, it had 3 seats too few, as indicated by the -3 value. In short, the figure captures how over- or underrepresented states are, relative to the size of their electorate.

Three states stand out. Sabah and Sarawak are already significantly overrepresented in parliament relative to their electorate size: Sabah had approximately 7 seats above what the size of its electorate called for in 2022, while Sarawak had 11 more. Should the MA63 proposal be implemented, that would increase to a surplus of 20 and 26 seats, respectively. To put that into concrete terms, the mean number of voters per district would fall from 67,575 (in 2022) to 42,235 for Sabah, and from 62,680 (in 2022) to 39,655 for Sarawak, relative to 106,040 for peninsular seats. That may be justifiable given their unique position in the federation and the many features that continue to make them distinct. There is little clear justification, however, for Selangor being so vastly underrepresented: it had 14 and 17 seats too few in 2018 and 2022 based on its number of voters; this would climb to a deficit of 22 seats should the MA63 proposal be implemented.[7] That amounts to a mean number of 167,175 voters per district in 2022. In short, the weight of one East Malaysian voter would be approximately four times that of a voter in Selangor.

There is substantial malapportionment of federal seats within the states as well. The figure below captures the number of voters in each district (left columns are from 2018, right columns are from 2022) for each state and federal territory. As is clear, the UNDI18 reforms and natural population growth increased the size of nearly all districts, but the effect—visible both as a general upward shift and the greater dispersion of seats—is more pronounced in some states than others. The growth of problematic mega districts is also evident. In 2018, only two districts—both in Selangor—had more than 150,000 voters. By 2022, twenty-five districts were above that threshold, now including Kedah, Perak, Negri Sembilan, Malacca, Johor, and a majority of Selangor’s districts.[8]

An international comparison helps contextualize the scale of malapportionment in Malaysia. The primary measure for malapportionment is the percentage of seats that need to be shifted from over-represented districts (with relatively small numbers of voters) to under-represented districts (with relatively large numbers of voters) in order to achieve an equal apportionment of voters across districts (Samuels and Snyder 2001). In short, higher values denote greater malapportionment. The figure below compares malapportionment in several high-income democracies—which Malaysia seeks to join—and regional counterparts to Malaysia in 2018, 2022, and under the MA63 35% proposal.[9]

As anticipated, the UNDI18 reforms did increase malapportionment between 2018 and 2022, but against the backdrop of already very pronounced levels, this increase is modest in scale. Implementing the MA63 proposal without addressing existing malapportionment would have a far more substantial effect. Regardless, the primary conclusion is that under all three conditions, malapportionment in Malaysia is considerably higher than in counterparts, with the exception of Myanmar (which based its electoral districts primarily on colonial-era administrative boundaries). This is significant, given the evidence from around the world that malapportionment has pernicious effects on a range of important matters including governance, economic development, conflict, and voter motivations.


Malapportionment in Malaysia is fundamentally a political issue. The founding 1957 Constitution called for constituencies to contain a nearly equal number of voters, with some deviation—limited to no more than 15%—to account for differences in population density, means of communication, and community composition. That limit was relaxed in 1962 and repealed entirely in 1973, paving the way for the current significant disparities. Indeed, each redelineation before 2016 saw the addition of new seats, typically allocated disproportionately to areas under the BN’s control (Chacko 2019).

This pattern of redelineation contributed to the BN’s dominance and supported a (generally unspoken) view that malapportionment provides additional assurance of Malay-Muslim political dominance. Consequently, reforms that mitigate malapportionment are sometimes cast as ploys to empower ethnic Chinese, particularly the DAP. For example, in mid-2019, UMNO’s president Zahid Hamidi suggested the DAP’s interests in redelineation were driven by a desire to gain more seats, which would be unfavourable to Malays.[10] More recently, former Selangor UMNO chief Noh Omar warned while campaigning for the PN that redelineation would be favourable to the DAP, would reduce the number of Malay-majority seats, and might even lead to a DAP prime minister.[11]

The narrative that the DAP would be the sole beneficiary of more equal apportionment is not reflected in more systematic analyses. That is because today’s malapportionment reflects not current party strengths and alignments, but rather party strengths and alignments at the time of previous redelineations, which were conducted under BN domination. The main implication is that parties that were historically associated with the BN tended to win smaller seats in 2022, while parties historically opposed to the BN tended to win larger seats. Given the comprehensive fragmentation of Malaysia’s party system relative to the era of BN dominance, that no longer cleanly aligns with current coalition structures.

The figure below shows the electorate size of districts won by major parties (or coalitions in East Malaysia) in 2022. The middle line of each box indicates the median district, while the upper and lower bounds of the box indicate the 25th and 75th quartiles, and the dots indicate outliers. For example, the median district won by UMNO had approximately 68k voters (54k and 79k respectively for the 25th and 75th percentiles), while its largest seat has 133k voters.

The distribution is striking. On the peninsula, small seats were won primarily by UMNO and Bersatu, despite them being bitter rivals in 2022 campaigning. This reflects Bersatu’s status as essentially an UMNO-clone party, at least initially comprised primarily of former UMNO elites with existing ties in over-represented areas. By contrast, PAS’s median district had 106k voters (83k and 116k at 25th/75th percentiles), significantly larger than their bumiputera rivals and reflective of their historical position as an opposition party. In fact, excluding a small number of outlier mega districts, PAS and DAP districts are quite similar in terms of size, especially in comparison to the smaller UMNO, Bersatu, or East Malaysian districts. On the high end of the distribution are PKR and Amanah districts, both of which are not only historically oppositional to the BN, but also primarily Malay-oriented. This underscores a related key point: (typically large) urban districts are now often more diverse—and more Malay—than in earlier decades, further undermining the narrative that malapportionment is primarily an ethnic issue. In fact, when controlling for party and geographic factors, an OLS regression analysis finds no evidence for an independent effect of ethnic composition on district size.[12]

Two overarching conclusions emerge from this brief study. Malapportionment in Malaysia, which was already high from a comparative perspective, increased modestly through the 2019 UNDI18 constitutional amendment and would grow significantly greater if a proposed seat increase for East Malaysia is implemented. Given the many pernicious distortions associated with malapportionment, this is a concern for issues ranging from governance to development and political polarization. Even if the unique relationship between West and East Malaysia justifies the aforementioned increase, there is no clear justification for the considerable inter- and intra-state malapportionment on the peninsula. That leads to the second conclusion: given the fragmentation of Malaysia’s party system, the simple race-based narratives around malapportionment and redistricting are no longer empirically substantiated. On the contrary, a Malay-Muslim party such as PAS has potentially as much to gain from reducing malapportionment as does its Chinese-majority rival DAP. Given that the obstacles to reducing malapportionment are ultimately political rather than technical, updating assumptions about the potential effects of reform could generate the cross-party support to see it through.


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For endnotes, please refer to the original pdf document.

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