Webinar on “In Search of the Next Political Order for Malaysia”

In this webinar, Mr Liew Chin Tong revisited the sets of political, economic, and social ideas or ‘political orders’ that have sustained previous eras of Malaysian politics.


Wednesday, 10 November 2021 – The ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute organised a webinar to discuss a succession of political orders that have shaped Malaysia since independence in 1957. Mr Liew Chin Tong, Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, delivered the presentation titled “In Search of the Next Political Order for Malaysia”. Mr Liew previous roles include Malaysia’s Deputy Defence Minister (2018-2020), and presently is the National Political Education Director of the Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Mr Liew Chin Tong presented on the succession of political orders that have shaped Malaysia since independence. Dr Lee Hwok Aun, Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Mr Liew began the presentation with a periodisation of Malaysia’s political history. The first phase, spanning from 1957 to 1969, was replaced by the New Economic Policy (NEP) in the early 1970s. As ethnic Malays across the board experienced rising economic fortunes with the implementation of NEP, the policy started to roll back in the early 1990s. “Vision 2020” promised to provide more equal economic opportunities to all Malaysians regardless of ethnicity, as championed by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. However, since 2005 to the present era Malaysia has been economically stagnant with political drift.

Mr Liew argued that the “Merdeka Compact” from 1957 to 1969 was the consequence of a compromise deal between British colonial officials, Malay rulers and the Alliance Party leadership when Malaysia was negotiating for independence. Under the agreement, Malaya would remain closely aligned to the metropole (i.e. Britain) during the post-independent period. However, as post-war Malaya experienced a baby boom, the country faced rising unemployment. By the late 1960s, the Alliance government was generally perceived as failing to improve the economic standards of ordinary Malaysians which resulted in opposition parties receiving greater support from Malays and non-Malays in the 1969 General Election (GE1969).

The race riots in the aftermath of GE1969 compelled a fundamental shift in the country’s political order, as the reconstituted Barisan Nasional (successor of Alliance Party) perceived economic disadvantage as a racial issue to be addressed. NEP was consequently implemented which, through a massive expansion of economic opportunities for Malays, sought to tackle the lopsided colonial economy. Simultaneously, the discovery of oil in early 1970s bestowed Malaysia with significant financial resources to develop an export-oriented economy. As the Malaysian economy expanded rapidly during the 1970s, Malays generally experienced upward economic mobility which cemented the popularity of Barisan Nasional (BN). However, oil revenue mean that BN became less reliant on taxation for expenditure, which resulted in shrinking accountability with the electorate. In addition, among BN component parties the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) gained predominance while the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) became side-lined. In foreign relations, Malaysia pivoted away from western countries and grew closer to the non-aligned movement.

In the lead-up to the 1990 General Election (GE199), an electoral pact was formed between DAP and Semangat 46 with the latter also forming a pact with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). The opposition was thus able to compete against BN in straight fights for most constituencies, resulting in BN scoring less well compared to previous general election. The setbacks in GE1990, coupled with the 1986 gradual elimination of Malay equity requirements, prompted then Prime Minister Mahathir to shift from a Malay-centric to multi-ethnic policy outlook.  “Vision 2020” was launched, while Malaysia benefited from massive Japanese foreign direct investments (FDI) as the appreciation of yen incentivised Japanese firms to relocate. During the 1990s, non-Malays experienced increased freedom and higher education opportunities as the neo-liberal economy opened up alternative pathways which is not dependent on state provision.

The multi-ethnic framework would cease as UMNO turned increasingly towards a Malay agenda beginning 2005. Mr Liew argued that, since then, Malaysia had experienced policy drift and economic stagnation. He added that as UMNO is fragmented, while Pakatan Harapan adopts a middle ground approach. He added that the political fluidity in the past few years may result in a new political order, similar to how the country overcame past political conflicts. He concluded his presentation by stating that the new political order has to have the following five characteristics: a new Malaysian national identity, mature democratic system, inclusive economic growth, reformed mindset for security matters and a new place for Malaysia in international relations.

In the question-and-answer session, participants raised issues relating to the need for new tax revenues, the importance of core voters for coalitions, and the role of fear and conviction for elections. The webinar attracted an overwhelming 140 participants from Singapore and abroad.