Webinar on “Malay Politics: Parlous Condition, Continuing Problems”

In this webinar, Dr Khoo Boo Teik answers two questions about the powerful ideological force that have dominated Malaysia for the past several decades. How has Malay politics turned more parlous although it dominates a system of ethnic politics, and why does Malay politics in its parlous condition remain a powerful ideological force.


Tuesday, 3 November 2020 – Dr Khoo Boo Teik, Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, delivered a webinar titled “Malay Politics: Parlous Condition, Continuing Problems”. Dr Khoo is Professor Emeritus at the National Graduate Institute of Policy Studies, Tokyo and the author of “Paradoxes of Mahathirism: An Intellectual Biography of Mahathir Mohamad”. Dr Khoo obtained his PhD from the Flinders University of South Australia.

Dr Khoo Boo Teik
Dr Khoo identified four characteristics which illustrate the precarious nature of Malay politics. Dr Francis Hutchinson (right), Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Khoo began his presentation with an overview of the recent political events in Malaysia following the watershed 2018 General Election (GE2018). He argued that the Pakatan Harapan government collapsed in March 2020 as the Perikatan Nasional (PN) alliance came into power on the pretext of restoring Malay dominance. Even though Malaysia’s first ever democratic transition was subverted by the PN coalition, the latter remains in a precarious situation given its razor-thin majority in parliament. Dr Khoo identified four characteristics which illustrate the precarious nature of Malay politics, namely: persistent failures to achieve the rhetoric goal of Malay unity; fragmentation of the Malay polity; intra-party fragmentation; and problematic leadership transition.

Dr Khoo held that since competent leaders within UMNO were side-lined, the party ossified which had a detrimental impact on Malay politics. He argued that the rise of Semangat 46 resulted in an exodus of post-alliance leaders, while the rise of PKR encouraged younger Malay leaders to eschew UMNO, and the emergence of Bersatu in 2016 eliminated UMNO’s old guard. With New Economic Policy implemented since the 1970s, a nexus developed between UMNO politicians and business corporations where regulatory capture proliferated for the benefit of a narrow Malay business elite.

Next, Dr Khoo provided an assessment of alternative ideologies apart from Malay unity which have gained traction in Malaysia. He cited examples of the environmental movement (e.g. anti-Lynas protests), demands for electoral reforms (e.g. Bersih protests) and campaigns for Indian rights (e.g. HINDRAF), among other social movements which arose since the 2000s. He argued that the failure of UMNO (and BN) to accommodate the various social demands led to its eventual demise in GE2018, despite the former’s claims of defending Malay rights.

To end the presentation, Dr Khoo highlighted the need and urgency to construct a new national narrative to unite all Malaysians regardless of race or religious background. He put forth that existing narratives, including the New Economic Policy and Vision 2020 are increasingly irrelevant as Malaysia has experienced much transformation and change since these narratives were formulated.

In the question and answer session, participants inquired about sources of resistance within UMNO towards reforms, the shape of Malaysia’s new narrative and the likelihood of Anwar Ibrahim serving as the next Prime Minister. More than 100 participants attended the webinar.  

Over 100 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)