Webinar on “Malaysian Political Dynamics: The Making and Remaking of Political Alignments and Social Cohesion”

In this webinar,  Dato’ Dr Abdul Rahman Embong discussed the making and remaking of political coalitions and alliances through history to the newly minted UMNO-led government under PM Ismail Sabri Yaakob in the present.


Wednesday, 25 August 2021 – Dato’ Dr Abdul Rahman Embong, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Malaysian and International Studies (IKMAS) in Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, spoke on the (re)alignments and coalition building among political parties in Malaysia from independence till the present era. Dr Lee Hwok Aun, Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, moderated the webinar.

Dato’ Dr Abdul Rahman Embong compares the fissures and alignments within the Malaysian body politic with previous episodes in Malaysia’s history. Dr Lee Hwok Aun moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

He started his presentation with an overview of the political fluidity since May 2018. The Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition which had governed Malaysia since 1957 was defeated by the opposition Pakatan Harapan (PH) in 2018, ushering an unprecedented change of power at the federal level. Despite the initial optimism for PH, the PH coalition was divided internally and culminated in the Sheraton Move in February 2020. As MPs defected from PH, a new Perikatan Nasional (PN) government led by Muhyiddin Yassin came to power. However, the PN government itself experienced intense infighting between its component members Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM) and United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) which led to UMNO withdrawing support for Muhyiddin in August 2021.  Ismail Sabri, the newly installed Prime Minister, replaced Muhyiddin in late August and is the Vice-President of UMNO. Dato’ Dr Abdul Rahman commented that UMNO is back into power through political elite maneuvering despite its defeat in 2018.

Dato’ Dr Abdul Rahman argued that the political realignments in Malaysia stem from the contestation between two opposing political paradigm which first emerged in the immediate post-war era. The first concerns the “dominant ethnic paradigm” where political parties appeal to their respective ethnic group, while the second concerns “multi-ethnic society paradigm” where parties champion for cross-ethnic solidarity and diversity. Soon after the conclusion of World War II, PUTERA-AMCJA was formed as a multi-ethnic coalition against the continued British presence in Malaya. In 1957 Socialist Front was formed as a multiethnic party championing on socialist values and class ideology. However, the “dominant ethnic paradigm” gained ground and became the mainstream. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) was established to oppose the Malayan Union proposed by the British and defend the interests of Malays. In 1954, UMNO collaborated with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) to form the Alliance Party. Under the leadership of the Alliance Party, consociationalism was institutionalised with the elites of each race bargaining on behalf of their constituents. BN, as the successor of the Alliance Party, continued to practice the “dominant ethnic paradigm”.

Dato’ Dr Abdul Rahman commented that there have been attempts to replace the BN, starting from the Gagasan Rakyat coalition in 1990. In 1999 the Barisan Alternatif was formed, led by Anwar Ibrahim seeking to replace the BN consociational framework with a multi-ethnic leadership. Pakatan Rakyat was formed in 2007 on a model which shares much similarities to the Barisan Alternatif, while the present Pakatan Harapan is the successor of Pakatan Rakyat. Dato’ Dr Abdul Rahman concluded that the newly installed Prime Minister Ismail Sabri acknowledged the need for multiracialism and unity in Malaysia in his maiden speech through numerous references to “keluarga Malaysia” (Malaysian family). 

In the question-and-answer session, participants raised topics pertaining to the rise of middle-class Malaysians and its impact on politics, the role of personality in Malaysian politics, and Malay unity, among others. The webinar attracted a large turnout of 200 participants from Singapore, Malaysia and other countries.

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