Malaysia Studies

Malaysia Studies Programme banner
Photos courtesy of Francis Hutchinson, Lee Hwok-Aun, Lee Poh Onn, Serina Abdul Rahman and Kevin Zhang.

The Malaysia Studies Programme (MSP) focusses on issues pertaining to the country’s domestic political, economic, and social context, including: major political realignments and intra-coalition and inter-party dynamics; the working of the country’s federal system; structural change in Malaysia’s economy; changing trends in investment into the country, as well as the general business climate; and important developments in key states and regions.

The programme also collaborates and works closely with external researchers, scholars and centres involved in the study of Malaysia.

As part of the above, the Malaysia Studies Programme team has been working on the following projects:

Inter and Intra-Coalition Dynamics

Following the 14th General Elections, MSP has sought to trace and analyse key developments in the country’s ongoing political transition. This has involved producing research products and organizing events on: the COVID-19 situation facing the country; the declaration of Emergency and suspension of parliament; the national budget; the Sabah state elections; and the emergence of new political movements and parties.

MSP regularly organizes events with opinion- and decision-makers to share their perspectives on the evolving political situation in the country. Among those invited during the past fiscal year were: Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir; Muar MP Syed Saddiq; Senator Wan Ahmad Faysal; Bangi MP Ong Kian Ming; Selangau MP Baru Bian; Lembah Panti MP Fahmi Fadzil; Professor Khoo Boo Teik; and Professor Tim Bunnell, Asia Research Institute-NUS.

The Future of Malay Politics in Post GE14 Malaysia

This project looked at evolving dynamics among Malay voters and Malay-majority political parties following the 14th General Election. It sought to identify and explore existing as well as emerging cleavages in Malay society, such as the struggle for votes between Malay nationalist parties like UMNO and Bersatu; the competition between conservative Islam, often exemplified by PAS, and moderate Islam, put forward by Parti Amanah Negara; and the consolidation of different class identities in different parts of the country.

The BRI in the Infrastructure Sector in Malaysia.

The project focussed on Belt and Road-linked infrastructure projects in Malaysia, with the aim of providing a grounded analysis of how and under what circumstances BRI projects materialize and are successfully completed, and how Chinese capital interacts with local state and private sector actors. Infrastructure projects studied include: the Melaka Gateway, Kuantan Port, Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park and East Coast Rail Link.

Federalism in Malaysia

Given its two-levelled structure and elected state leaders, the central and state governments can be ruled by different political parties in Malaysia’s federal system. Focussing on 2018-2020, this project looked at the performance of state administrations of different coalitions under the Pakatan Harapan federal administration, and drew out the potential stresspoints between Pakatan Harapan state governments and the Perikatan Nasional federal administration going forward.

Doing Business in Malaysia under Pakatan Harapan

This project sought to establish how and whether the environment for doing business in the country changed under the Pakatan Harapan government, particularly in areas such as transparency, anti-corruption and business regulations. To this end, this project involved key informant interviews with Chambers of Commerce at the central and state levels in Malaysia, as well as content analysis of periodical articles from 2018-2020.

Youth Unemployment and Wages in Malaysia

This research examined the state of the labour market for young Malaysians, particularly in light of the impact of COVID and the ensuing policy response. This age group constitutes a large and growing share of the population, whose socioeconomic well-being is crucial for the country’s development, and whose political voice will grow stronger.

Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional’s policies towards East Malaysia

Drawing on site visits and interviews with voters and political leaders in Sabah and Sarawak, this research gathered perspectives on the positions of Pakatan Harapan and Perikatan Nasional towards East Malaysia on issues such as autonomy and states’ rights.

Structural Transformation of the Malaysian Economy

This project examines medium to long-term structural changes in the Malaysian economy.  This includes topics such as de-industrialization; agglomeration, human capital and foreign labour; urbanization in Peninsular Malaysia; manufacturing performance and services inputs; and globalisation and economic development.

Programme Coordinators

Francis E. Hutchinson (coordinator)

Lee Hwok Aun (co-coordinator)

Current Researchers and Affiliates

Norshahril Saat

Lee Poh Onn

James Chai

Serina Abdul Rahman

Azmil Tayeb

Loo Qile Sara

Kevin Zhang 

Kai Ostwald

Khairy Jamaluddin

Ong Kian Ming

Visiting Researchers

The MSP usually issues calls in September-October each year for visiting researchers to spend 3-6 months with the Institute to work on specified topics. In FY 2020-2021, the following researchers were based at ISEAS:

Tricia Yeoh

Khoo Boo Teik

Michael Schaper

Anand Govindasamy

Wan Saiful Wan Jan

Clarissa Ai Ling Lee


The MSP produces a range of publications of varying lengths to share the results of work undertaken by team members as well as visiting researchers. An indicative list of outputs produced over the 2020-2021 Fiscal Year includes the following:


Affirmative Action in Malaysia and South Africa: Preference for Parity (Routledge, Research in Public Policy and Administration Series, 2021), by Hwok-Aun Lee, presents a systematic framework of preferential measures that promote the representation of the disadvantaged majority race in higher education, high-level employment, enterprise and wealth ownership, in the two most extensive policy regimes worldwide. This book empirically evaluates affirmative action contexts, programmes and outcomes of each country individually, distils similarities and differences in cross-country comparison, and discusses policy implications for both countries moving forward.

Johor: Abode of Development? (ISEAS 2020)

Building on earlier work by the ISEAS on the SIJORI Cross-border Region, this manuscript centres on how the state of Johor negotiates its place within Malaysia, whilst also being shaped by its ties to neighbouring territories. Bringing together contributions by seven ISEAS researchers and a number of Malaysia-based collaborators, this multi-disciplinary book includes more than 25 specially-commissioned maps. This tome brings together textual and visual analysis in a new way that will deepen readers’ understanding of the economic, political, and social dynamics underway in Johor and their physical manifestations. Edited by Francis E. Hutchinson and Serina Rahman, the book was published by ISEAS in September 2020.

As Empires Fell: the life and times of Lee Hau-Shik, the first Finance Minister of Malaysia (ISEAS 2020)

Having written potent biographies about Malaysian and Singapore leaders such as Ismail Abdul Rahman, Goh Keng Swee, and Lim Kit Siang, Ooi Kee Beng now tells the story of Lee Hau-Shik, based on the latter’s extensive private papers housed at ISEAS Library, Singapore. Born in Hong Kong to a highly prominent family at a time when the Qing Dynasty was falling, Hau-Shik received degrees in Law and Economics in Cambridge and became a successful tin miner in British Malaya and an influential member of Kuala Lumpur’s colonial society. After the Second World War, his influence in elite circles in China, Britain and Malaya allowed him to play a key role in the gaining of independence for Malaysia. He was one of the founders of the Malayan Chinese Association and served as the country’s first Minister of Finance. 

Trends in Southeast Asia

Tricia YeohWill Pakatan Harapan’s Hold on Selangor Continue? (2020)
Khoo Boo TeikThe Making of Anwar Ibrahim’s “Humane Economy” (2020)
Khoo Boo TeikMalay Politics: Parlous Condition, Continuing Problems (2020)
Wan Saiful Wan JanParti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS): Unifier of the Ummah? (2020)
Tricia YeohFederal-State Relations under the Pakatan Harapan Government (2020)
Serina RahmanRenewable Energy: Malaysia’s Climate Change Solution or Placebo? (2020)
Wan Saiful Wan JanWhy Did BERSATU Leave Pakatan Harapan? (2020)
Michael T. SchaperAdvocacy in a Time of Change: Business Associations and the Pakatan Harapan Government in Malaysia, 2018–20 (2020)
Wan Saiful Wan JanMalaysia’s Student Loan Company: Tackling the PTPTN Time Bomb (2020)

ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute Perspective

Francis E. Hutchinson and Pritish BhattacharyaMalaysia’s Rubber Glove Industry – A Silver Lining Amidst Dark Clouds, 4 December 2020, 2020/138
Mohd Faizal Musa and Siti Syazwani Zainal Abidin“Longer-term External Conditions Behind Legal Conservatism in Malaysian Islam”, 4 March 2021, 2021/23
Francis E. Hutchinson and Pritish BhattacharyaMalaysia’s Rubber Glove Industry – The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 23 March 2021, 2021/35
Kai Ostwald“Malaysia 2020: The Impasse of Two-Coalition Politics”, 6 April 2020, 2020/25
Norshahril Saat“Malaysia’s Bersatu Remains Split and Faces Uncertain Future”, 2 June 2020, 2020/57
Arnold Puyok“The Fall of Warisan in Sabah’s Election: Telltale Signs, Causes and Salient Issues”, 29 January 2021, 2021/8
Lee Hwok-Aun“Work and Wages of Malaysia’s Youth: Structural Trends and Current Challenge”, 4 September 2020, 2020/98
Tricia Yeoh“The Rise and Fall of State Governments in Malaysia: Institutions, Constitutions and Political Alignment”, 11 September 2020, 2020/103  
Lee Hwok-AunUnemployment among Malaysia’s Youth: Structural Trends and Current Challenges, 18 June 2020, 2020/65
Mohd Faizal Musa“Social Media Preachers: Unlicenced and Unbounded in Spreading Their Ideas”, 22 December 2020, 2020/146

Opinion Pieces

In addition to contributions to ISEAS’s Fulcrum, MSP team members contributed opinion pieces to the following outlets among others:

The Straits Times, ChannelNews Asia, Today, Berita Harian, South China Morning Post, NewMandala, the Jakarta Post, and the Edge Malaysia.

Click here for more Op-Ed pieces.

Lee Hwok-Aun“After Covid-19, Malaysia must offer migrant workers a fairer deal”, 26 May 2021
Norshahril Saat“It’s time Malaysia had a law against party-hopping”, 2 March 2021
Francis Hutchinson“Singapore and Malaysia backtrack on high-speed rail”, 12 February 2021
Francis Hutchinson and Kevin Zhang“In Malaysia, is Shafie Apdal vs Anwar Ibrahim a contest for opposition leadership?”, 22 December 2020
Lee Hwok-Aun“Let’s debate better Budget 2021 allocations for Bumis”, 25 November 2020

External Publications

Malaysia Studies team members have also published in the following outlets:

Academic Journals:

Journal of Contemporary Asia, Journal of Asian Political Science, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Asian Journal of Social Science, Journal of the Asia Pacific Economy, Journal of Asian Economics, the Singapore Economic Review, Malaysian Journal of Economic Studies, Contemporary Islam, Studia Islamika, Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs, The Round Table, Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, Journal of Islamic Studies, Journal of Asian and African Studies

Publishing Houses:

ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Routledge, World Scientific, United Nations Development Programme

Straits Times, Today, Berita Harian, Berita Minggu, Berita Mediacorp, and The Edge Malaysia.

Collaboration and Past Visiting Researchers

The programme also collaborates and works closely with external researchers, scholars and centres involved in the study of Malaysia. In addition, ISEAS has a long history of hosting researchers and scholars studying Malaysia. Among those previously affiliated with the Institute are the following:

Ramlah Adam, Geoffrey Benjamin, Cheah Boon Kheng, Hans-Dieter Evers, John Funston, T.N. Harper, James Jesudason, Gordon Means, Ungku Mainmunah Mohd. Tahir, Chandra Muzaffar, Farish Ahmad Noor, Johan Saravanamuttu; A.B. Shamsul, Dan Slater, Wang Gungwu, and Meredith Weiss.

Furthermore, in carrying out research in Malaysia, team-members have collaborated with the following organizations, among others: Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs; the Penang Institute; Konrad Adenauer Foundation.


For upcoming ISEAS seminars/webinars, see the events section of the main ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute website here.