Malaysia is a secular state with Islam as its official
religion. It is also a rare example of a constitutional monarchy in which diverse regional traditions of
power are satisfied by a 5 year rotation of the monarch between 9 hereditary state rulers. The role is
ceremonial but all new legislation and key appointments are approved by the King.
The country is a multicultural society, with Malays comprising 53% of the population, the Chinese 26%,
indigenous groups 12% with Indians and other groups making up the remainder. The core tension between the
economically dominant Chinese and the less successful Malays has been overtly managed since 1969 by the New
Economic Policy (NEP), a system of racial preferences in education, employment and business that favours
ethnic Malays. The government and mainstream media take considerable pains to promote Malaysia as a nation
of racial harmony, and attempts to point out otherwise are condemned as incitements to racial hatred. This
racial profile and its apparent harmony has been reflected in the composition of the coalition Barisan
Nasional (National Front) that has governed Malaysia since 1973. Its main component parties are the United
Malays National Organization (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress
(MIC). The dominant political figure of this period was Dr Mahathir Mohamad, prime minister from 1982 until
2003. Mahathir is widely credited with establishing Malaysia's distinctive blend of economic dynamism and
overbearing control. He was succeeded by his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, when the National Front won an
overwhelming victory in the March 2004 general election. This year, 2009, Najib Tun Razak has taken over
the Abdullah Ahmad Badawi as Prime Minister of Malaysia.
After taking office, Badawi vowed to fight political corruption, but his rhetoric softened after he lost
support within UMNO following the arrest and suspension of several senior party members for vote-buying and
other offences. Badawi also lost his way with the wider electorate through failure to soften the impact of
the NEP and redistribute the benefits of economic prosperity. Announcement of a snap election in February
2008 prompted Anwar Ibrahim, a maverick politician imprisoned by Mahathir, to unite his own National
Justice Party in an unprecedented non-aggression pact with the main opposition parties in parliament, the
predominantly Chinese socialist Democratic Action Party (DAP), and the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS).
Many prominent civil society activists joined this opposition or stood as independent candidates.
Despite the ruling party exploitation of state-controlled media and refusal to permit election rallies,
this opposition group was able to claim 82 of the 222 seats. This outcome has shaken the Malaysian status
quo by denying the ruling coalition the 2/3 majority which has enabled it to govern as necessary by
constitutional amendment. There is speculation that Badawi may be forced to resign or even that National
Front partners may abandon the coalition. Five state assemblies are now controlled by opposition parties
and already the Penang government has announced its intention to ignore the NEP in regional