Malaysia, one of Asia’s most vibrant countries, is facing an upcoming election that could see the long ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition swept from power. Since independence from the United Kingdom in 1957, BN has moderated the nation’s complicated racial tensions and driven economic growth, but has also been plagued with corruption and cronyism. Now, the coalition stands to lose its majority in Parliament.

Malaysia Elections

BN Looking For Another Five Years In Malaysia:

BN has been arguing for another five years in power and should they lose, Malaysia could descend into chaos. In a country that has grown comfortable with its system of cronyism and corruption, Malaysia will have to face the hard reality that its oil wells are drying up, and Malaysia will have to either reform its economy and culture, or risk slipping into obscurity.

BN has been arguing fiercely that the party should be given another term to support strong economic growth and fight racial tensions. But given the racial fault lines that run through Malaysia’s society, there is a serious risk that long simmering tensions could boil over. The fall out could result in renewed racial conflict which could destabilize one of Asia’s strongest economies. And yet, after decades of ruling, it may be time for a new party to try its hand at leading the nation.

Plagued by illicit capital outflows (to the tune of 285 billion USD from 2001 to 2010), rampant dependency on welfare, a declining cost advantage vs. neighbors, dwindling oil revenues, and numerous other issues, many feel that Malaysia’s political system needs a party that can breathe new life into the  political climate. But this can only be accomplished by sweeping BN from power and giving a new party a chance to rule.

Under the rule of BN, Malaysia has enjoyed relative ethnic harmony, a considerable feat given the country’s blend of Malay, Chinese, and Indian communities. Malaysia is also regarded as one of Asia’s “Tiger” economies and has become a vanguard for regional development. Empowered by oil money, BN has been able to build up an impressive track record of economic growth, and a series of recent reforms have been hailed by the international community as Malaysia’s path to achieving fully developed nation status.

Now, with the 2013 general election coming due, Malaysia is threatened with instability and the possibility of race riots for the first time in decades. Wilting under rampant charges of corruption and cronyism, BN could lose its majority in Parliament for the first time in history. Pakatan Rakyat, an aggressive opposition movement under the lead of the charismatic and controversial Anwar Ibrahim, stands ready to challenge BN vote-for-vote in the upcoming election.


There’s a chink in the opposition’s armor, however, as Pakatan Rakyat consists of a hodge podge of political parties, with few shared ideologies and lacking any unified vision for the future. The opposition movement may prove to be too weak and too ideologically different to effectively govern the nation, but a challenge in the elections could force BN to finally commit to genuine and deep reform.

While this ongoing political conflict rages, a backdrop of simmering racial tensions threatens to destabilize Malaysian society and as a result, economic growth. Malaysia has prospered, yet has delicate relations between its three major ethnicities. When Malaysia became independent, the indigenous Malay community found itself facing serious economic disadvantages. Years of British colonial rule and pro-Chinese policies left most of the private sector in the hands of ethnic Chinese Malaysians. From major tin mining operations to small family shops, the Chinese dominated business.

Malaysia has long relied on government assistance to support the Malay (and to a less extent Indian) communities. While historical circumstances and the aim of uplifting the Malay community offers plenty of justification for affirmative policies, in practice the Malay community today is nearly as dependent on the government now as it was in 1960. Government contracts are awarded based on connections and payoffs.

Now, Pakatan Rakyat has promised to do away with corruption. Even if they should win the election, it’s questionable whether PR will be able to install meaningful reform. But you know what? It doesn’t matter, just booting BN from office is reform enough. An election loss will force Malaysia’s ruling elites to open their eyes and examine Malaysia’s current situation. Change isn’t just wanted, it’s needed.

Malaysia’s list of grievances

Malaysia needs to build competitive companies capable of competing on the world stage. Many GLC’s, like Proton, build products far inferior to their international competitors. Corruption among the police force is rampant and largely accepted. The university system will admit poorly qualified Malays over well-qualified Chinese and Indian students. Business contracts go to ill-equipped Malay companies, while other firms struggle to find the cash needed to run business. The list of grievances goes on and on.

Now, Malaysia will have the chance to determine whether BN should be given another chance. Voting for BN for fear of change is the wrong course of action. Instead, voters should examine each party, its leaders, and their merits. Voters should also ask themselves if BN will truly be able to push promised reforms and do away with corruption. At the end of the day, elections are decided by votes and today, Malaysians must decide the future of their country.

Disclaimer: I am a foreigner and I have consulted with the Malaysian Government. My views should only be taken as an outside perspective. Ultimately, it is up to the people of Malaysia to chart their national destiny.