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Ethnic and religious tensions were stoked in January 2010 by a series of arson attacks on places of worship that stemmed from a legal dispute over the use of the word Allah by Christians and other non-Muslims. In a sign of stricter enforcement of Islamic law, religious courts carried out caning sentences against three young women who were found guilty of premarital sex. Also during 2010, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim went on trial for sodomy charges, and the politically fraught case was ongoing at year’s end.
Malaya gained independence from Britain in 1957 and merged with the British colonies of Sarawak and Sabah to become the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. The ruling Barisan Nasional (National Front, or BN, known as the Alliance before 1969) won at least a two-thirds majority in 10 of the first 11 general elections after independence, the exception being the 1969 elections, which were nullified following race riots. The BN consists of mainly ethnic parties, dominated by the conservative, Malay-based United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
Racial tensions between the Malay majority and Chinese and Indian minorities have played a central role in Malaysian politics since the country’s founding. Independence was premised on a social contract, enshrined in the constitution, that granted citizenship to the non-Malay population in exchange for special rights and privileges, especially in education and economics, for all Malays and other indigenous peoples. After the outbreak of race riots in 1969, in which thousands of Chinese homes and businesses were destroyed and more than 180 people were killed, the government declared an 18-month state of emergency and tightened restrictions on free speech, assembly, and political organizations.
Mahathir Mohamed was one of the key architects of efforts to shift economic power from the Chinese to the Malays, first as education minister and then as prime minister from 1981 to 2003. His development policies transformed Malaysia into a hub for multinational corporations and high-technology exports. At the same time, he stunted democratic institutions, weakened the rule of law by curtailing the press and political opponents, and drew allegations of cronyism with his state-led industrial development. Mahathir criticized conservative Muslim leaders for failing to promote a more modern brand of Islam, and he co-opted Islamist opposition forces by weaving their positions into UMNO’s ideology.
In 2003, Mahathir stepped down and handed power to his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The BN won 198 of the 219 seats in the lower house of Parliament in the 2004 elections. However, the threemain opposition parties—the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Islamic Party of Malaysia (PAS), and the People’s Justice Party (PKR)—challenged the results on the grounds that the BN had engaged in vote rigging and other irregularities. Most specific challenges were rejected in court or withdrawn, although allegations of vote buying and problems with the electoral roll were substantiated.
Despite popular mandate, Abdullah achieved little in the way of reform. In 2006, sharp divisions emerged within UNMO as Mahathir launched a series of harsh attacks on Abdullah. Meanwhile, Anwar Ibrahim, a former deputy prime minister who had been controversially removed by Mahathir in 1998, reemerged as a major opposition figure. A series of court rulings during the year that denied certain religious and legal rights for non-Muslims sparked a national debate on constitutional guarantees and the role of Islam in Malaysia. The government took action to suppress press coverage, public discussion, and related activism on ethnic issues by non-Malay groups, citing the need to prevent national unrest.
During 2007, public frustration skyrocketed in response to government suppression of peaceful protests, the exposure of high-level political corruption cases, a related crackdown on online media, and a crisis involving alleged politicization of the judiciary. Demands for electoral reform in advance of the 2008 general elections—coupled with perceptions of rising crime, corruption, and inflation—triggered the largest antigovernment demonstrations in nearly a decade.
In the March 2008 elections, the BN lost its two-thirds majority in the lower house of Parliament for the first time since 1969, meaning it could no longer amend the constitution unilaterally. The BN managed to secure just 140 of the 222 lower house seats, and Abdullah faced calls for his resignation. Anwar’s PKR captured 31 seats, up from only 1 in the 2004 elections, followed by the DAP with 28 and PAS with 23. The opposition parties also won control of five of Malaysia’s 13 states, and formed a coalition called the People’s Alliance (PR) in the wake of the polls.
Despite claims that he would be able to encourage defections from the BN and form a new government by September 2008, Anwar failed and the PR suffered from defections and infighting. The opposition lost control of the state of Perak in 2009 after a handful of crucial defections in the state assembly, and its attempts to dispute the legality of the power transfer were ultimately rejected by the courts.
Abdullah, discredited by the BN’s 2008 electoral setbacks, eventually stepped down as UMNO leader and prime minister. He was succeeded in April 2009 by his deputy, Najib Razak, who pledged to promote unity among the country’s racial and religious groups. He promoted this idea through a campaign known as “1 Malaysia,” but the program failed to mend ethnic and religious divisions, and generated new political controversy. In December 2010, Anwar was suspended from Parliament for six months after he compared 1 Malaysia to a similar program in Israel, and three of his PKR colleagues received similar punishment for vocally objecting to the suspension.
Religious friction during 2010 included a wave of arson attacks and vandalism in January that struck a dozen churches, two Muslim prayer halls, a mosque, and a Sikh temple. The attacks were apparently touched off by a court ruling in late 2009 that overturned a government ban prohibiting Christians and other non-Muslims from using the word Allah to refer to God. The ruling had not been put into effect at the end of 2010 pending the outcome of the government’s appeal.
Malaysia is not an electoral democracy. The leader of the party that wins a plurality of seats in legislative elections becomes prime minister. Executive power is vested in the prime minister and cabinet. The paramount ruler, the titular head of state, is elected for five-year terms by fellow hereditary rulers in 9 of Malaysia’s 13 states. Mizan Zainal Abidin al-Marhum Sultan Mahmud al-Muktafi Billah Shah was elected to the post in 2006. The upper house of the bicameral Parliament consists of 44 appointed members and 26 members elected by the state legislatures, serving three-year terms. The lower house, with 222 seats, is popularly elected at least every five years.