Malaysia 2020: A New Series from Asialink Insights

By Kean Wong, Editor, Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, and Hope in New Malaysia

Barely two years after an avowed reformist coalition won an unexpected victory at historic polls in 2018, the implosion of Malaysia’s Pakatan Harapan (PH) government a few weeks ago might seem just as shocking.

After all, ordinary Malaysians did the extraordinary thing in Asia of using the ballot box and voting out a government in power since 1957, only to see a return in 2020 of its modern cabal, many of its current leaders still facing the courts for grand corruption charges.

Yet at a time of a global pandemic and its unravelling economic crisis, it’s been a crucial time for good governance and resilient institutions to save a nation from itself. With Malaysia now leading Southeast Asia with the biggest number of coronavirus cases, amid a national lockdown enforced by police roadblocks and the army on the streets, there’s been a need for reassurance and predictability from a new leader.

But for Malaysia’s eighth prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin, who ultimately deposed his nonagenarian mentor Dr Mahathir Mohamad in a torrid week of backroom deals and parliamentary betrayals, the muted applause has quickly reverted to a fear of the future – of how one of the region’s vaunted public healthcare systems is buckling under the pandemic, while millions lose jobs and incomes in an economy already stalled by a political coup only weeks earlier.

The new Perikatan Nasional (PN) government is widely cast as a dubious coalition of parties mostly underpinned by a politics of race and religion, untested in and perhaps saved from parliamentary legitimacy thanks to the postponement for a few months of parliament amid the pandemic.

In a series of essays that updates some of the main themes of our book Rebirth: reformasi, resistance, and hope in new Malaysia, our contributors Meredith Weiss, Tricia Yeoh, and Hew Wai Weng explore the problems confronting Malaysia, ahead of a likely deep global recession that will disproportionately affect this top trading nation.

Prof Weiss examines the longstanding centres of political and cultural power in Malaysia, the systemic limits and prospects for meaningful change, and the closing of a Mahathir-Anwar Ibrahim contest amid a hopeful rise of civil society.

Ms Yeoh discusses the federalism that underpins Malaysia’s democratisation, and the economic and political disparities of these structures that enable the jostling for power in uncertain times.

Dr Hew’s essay highlights a majoritarian politics that has arisen with Malaysia’s new ethnic Malay-Muslim middle class, that is as much informed by global trends as it is by social media framings.

Malaysia remains a key ASEAN economy for Australia, and until the PN government took power, had been playing an instrumental role along with Indonesia and Singapore as a leading democracy navigating and defending the region’s post-war, rules-based liberal order in the face of China’s economic and geostrategic ambitions.

As its landmark Defence White Paper details, Malaysia’s interests span both the world’s busiest shipping lanes of the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea, where its economy is highly dependent on China while its regional defence outlook has been partly reliant on the United States. These are debates and policy discussions not unfamiliar to Australia, and the leading ASEAN nations.

Rebirth: Reforms, Resistance and Hope in New Malaysia is now available. To purchase a copy in Australia, email