Political Culture And Malaysia
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Published: Tue, 16 May 2017
Abstract: Pre-1999 studies pictured Malaysia as having a “subject” political culture. The post-2008 survey data shows Malaysia having a “participant” political culture and a high level of participation. The 2008 elections which witnessed the emergence of a “strong” opposition in the parliament reflect the maturity of the Malaysian electorate which augurs well for democracy in the country.
Keywords: Malaysian political culture, elections, electoral behaviour, reformasi, democracy
The results of the 2008 elections in which the ruling coalition, Barisan Nasional (National Front or BN), lost two-thirds majority which it enjoyed, for half a century, to a loosely combined opposition parties, is argued by many to be the extension of the new idiom of politics created in 1998. The electoral change in 2008, according to several electoral studies, augurs well for the democratization of the country. 
Projecting democracy for Malaysia entails an understanding of her political culture. “A democratic form of participatory political system requires as well a political culture consistent with it.”  It is sometimes termed the substructure of the state because its underlying values and beliefs influence the operation of all social and political organizations.  Political culture, derived from a structural-functional model of the political process, is defined as the political “attitudes, beliefs, values and skills [within] an entire population, as well as those â€¦ within separate parts of that population.”  It is the “set of values within which a political system operates.”  To Almond and Verba, it is the “pattern of orientations to political objects among the members of the nation.”  They divided orientations into cognitive, affective and evaluative dimensions. Cognitive orientation refers to knowledge of and belief about the political system, its roles and the incumbents of these roles, its inputs, and its outputs. Affective orientation is feelings about the political system, its roles, personnel, and performance; while evaluative orientation is the judgments and opinions about political system and usually involves a combination of value standards and criteria with information and feeling. On this basis, Almond and Verba identified three cultural orientations: parochial, subject, and participant.  Parochialism is characterized by general ignorance about political objects. In subject political culture, citizens possess the requisite political knowledge without the sense that they could be effective political actors. Participant political culture combines knowledge about politics with a willingness to participate in the political process. After a period of some disuse, cultural approaches to understanding politics have experienced a revival in recent years.
Scholars in the past did explore the political culture of Malaysia but with limited empirical evidence owing to the paucity of survey research. The contemporary political culture can, however, be analysed by using public opinion surveys conducted in Malaysia in recent years. This study reviews the findings of earlier studies on political culture which were based upon “intuitive speculation supported by fragmentary evidence from several highly selective studiesâ€¦.”  This is followed by an examination of the existing political culture with the help of data from the survey conducted from 12 to 18 April 2008 in Peninsular Malaysia among 1,027 adult citizens. This random sample was stratified according to state, ethnicity, age and gender of the respondents. The distributions over age, ethnic groups and religions correspond to national figures. The interviews were conducted in Bahasa Malaysia, Mandarin, Tamil and English using the Computer Assisted Telephone Interview (CATI) facilities of the International Islamic University Malaysia. Each interview lasted for about 25 minutes, on average. At a confidence level of 95 per cent, the survey results have a statistical precision of ± 2.8 per cent of what they would be if the interviews were conducted with the entire voting age population residing in peninsular Malaysia. The questionnaire contained 38 items. This paper uses only part of the data (24 items) dealing with cognitive, affective and evaluational orientations and voting in the 2008 elections.
The Traditional Political Culture
Malaysia, with an area of 127,320 sq miles (329,758 sq km), is a federation of 13 states and 3 federal territories of Kuala Lumpur, Labuan and the newly created administrative capital for the federal government of Malaysia, Putrajaya. According to July 2009 estimate, Malaysia has a population of 28.31 million.  Malaysia is a multicultural society, with Malays (54.2 per cent), Chinese (25.3 per cent), Indians (7.5 per cent) and others (13.0 per cent) living side by side in peace. Malays along with the natives of Sabah and Sarawak (Eastern Malaysia), are officially classified as Bumiputra (sons of the soil, or indigenes). The “non-bumiputras,” consist mainly of the Chinese and the Indians whose large-scale immigration took place in the 19th century with colonization and modernization.
Malaysia’s political culture is significantly impacted by the British colonial administration.  The British looked upon the Malays as intellectually deficient and lazy. They admired the Chinese for their industry, entrepreneurship and greed; while the Indians were viewed as cheap and compliant labour. Referring to Chinese and Indians, Lucian Pye characterized Malaysian politics as a “confrontation of two incompatible cultures” with different systems of values and behavioural norms.  Pye, however, missed out the Indians, perhaps because they are a minority.
The Malays are Muslims; they speak Bahasa Malayu and maintain traditional customs and practices. They generally live in rural areas and their relations are based on mutual help, self-respect and the concept of “brotherhood in Islam.” All these impart a feeling of solidarity among the Malays. Malays refer to Malaysia, particularly Western Malaysia, as Tanah Melayu (the Land of the Malays) and they are very proud of it. Chandra Muzaffar argues that Malay political culture is a complex mix of elements inherited from the feudal tradition, Western values, and Islam.  Elections and the culture that accompanies it, the product of Western influence, are an integral dimension of Malay and Malaysian political culture. The factors that influence voting patterns are the product, among others, of Malay feudal history characterized by deference to the royalty, uncritical acceptance of state authority and subservience to governmental power. Malaysian political leaders expect and they do receive due respect and appropriate electoral support from the Malay electorate. The Malay government is known as kerajaan that refers to the raja who ruled from the pre-colonial courts. Members of parliament and state Legislative Assembly men are referred to as yang berhormat (he who is honoured), and sustain remarkable resiliency in office. The Malay political culture is parochial and passive; they tend to relieve anxieties created by political conflict by “avoidance and silence” and by repressing “emotions in the hope that the problem will go away if matters are smoothed over.”  Islam has also impacted on Malay political attitudes and orientations. Islam brought with it a feudal political culture in the 14th or the beginning of the 15th century and reinforced the feudalism of pre-Islamic Malaysia. 
The Chinese derive their values from Confucian patterns and assumptions. According to Pye, the Chinese concept of power is one of an unambiguous leader or father figure to whom the subordinates dutifully obey. Both the omnipotent leader and his dutiful subordinates are assumed to be Chinese. Complaints of all sorts should be aired and redress sought from authority figures. The idea of a Chinese leader becoming the subordinate of a foreigner is culturally unthinkable. Thus, there is no role for minority leadership in a community dominated by a non-Confucian culture. It effectively means that the Chinese cannot be subservient to the Malay majority leadership. As a result, “a large number of Chinese in Malaysia feel that a truly national politics is unattainable for them.”  This makes the Chinese to opt out of the majority system and focus instead “on special parochial groupings.”  The Chinese political culture is aggressive; they tend to release anxieties created by political conflict by voicing “anguish to somebody” and seek sympathy even from bystanders. 
Of the current population, the Chinese are the most heterogeneous. Most of them confess to one or more of the three great religions of mainland China: Buddhism, Taoism or Confucianism, and speak Hokkien, Hakka and/or Cantonese. This heterogeneity is reflected in their politics. Unlike the Malays, the Chinese were and are divided in their loyalties. Most of the Chinese supported the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the component of the BN but many also identified with opposition leftist and reformist parties. Yet, the Chinese were relatively far more mobilized socially and politically than the Malays. Living in urban centres and economically better off, the Chinese had easy access to higher education which tended to make them politically better informed.
Indians, oftentimes regarded as a minority race, have made significant contributions to the socio-political and economic development of Malaysia. The Indian community is generally found around the urban areas and suburban rubber estates. It is generally believed that most Indians in Malaysia are politically informed and they operate small businesses. Some Indians work as professionals or labourers. They are industrious and entrepreneurial but cherish their values and traditions. Indians are close-knit community and are deeply religious. Many Indians adhere to Hinduism, some of them profess Christianity and Islam. The earlier immigrants had forged strong ties with their homeland without forming a strong bonding with their adopted country. The 1970s and 1980s generation regard Malaysia as their homeland.
The Indian community has been perceived as passive and parochial. They did not cause much anxiety to the imperial rulers. They are culturally divided and their cultural diversity may be identified with their ancestors’ places of origin. They are mainly Hindu Tamils from southern India, speaking Tamil, Telegu, Malayalam, and some Hindi. In the post-independent Malaysia, the Indians do not form majority of their own in any Malaysian constituency. Hence most of them opted to support the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) which is a component of the ruling Barisan Nasional, in order to gain access to the Barisan system of the ethnic apportionment of political power and material resources. However, a small segment of the Indian community supported opposition.
Malaysia’s multi-ethnicity made it imperative for the elites of each ethnic group to unite in a mutually beneficial fashion. The resultant system is a variant of “conosciational” democracy in which elections play an important role to fill in the public positions.  In procedural terms, however, Malaysian political system is considered narrow because it constrains the practice of civil and political rights through restrictions on assembly, the strategic use of detention orders and other legal and emergency powers. Yet, the “pioneering” survey of political attitudes in Malaysia conducted in November 1994 found majority of 395 respondents, selected randomly, “supported limited practice of democracy.”  According to Welsh, “Malay respondents overall opposed the expansion of democracy; the minorities, especially the Indian respondents, favoured democracy, while the Chinese respondents were more ambivalent.”  There was some sort of congruence between political culture and regime type. In the elections held between 1959 and 1995, the ruling coalition, the BN, constantly maintained two-thirds majority of seats in the parliament as shown in Table 1.
Table1: Results of Parliamentary Elections, 1959 to 1995
Source: Abdul Rashid Moten and Tunku Mohar Mokhtar, “Elections and the Electoral System” in Malaysia at 50: Achievements and Aspirations, edited by Syed Arabi Idid (Singapore: Thomson Learning, 2008), 199.
State and Society in Transition
Political cultures, though often highly stable, are not immutable. They may evolve over time, and may even be profoundly altered in a short span of time. This change may result from the spread of mass education, technological development, globalised discourses of human rights and the like. Voluntary associations and popular movements may help with the formation of new identities.  In the Malaysian context, the intense economic development programme pursued by the government over the years has led to the transformation of the state, Islamic organizations and civil societies. The political identities of the Malay, Chinese, Indian and other communities have likewise undergone changes. 
The British, during the colonial period, pursued policies that created an imbalance in development between the urban sector involved in tin mining and rubber plantation and the rural sector engaged in small scale agriculture. Post-independent leaders pursued policies that aimed not merely at developing the economy and alleviating poverty but also at narrowing the differential development gap among various groups. The national development policies outlined in the Five Year National Development Plans (NDPs) in the earlier phase concentrated on improving the living standards of the rural society by providing facilities for infrastructure, social services and agricultural development. Since 1971, the government, under what was called the New Economic Policy (NEP), embarked upon a socio-economic restructuring affirmative action programme. The NEP aimed at promoting “national unity and a just society by attacking poverty and reducing and eventually eliminating the identity of race with economic function.”  In 1990, the post-NEP era began with “Vision 2020” which espoused a commitment to forging a Bangsa Malaysia, “a united Malaysian nation with a sense of a common and shared destiny” under the leadership of Mahathir Mohamad, who served as Prime Minister from 1982 to 2003. That became the basis of the National Development Policy that aimed, among others, to “strike an optimum balance between the goals of economic growth and equity.” 
Malaysia, under a “soft authoritarian” regime led by Mahathir Mohamad, made good economic progress, technological development and considerable rural-urban migration.  However, the growth was accompanied by an element of patronage leading to significant leakages and disproportionate gains to individuals and companies, such as the Renong, Technology Resources, Berjaya and Tanjong groups, associated with UMNO, the dominant party in the BN, the ruling coalition.  This state-capital nexus in Malaysia is termed “party capitalism” or “money politics.” Nevertheless, the economy grew at an average annual rate of 7 per cent during the 1990s. GDP per capita rose from RM 1,090 in 1970 to RM 14,924.3 in 2000. During 1970 to 2000, employment in agriculture shrank from 53.2 per cent to 15.2 per cent while employment in manufacturing increased from 9.0 per cent to 27.6 per cent. Literacy rate for the corresponding period rose from 58.1 per cent to 87.4 per cent. There was also a marked reduction in both rural and urban poverty.  Between 1981 and 1989, economic growth averaged 5.4 per cent which rose to 8.8 per cent between 1990 and 1996. The middle class expanded from 20 per cent of the working population in 1970 to approximately 45 per cent by 1993.  The rapid expansion of the middle class is considered as “an impetus to liberalization and democratization in Malaysia. It has given rise to a consumer culture and a lifestyle dominated by shopping malls, restaurants, and Western-owned fast-food outlets.”  Interestingly, this new Malay middle class was suffering from “alienation” presumably because they did not benefit from “party capitalism” by joining the elite group who enjoyed the state patronage.
The growth of the middle class led to the emergence of civil societies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Aliran was established in August 1977 for the reform of Malaysian society guided by universal spiritual and moral values. It launched its publication Aliran Monthly in 1980. SUARAM (Suara Rakyat Malaysia, or Voice of the Malaysian People) was established in 1987 to promote freedom of expression, assembly and association. HAKAM (Persatuan Kebangsaan Hak Asasi Manusia or The National Human Rights Soceity) was formed in 1990 to work on human rights issues. Tenaganita (Women’s Force) was established in 1991 to promote the rights of women workers and migrant workers. In 1993, some 50 NGOs adopted “The Malaysian Human Rights Charter.” Evidently, these organizations advocate various social, economic, cultural and political causes, interests, and agendas.  They have been instrumental in initiating positive changes in various spheres of life. They have helped Malaysians engage in networking and increase their strength and confidence to solve problems with or without government assistance. Malaysians have learned to form groups, organise meetings and rallies, improve means of communication and gain new knowledge. These associations have been critical of various government policies and voiced their concern in public. Indeed, civil societies became more vocal during the reformasi period. 
Reformasi and the Changes in the Electoral Behaviour
In July 1997 money speculators attacked the Malaysian currency which eventually plunged the country into first recession for many years. The financial crisis widened the differences between Prime Minister Mahathir and his ambitious deputy Anwar Ibrahim who was seen as conspiring to overthrow the Prime Minister which became overt in June 1998 at the UMNO party elections in which one of Anwar’s supporters openly criticised Mahathir for economic mismanagement. The speech “came too close on the heels of the Indonesian anti-KKN (kolusi, korupsi dan nepotisme, or collusion, corruption and nepotism) reformasi movement that toppled Suharto in May, a month earlier.”  Mahathir blamed currency speculators especially George Soros for the financial crisis whereas Anwar Ibrahim blamed it upon Mahathir’s obsession with unproductive mega projects and nepotism. Mahathir would not seek assistance from the International bodies to overcome the crisis while Anwar was fully committed to adopting rescue package from International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Subsequent expulsion from the party, arrest and imprisonment of Anwar Ibrahim, on charges of misuse of power and immoral conduct, triggered the movement for reform, reformasi, demanding “participatory democracy” and “justice for all.”  The movement drew “new actors, namely Malay women, youth and sections of the Malay middle class.” 
NGOs and civil societies cooperated and coordinated their anti-government actions. Numerous street demonstrations that followed led to the formation of Gagasan Demokrasi Rakyat (Coalition for People’s Democracy or Gagasan), on 27 September 1998, composed of 18 political parties and organizations. Gagasan’s 10-point joint declaration demanded freedom of speech and assembly, impartial judiciary and the abolition of detention without trial and the draconian Internal Security Act. There also emerged Gerakan Keadilan Rakyat Malaysia (Malaysian People’s Movement for Justice or Gerak) composed of various Muslim non-governmental organizations but included the opposition political parties like Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Partai Se-Islam Se-Malaysia (Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS). December 1998 saw the emergence of the Pergerakan Keadilan Sosial (Movement for Social Justice or Adil) under the leadership of Anwar Ibrahim’s wife, Wan Azizah Ismail, which pressed for political, economic and social reform. Adil, in 1999, metamorphosed into the multi-ethnic Parti Keadilan Nasional (National Justice Party or keADILan). Subsequently, KeADILan, DAP, PAS and Parti Rakyat Malaysia (Malaysian People’s Party, PRM) formed an opposition alliance known as the Barisan Alternatif (Alternative Coalition, BA).
Simultaneously, several reformasi-related websites emerged demanding more democratic space, accountability of the rulers and a participatory political system. The first reformasi website, Anwar On-line, was launched on September 1, 1998 and was followed within a few months by over fifty pro-Anwar and pro-reform websites. Well developed professional sites include AIM (Abolish the ISA Movement), Aliran Online, HarakahDaily, Bereita Keadilan, the Free Anwar Campaign, etc. The country’s first commercial on-line newspaper, Malaysiakini, was launched just nine days prior to the general election of 1999. The number of internet users rose from about 500,000 in 1999 to an estimated two million in 2002. The Internet was relatively free from government control and was an important venue for political discourse. The internet has created “dense networks linking geographically dispersed activists … that constitute themselves into the building blocs for bottom-up democratisation process.  “As society has changed, with demographic shifts reinforced by new information technologies and globalization process, political culture has changed, too, particularly among the younger generation.”  Malaysians became active citizens and took it upon themselves to know, to feel and to evaluate the policies emanating from the political system and to vote accordingly. This is clear from the voting behaviour of the Malaysian electorate in the 10th, 11th and 12th general elections.
The tenth elections for parliamentary and state assemblies were held on November 29, 1999 preceded by a nine-day campaign period. The elections saw many non-governmental organizations in the forefront making their voices heard through various mechanisms including the use of internet. The BA contested the November 1999 elections with a joint manifesto: “Towards a Just Malaysia” free from widespread corruption, abuse of power and crippling poverty. The manifesto promised a strong national economy, enhanced government transparency and accountability, national unity and a genuinely democratic society. They took full advantage of the Internet to disseminate information. The opposition front made startling gains winning 45 out of 193 seats in the national parliament. PAS, the major component of the BA, not only retained the state of Kelantan but it also captured the neighbouring, oil-rich Terengganu. Four Malay cabinet ministers and the chief minister of Terengganu lost in the election. Prime Minister Mahathir’s winning margin in Kubang Pasu constituency in Kedah had shrunk by about 40 per cent from 1995. Most of BN candidates won with slim margins.
The eleventh general elections were held on March 21, 2004 in which the BN won unprecedented 62.37 per cent of the votes and 90.4 per cent of seats in Parliament and recaptured Terengganu lost in 1999. This result shows maturity on the part of the Malaysian electorate for three reasons. One, the leadership of BN has changed. Abdullah Badawi who took office on October 31, 2003 was perceived as friendly and “a man of the people.” His fight against corruption; insistence on public accountability and shift from corporate mega-projects to agro-based, rural projects were well received by the electorate tired of corruption and confrontational politics.Two, the BN adopted the core reformasi demands of accountability, transparency and good governance. Its manifesto described BN as moving “Toward Excellence, Glory, and Distinction.” Three, the opposition front, BA, that performed well during the 1999 elections could not continue to work as a team. The cordiality between the parties waned and some of them suffered from financial difficulties and mass defections. The opposition parties contested against each other in many constituencies. Under the circumstances, the best bet for the Malaysian electorate was to vote BN.
The reforms Abdullah instituted during the following four years did not meet the public expectation. A number of factors contributed to a rising discontent among Malaysians including rising crime, a number of corruption scandals, the weaknesses of the judicial system, and interferences with the appointment of senior judges and increased food and fuel prices. The opposition parties joined hands under the leadership of Anwar Ibrahim and capitalized on the public anger over transparency and accountability. Using alternative media, they highlighted the weaknesses of the government and campaigned effectively in the twelfth elections held on March 8, 2008. The electorate reversed their earlier decision in the 2008 elections denying the ruling coalition its two-thirds majority in parliament and giving the opposition parties control of 5 state assemblies.
The reformasi movement is considered by many to be a clear manifestation of a change in Malaysia’s political culture. They reshaped the configuration of forces and, since then, Malaysian politics has changed. According to Jomo, the reformasi liberated the Malaysian and, in particular, the Malay political discourse.  Since 1998, writes Francis, “a new discourse and practice of participatory democracy has gained ground among Malaysiansâ€¦.”  Meredith Weiss is emphatic:
Reformasi marked a shift in Malaysian politics.â€¦ Whatever degree of institutional change has so far occurred, Malaysian political culture now leans more toward “new politics”-characterized by fragmentation of ethnic communities and contesting discourses of ethnicism, participatory democracy, and developmentalismâ€¦. 
Andres Ufen argues that the Malaysian opposition has succeeded in establishing “a viable pro-democratic political culture that is hardly destructible through sheer repression.” 
The landslide victory achieved by the BN under Abdullah Badawi in 2004 is also a reflection of the maturity of the Malaysian electorate. Citizens voted with the belief that the new government would be responsive to their needs, wants, and purposes which is an ess
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