In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Malaysian Politics and Government

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Political History
  • Political System
  • Political Leaders and Leadership
  • Political Parties, Coalitions, and Elections
  • Politics in East Malaysia
  • Federalism and Local Politics
  • Civil Society, Contentious Politics, Democratization, and New Media
  • Political Economy: Classes and Political Business
  • Developmentalism, the NEP, and Its Consequences
  • Islam and Politics
  • Ethnic Groups and Interethnic Relations
  • Gender and Politics
  • Foreign Policy and International Relations

Political Science Malaysian Politics and Government
Andreas Ufen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0359


The literature on Malaysian politics and government has been dominated for a long time by an approach perceiving the country as a “plural society” with a segregation of different ethnic groups or “races.” In this vein, many of the classic studies center around communalism as a legacy of British colonialism due to the immigration of ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indians who became miners, rubber tappers, clerks, and traders, the colonial construction of “races” and parallel “protection” of Malays, and a politically toothless but symbolically valorized conservative Malay aristocracy. According to this theoretical framework, politics in the early twenty-first century is still seen as primarily shaped by ethnicity and communalism. Another approach examines the connection between politics and the economy. Historically, it forefronts the role of Malay radicals in the nationalist movement, and the existence of a strong labor movement as well as powerful leftist parties in the past. It tends to assess critically the New Economic Policy (NEP) involving affirmative action for bumiputera, that is, Malays and some other ethnic minorities except ethnic Indians and ethnic Chinese. According to this strand of the literature, the NEP has resulted in a political economy of state capture under the aegis of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the dominant party in interethnic coalitions. Especially in the 1970s and 1980s, the political system became ever more authoritarian and marked by “money politics.” In connection to this, this literature stresses economic and status inequalities and often refers directly to some kind of class theory. In recent years, cultural and postcolonial studies are increasingly trying to deconstruct the notion of “given” ethnic, religious, and social identities. In parallel, new research subjects have arisen such as digital media, political Islam and religious revivalism, feminism, the marginalization of sexual and ethnic minorities, climate change, etc. Besides, a large part of the political science literature has focused on elections and political parties competing within a political system that has been characterized as electoral or competitive authoritarian or as a semi-democracy. Especially the Asian financial crisis and the emergence of the Reformasi or reform movement in the late 1990s have resulted in new political dynamics with the rise of a strong social movement and an opposition coalition that won in the 2018 elections. In the early twenty-first century, Malaysia is shifting in between electoral authoritarianism and electoral democracy.

General Overviews and Reference Works

Andaya and Andaya 2017 and Hooker 2003 are the best known and most reliable introductions to the history of Malaysia. Ooi 2017 is a valuable addition to these works. The yearly reviews SUARAM Annual Human Rights Report and Southeast Asian Affairs are helpful to systematically trace recent political developments. In order to gain an overview of current social science research on Malaysia, Weiss 2015 offers the best collection of articles.

  • Andaya, Barbara Watson, and Leonard Y. Andaya. A History of Malaysia. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2017.

    DOI: 10.1057/978-1-137-60515-3

    One of the standard works depicting the history of Malaysia beginning with early developments, the legacy of Melaka, and the establishment of sultanates. The focus lies on events since the nineteenth century up to recent years, thus updating the first edition from 1982.

  • Hooker, Virginia Matheson. A Short History of Malaysia: Linking East and West. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen and Unwin, 2003.

    A concise introduction trying to identify essential pathways since early times. The history acknowledges the contributions of individuals, of constituent states, and of local traditions in the country’s trajectory.

  • Ooi Keat Gin. Historical Dictionary of Malaysia. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.

    Very helpful source covering predominantly historical, cultural, and political issues, with more than 500 cross-referenced entries, a chronology, and a glossary. It is a revised version of the first 2009 edition.

  • Southeast Asian Affairs. 1974–.

    The annual review has been published by the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore since 1974. It includes a country review and sometimes other thematic articles on Malaysia.

  • SUARAM Annual Human Rights Report. 1999–.

    The yearly reports by the NGO Suara Rakyat Malaysia (“Voice of the Malaysian People”) or SUARAM assess latest events and developments concerning human rights issues in the country. Published since 1999.

  • Weiss, Meredith L., ed. Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Malaysia. London and New York: Routledge, 2015.

    Collection of thirty-five articles organized in different issue areas: “Domestic politics,” “Economics,” “Social policy and social development,” and “International relations and security.” Interdisciplinary, cutting-edge research written mostly by Malaysian authors.

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