The case of Malaysian politics is a fascinating subject. In 2023, V-Dem considered Malaysia an electoral autocracy, although the report also stated it appears to be currently facing an upward trajectory towards democratization. Malaysia has experienced competitive authoritarianism and stealth authoritarianism in the following ways. First, although it regularly holds elections, it was not until the 2018 General Election did Malaysia finally experience its first peaceful transition of power. It had been ruled by the same political coalition, Barisan Nasional (BN) since its independence in 1957. BN leadership maintained political survival for so long by using gerrymandering, censorship, restricting free speech, silencing dissent, prosecuting opposition leaders and embezzling state funds.
In addition to institutional considerations, Malaysia also experiences unique socio-cultural nuances that affect its democratic prospects. With 23% of the population being ethnic-Chinese, Malaysia has experienced a strong preservation of ancestral traditional Chinese cultural heritage and identity. Yet, severely violent historical race riots are etched in social memory and continue to exacerbate fragile race relations, resentment and tension today. Ethnic cleavages between Malays and non-Malay minorities (namely Chinese and Indian), coupled with imbalanced power cultural backlash and political polarization, have been argued in other contexts to predict polarization that negatively effects democracy backsliding. Moreover, Malay-Muslim nationalist politicians’ have resorted to anti-Chinese exclusionary rhetoric that instills fear of a China threat. Democracy scholars have argued this kind of “othering” fosters alt-right populism and radical polarization in the U.S. and Europe. It appears to be doing the same in Malaysia as well.
Domestically, Malaysia’s socio-cultural and institutional challenges to democracy are already clear. Yet, the country may be even less prepared to deal with foreign interference that further bolsters anti-democratic processes. The problems of Malaysian political discourse that emphasizes ethno-religious polarization and anti-Chinese rhetoric, however, are further complicated. They are further complicated by the fact that adjacent bodies of research show that indeed, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are engaging in foreign manipulation that targets the ethnic-Chinese diaspora in particular.
The Chinese government has attempted foreign manipulation in Malaysia in several ways. Most prominently, China interfered in Malaysia’s 2018 Election by attempting to manipulate the Chinese diaspora through the Malaysia-China Association (MCA). These efforts were enhanced by Chinese-Malay business tycoon Tiong Hiew King and owner of a Malaysia Media Chinese International (MCIL). MCIL controls 90% of Chinese language media in Malaysia and spreads pro-Beijing content and propaganda to its viewers. The Chinese government have also launched several disinformation operations in Malaysia that target both the ethnic-Chinese diaspora as well the general population including ethnic-Malays. Chinese-language disinformation was even created by local Malaysian content farms that were disseminated in Taiwan to interfere in the 202 democratic election. China has also launched cyber-attacks in Malaysia during the 2018 election that involved ‘phishing emails’ that attempted to targeted and blackmail government officials. China has also engaged in cyber-espionage related to gathering intelligence on information related to Malaysia’s dealings with Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects.
Relatedly, China’s Belt and Road Initiative’s in themselves create a lack of transparency that promotes corruption of domestic political elites in Malaysia. In fact, the Chinese government has been linked to the 1MDB: Malaysia’s largest corruption scandal in modern history which is also considered as the largest global kleptocracy case to date. China allegedly offered to bail out Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak in exchange for more BRI deals while also offering to pressure foreign countries to back off investigations. Another arm of the BRI also seeks to export China’s digital authoritarianism in Malaysia via the digital silk road. Here, Alilibaba has set up a “digital free trade zone” between China and Malaysia to make cross-region shipments more affordable, manage cargo authorizations and ease customs, which raises concerns for many.
Despite the challenges to democracy that Malaysia faces, both in terms of domestic institutional and social-cultural considerations, but also foreign interference, Malaysians have been resilient. Some even say that Chinese attempts to influence both Malaysian politics and the 2018 election backfired so greatly that it gave Malaysians a real chance towards democracy. Despite Malaysia not having a particular deep culture of investigative journalism, it is noticeably growing. Watchdog journalism is beginning to counter China’s media influence attempts. The public is also more aware of these narratives and are generally skeptical. Regulations are also being sought to restrict foreign investment in Malaysia’s media landscape.
COVID-19 however has exacerbated political turmoil. Despite the historic win for the opposition in 2018, a lack of political unity has created a high turn-over rate on the office of the Prime Minister – Malaysia has had four Prime Ministers in office over the last three years. Malaysia offers us an example that despite the noble attempts towards democratization that deserve optimism, once successfully are incredibly hard to maintain as they sometimes lead to instability that reflects the complicated nature of socio-cultural relations and how difficult it is to encourage cooperation towards affording justice, freedom, and equality in ways that operate within the existing institutions.