Government Structure and Society

Government Structure

Malaysia is a parliamentary democracy with a federal constitutional monarchy. The Paramount Ruler, commonly referred to as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, is the head of state as well as the leader of the Islamic faith in Malaysia. This monarch is selected for a five-year term from among their own number by the nine hereditary rulers (sultans) of Peninsular Malaysia.

Executive power in the nation is held by the Prime Minister and the cabinet that he/she leads. In order to be Prime Minister, one must be a member of the lower house and command a majority but, the Prime Minister is appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong who also bears the power to appoint the cabinet on the advice of the Prime Minister.

Legislative power in Malaysia is divided between federal and state legislatures. Federal legislative power is vested in the government and the two chambers of the federal parliament, namely, the Senate (Dewan Negara) and the Hall of the People (Dewan Rakyat). The Senate comprises 70 members, of whom 26 are elected by the 13 state assemblies, and 44 are appointed by the monarch. The Hall of the People, however, has 222 members who are elected from single-member districts by universal suffrage for a maximum of five years.

Each of the 13 states has its own constitution which must be compatible with the federal constitution, and each state has an executive council, which deals with non-federal matters under a Menteri Besar (chief minister), answerable to elected state assemblies.

It is also important to note that Malaysia has two constituencies of law. One is for the entire nation and is set by parliament and requires two-thirds majority to amend. The second is syariah or Islamic law which applies to Muslims and is normally determined by the states.

Social stability – Malaysia has typically been characterised by stable societal relations but rising tensions across racial communities might pose a threat to that harmony. The year 2019 witnessed an uptick in racial intolerance with several instances of online hatred towards racial minorities being reported. One such incident involved the posting of a fabricated picture on Facebook wherein a man of Chinese descent was seen burning the Malaysian flag. The post quickly went viral and fuelled streams of hate speech towards the minority Chinese community in Malaysia. When the picture was revealed to be fake, the motive behind the initial post became clear. Such racial division truly hits home for the country of Malaysia, which in its early days saw explosive communal clashes between ethnic Malays and Chinese break out in the streets of Kuala Lumpur, leaving hundreds dead and a then young nation traumatized. The May 13th riots, as the communal clashes of 1969 have come to be known, continue to haunt the country and, thus, serve to remind its people of the consequences of racial intolerance.

Political stability – Malaysia’s political sphere has been rife with instability in recent years owing to corruption and financial scandals of epic proportions. The first domino to fall in this tragic tale is that of 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a state investment fund that came under investigation for alleged impropriety in July 2015. While the financial scandal itself involves a complex orchestration of several moving parts, its political relevance stems from the alleged misconduct of then Prime Minister Najib Razak, who has been accused of funnelling US$ 700 million from the state fund into his own accounts. In the wake of the 1MDB revelation Malaysia witnessed widespread public furore which eventually lead to the downfall of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) in the 2018 election. This was a momentous occasion in Malaysian history because UMNO had been Malaysia’s ruling party since the birth of the nation, i.e., since 1957. Even more remarkable was the fact that UMNO’s ruling coalition had lost the election to Pakatan Harapan, a coalition lead by former UMNO leader and Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. However, the hope that was sparked in 2018 turned out be short-lived. In January 2020, Prime Minister Mohamad lost the support of his coalition partners and his newly elected government crumbled in an unprecedented manner. Power then shifted to the Perikatan Nasional coalition with Muhyiddin Yassin as the new Prime Minister of Malaysia. Given that UMNO is the most powerful coalition member of Perikatan Nasional, it seems Malaysia’s political system travelled full-circle and is, thus, back to where it started from.

To learn more about the 1MDB financial scandal, follow the link below:

Religious instability – The many religions that reside in Malaysia place it in a precarious situation because any tensions between religious communities can be used to stir religious extremism. As such, a delicate balance must be struck in handling religious affairs, and the Malaysian Government has proven successful in doing so, thus far. In 2019, Malaysia ranked among the top half of all countries in the Global Terrorism Index, representing a marked improvement compared to recent years. However, the threat of extremism still looms over the country. After the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, more than 100 Malaysian IS fighters returned to the country last year, giving rise to concerns about potential home-grown terrorism. But Malaysian authorities have been prompt in responding to such concerns, making multiple arrests of IS loyalists and, thus, preventing terrorist attacks in the country. As the government continues to try and suppress terrorism in Malaysia, it is important to remember that the presence of extremist organisations across South East Asia – such as Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf Group – poses a persistent threat to Malaysia’s religious harmony.


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