This week, Malaysia’s troubled transition was on full display again with an unprecedented one-day parliamentary session that put off a no-confidence vote and left the country’s politics in flux.
While these developments are notable for their own sake, it is also worth reflecting on a broader question that has lingered in recent months amid all this: what Malaysia’s troubled transition says and does not say about the state of democracy in the region.
As I have observed before, though Southeast Asia is often subject to country- or event-focused accounts about whether democracy is rising or declining, the region has in fact long been home to a hybrid of regime types and varying societal pressures beyond the state, which makes it even more difficult to extrapolate from perceived litmus tests. A case in point is Myanmar’s opening in 2011 and the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015 elections, which was initially met with international euphoria, but quickly gave way to disappointment as governance challenges were exposed beyond that litmus test and below the state level. Meanwhile, beyond that single case, democracy in the region has seen a much more mixed and murkier outlook than the dramatic rise and falls often portrayed – with the initial progress seen in Myanmar’s transition existing alongside other stories such as the suppression of the Cambodian opposition, worries about democratic rollback and decline in the Philippines, Thailand, and even Indonesia, and the endurance of one-party communist governments in mainland Southeast Asia.
Perceptions with respect to Malaysia’s experience with democracy also reinforce this point. Viewed more superficially, over the past few decades, the country has been through a series of dramatic pendulum swings – from dashed hopes of reform during the Reformasi period to kleptocracy under the government of Najib Razak; and, more recently, from the shock election victory Pakatan Harapan (PH) recorded in the May 2018 elections to the dramatic collapse of the coalition and hope for a “New Malaysia” this February. But that superficial treatment belies a more complex reality: that enduring structural challenges to democratization that scholars have long pointed to — such as the personalization of politics and politicization of institutions — have remained and that small margins or sudden developments – be it Mahathir Mohamad’s surprise return to politics or the narrow, contested majority the current Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin was able to secure – can quickly reverse perceived gains or losses.
Seen from this perspective, Malaysia’s troubled transition represents just the latest case in point where these broader realities are once again manifesting. Analogous to the case of Myanmar, expectations that a single election could help power reform and democratization have unsurprisingly proven to be unrealistic. Variables such as the personalization of politics and the dominance of UMNO have been at play in several senses, be it in the continued rivalry between Mahathir and Anwar, which had complicated any handover of power following PH’s victory, or the demonstration of UMNO’s staying power in fluid party politics through a mix of realignment, factionalization and absorption. And, once again, contrary to notions of a dramatic swing or clear trend, prospects for democratization or even reform now hang by a thread, with the Perikatan Nasional commanding a razor-thin and contested majority, which could easily be reversed once again in the coming months.
While the story of Malaysia’s troubled transition is still playing out, what, then, does this say (and, equally if not more importantly, not say) about democracy and Southeast Asia? For one, Malaysia’s experience should reinforce caution about too hastily attributing a change in one country to a diverse region as a whole, particularly given how fragile gains can be and how quickly they can be reversed. For another, the continued influence of structural dynamics should serve as an important reminder that they will continue to be powerful shapers of politics, even though agency – whether in the form of the influence of individual leaders or the actions they take or do not take – also obviously matters greatly. And the narrow margins also point to the importance of paying attention to the intricacies of domestic politics – down to the role of individual members of parliament or the powers of the monarchy.
The “lessons” Malaysia’s troubled transition offers may not seem that grand or groundbreaking. But sticking to the basics – including recognizing the enduring realities and narrow margins at play and paying close attention to short and long-term state-society dynamics as well as unexpected developments that could be just around the corner and reverse previously perceived linear trajectories – may also be exactly the right lessons to learn from one of the more remarkable recent cases in the evolution of regime dynamics in Southeast Asia.