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Malaysia Politics

The Malays and the Bumiputra (son of the soil) who are the majority of the population have special position and privileges inscribed in the constitution by the countrys founding fathers at independence. The privileges, particularly access to lands, scholarships, public services, public education and businesses are coherently implemented through government policies. This inequality has led to simmering dissatisfactions amongst younger generation Malaysians from other races in the past.

Malaysia's multi-racial society contains many ethnic groups. Malays comprise a majority of just over 50%. By constitutional definition, all Malays are Muslim. About a quarter of the population is ethnic Chinese, a group which historically played an important role in trade and business. Malaysians of Indian descent comprise about 7% of the population and include Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians. Non-Malay indigenous groups combine to make up approximately 11% of the population.

Population density is highest in peninsular Malaysia, home to some 20 million of the country's 27 million inhabitants. The remaining 7 million live on the Malaysian portion of the island of Borneo in the large but less densely-populated states of Sabah and Sarawak. More than half of Sarawak's residents and about two-thirds of Sabah's are from indigenous groups.

Malaysia's predominant political party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), has held power in coalition with other parties continuously since independence in 1957. The UMNO coalition's share of the vote declined in national elections held in May 1969, after which riots broke out in Kuala Lumpur and elsewhere, mainly between Malays and ethnic Chinese. Several hundred people were killed or injured. The government declared a state of emergency and suspended all parliamentary activities.

An ethnic apartheid has been part of government policy since the race riots in the 1960s. In both the ruling and opposition coalitions there are race-based parties representing the ethnic Malays, Chinese and South Asians. The classic, politically correct, stereotype of Malaysian society is Melayu, Cina dan India - Malay, Chinese and Indian.

In the years that followed, Malaysia undertook several initiatives that became integral parts of its socioeconomic model. The New Economic Policy (NEP), launched in 1971, contained a series of affirmative action policies designed to benefit Malays and certain indigenous groups (together known as bumiputera or "sons of the soil"). The Constitution was amended to limit dissent against the specially-protected and sensitive portions of the Constitution pertaining to the social contract. The government identified intercommunal harmony as one of its official goals. The previous alliance of communally based parties was replaced with a broader coalition--the Barisan Nasional (BN) or National Front. The BN won large majorities in the 1974 federal and state elections. The New Economic Policy (NEP), remains a longstanding sore point for Chinese Malaysians as the policy is now seen more and more as directed against Chinese wealth rather than against foreign ownership, as it was originally designed.

Over the years, Parliament's function as a deliberative body has deteriorated. Legislation proposed by the Government rarely was amended or rejected. Legislation proposed by the opposition never was given serious consideration. Opposition opportunities to hold legislation up to public scrutiny have diminished. In September, a member of Parliament from the opposition Democratic Action Party was suspended without pay for 6 months after failing to apologize to the parliamentary Speaker for "misleading the House" on the question of whether or not M.P.s had to raise their hands when taking their oaths of office.

The 1995 parliament amended its rules to strengthen the power of the Speaker and to curb parliamentary procedures frequently used by the opposition. The amendments empowered the Speaker to ban members he considered unruly for up to 10 days, imposed limits on deputies' ability to pose supplementary questions and revisit non-germane issues, and established restrictions on the tabling of questions of public importance. Further measures in 1997 and 1998 limited even more severely members' opportunities to question and debate government policies. In 2001, an amendment to the parliamentary Standing Orders permitted the Speaker to edit written copies of members' speeches before the speeches were delivered. Nonetheless, Government officials often faced sharp questioning in Parliament, although this was not always reported in detail in the press.

Dr. Mahathir Mohamad was Prime Minister between 1981 and 2003, leading UMNO and BN to successive election victories. Mahathir emphasized economic development during his tenure, in particular the export sector, as well as large scale infrastructure projects. Mahathir attributed the success of the Asian tiger economies to the "Asian values" of its people, which he believed were superior to those of the West. Mahathir sharply criticized the International Monetary Fund (IMF), international financiers such as George Soros, and Western governments during the sharp economic and financial crisis that affected Asia in 1997-8, and denied that the downturn was due to the failures of corruption and "crony capitalism."

Mahathir's policies were based on an affirmative action program that offered school slots, cheap loans, and insider business deals and contracts to the Muslim Malays, who traditionally had been the poorest Malaysians despite being the majority. The affirmative action economic policies quickly turned into cronyism: only a handful of well-connected Malays got really rich. Nowhere was the business-politics connection clearer than when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was Prime Minister. Dr Mahathir initiated an aggressive privatisation policy and involved the private sector in key strategic sectors. This saw many individuals said to have close ties with Dr Mahathir growing their business empires.

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption; however, the government did not implement the law effectively, and officials often engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. The media reported numerous cases of alleged official corruption. There was a broadly held perception of widespread corruption and cronyism within the governing coalition and in government institutions.

The end of Mahathir's tenure was marred by a falling out with his deputy and presumed successor, Anwar Ibrahim. Anwar was touted as a potential prime minister under former leader Mahathir Mohammad but their friendship soured over Anwars political ambitions and differences over how best to handle the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In September 1998, Mahathir dismissed Anwar and accused him of sodomy and corrupt conduct. Although Anwar was convicted on both charges in 1999 and 2000, the trials were viewed as seriously flawed. Malaysia's Federal Court eventually freed Anwar after overturning his immoral conduct conviction in September 2004 after he served six years behind bars.



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