Malaysian Politics Regresses to the Mean

The past week in Malaysian politics has been nothing less than a whirlwind. It started with news that Azmin Ali had hatched a plot to unseat Malaysia’s 94 year old Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad. It ended with Muhyiddin Yassin being sworn in by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong as Prime Minister. Along the way a lot has happened: the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition fractured, a bunch of Malay politicians jumped parties, Mahathir resigned and was appointed his own interim successor, and so much more.

Having tried to follow all of these events that happen overnight (from the East Coast, USA perspective), I confess to playing catchup. For example, my comments for the South China Morning Post and Asia Times were out of date almost as soon as they were published. And yet the main takeaway point to understand what has happened to Malaysia doesn’t require much attention to the nitty gritty details.

What has happened, in short, is that the pan-ethnic coalition that push the ruling Barisan Nasional [= National Front] regime out of power in 2018 has fractured. What has replaced it is the hard core of the parties that represent a Malay-first agenda: the long-time Malay nationalist party the United Malays National Organisation, the Islamist Pan-Malaysian Islamist Party, and the upstart UMNO-splinter party the Malaysian United Indigenous Party. Known as the Perikatan Nasional [= National Alliance], this coalition is the inevitable product of Malaysia’s long-running ethnic cleavage which—after fifty years—has finally seen UMNO and PAS join together in a government that no longer has even token representation of non-Malay interests (which the Barisan Nasional always maintained). Opposing Perikatan (for the moment) are parties that tend to represent non-ethnic platforms, parties from East Malaysia, and those who reject the Malay nationalist agenda more broadly.

It is striking that Muhyiddin’s government freezes both Mahathir and Anwar—the two most important Malaysian politicians over the past half century—out of power. That said, it is only a day old so far, and the smart money is that Mahathir and Anwar are not down for the count. And elections will be due in any case in a little over three years at the longest; I had previously thought that snap elections might be on their way, but now I am not so sure that Perikatan can be confident that it would win an electoral mandate. So there is bound to be plenty to follow in the coming days. More party hopping, bluffs, and backroom deals are on their way.

But none of these details will change the basic essence of what has happened, which Malaysian politics has regressed to the mean.