For the past several decades Malaysia, along with its neighbor, Singapore, one of the primary exhibits pointed to by those intent on extolling the virtues of benign authoritarianism. Ever since winning independence from Britain in 1957, the country has been ruled by the National Front, a political bloc dominated by the United Malays National Organization, representing the country’s ethnic Malay majority.
Under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled from 1981 to 2003, the government pursued a policy of economic diversification. Formerly dependent on mineral mining and plantations, Malaysia turned into a high-tech manufacturing powerhouse. Its per capita GDP, at $14,400, is now higher than Thailand’s, Turkey’s, or Bulgaria’s. That wealth is instantly visible to anyone who visits Kuala Lumpur, which is full of high-rise office buildings, expensive malls, and ritzy restaurants.
But now the National Front’s control is cracking, and that is a good thing. The Wall Street Journal sums up the recent election results:
Although the National Front mustered just enough seats to form the next national government, it lost its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time in almost 40 years.
Exceeding its most optimistic forecasts, an alliance of three opposition parties also secured control of five of Malaysia’s 13 state administrations. The opposition now controls the crucial states of Penang and Selangor, home to much of Malaysia’s industrial base and to billions of dollars in U.S. and other foreign investments.
“This is a major political earthquake,” said Ibrahim Suffian, executive director of polling firm Merdeka Center in Kuala Lumpur. “The monopoly of power has now been broken.”
Indeed it has. Along with another of its neighbors, Indonesia, Malaysia is now starting to show that “Islamic democracy” is not an oxymoron. This is a development to be applauded in the long run, though in the short run it will undoubtedly cause some dislocations, especially for a business class that has gotten cozy with the ruling party.