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History, An Independent Malaysia

hereditary rulers, Democratic Action Party, Tun Abdul Razak, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysian politics

In 1961 Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaya’s first prime minister, proposed a Malaysian federation of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, North Borneo (later called Sabah), and Brunei. All but Brunei joined the federation in 1963. Economic and political disputes based on racial differences led to Singapore’s exit in 1965.

Since independence, ethnic disputes have dominated Malaysian politics. In the 1960s these disputes centered on the preeminence of Malays in politics and the supremacy of Chinese and Indians in the economic arena. In the 1969 general elections, the Alliance faced opposition from both Malay and non-Malay parties. Immediately afterward serious rioting broke out in Kuala Lumpur and at least 200 people were killed. The government invoked emergency powers and imposed restrictions on raising ethnically sensitive issues; parliament did not meet again until 1971. The new prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, announced a new program called the New Economic Policy (NEP) to alleviate poverty in general, but also to improve specifically the economic condition of the Malays. Among the goals of the NEP was to increase the employment of Malays in occupations dominated by non-Malays. He also broadened the Alliance (already extended to Sarawak and Sabah) into an organization called the National Front, which included some opposition parties. The National Front won the 1974 elections decisively and also, under Prime Minister Datuk Hussein Onn, the 1978 elections. Ethnicity, however, still dominated the political scene, and two major opposition parties opposed the National Front: the Pan-Malayan Islamic Party and the Democratic Action Party. When Hussein Onn retired in 1981, he was succeeded by his deputy, Mahathir bin Mohamad.

A constitutional conflict in 1983 between the Mahathir government and the hereditary sultans led to a compromise restricting the power of Malaysia’s head of state to veto certain legislation. In 1987 the Mahathir government responded to the alleged threat of rising tensions between Malays and Chinese by arresting opposition leaders and suspending four newspapers. Constitutional amendments passed in 1993 and 1994 further restricted the powers of the head of state. The amendments prohibited the nine hereditary rulers from pardoning themselves or their families from criminal charges and removed the head of state’s power to delay legislation. The National Front, having won three consecutive victories in 1982, 1986, and 1990 with Mahathir as prime minister, gained an even greater majority in the elections of 1995. Mahathir again retained his position as prime minister. Since the early 1990s the centerpiece of the Mahathir era has been “Vision 2020,” his program to propel Malaysia into the ranks of developed industrial nations by 2020.

Southeast Asian financial markets suffered a serious blow in 1997 when investors lost confidence in a number of Asian currencies and securities. The impact to Malaysia’s economy was not as severe as it was in other Asian countries, but economic concerns caused the Mahathir government to scale back or postpone several important infrastructure projects.

Mahathir differed with Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim on what Malaysia’s response to the economic crisis should be, and in September 1998 Mahathir dismissed Anwar from his government posts. Anwar then launched a campaign against government corruption and began speaking to supporters around the country, often drawing huge crowds. The government arrested Anwar on charges of abuse of power and personal misconduct, which Anwar claimed were part of a political conspiracy against him. He was convicted of abuse of power and given a six-year jail sentence in April 1999. In a separate judicial verdict in August 2000, Anwar was found guilty of sodomy and sentenced to nine additional years in prison. Despite the controversy surrounding Anwar’s arrest, the National Front decisively won November 1999 legislative elections and Mahathir retained the office of prime minister.



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