Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The New Media and Malaysian Politics in Historical Perspective

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

The New Media and Malaysian Politics in Historical Perspective

Article excerpt

Analysts of Malaysian politics since the 1970s have repeatedly anticipated how various socio-economic changes will foster a more democratic, accountable and representative political system. In previous decades, modernization and globalization were two key concerns. Today, technological change, most notably the rise of new media and Malaysia's vibrant online society, may augur well for political liberalization. Indeed, since mid-2007, political developments in Malaysia have suggested that political liberalization may be on the horizon. Empowered through technology, ordinary Malaysians, along with the country's official opposition, have together undermined the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN) regime's organizational and informational advantages, which over time may render the political status quo unsustainable.

This essay argues that any predictions of political change as a result of the rise of Malaysia's new media are premature. Despite truly dramatic changes in Malaysian society--the consequences of modernization, globalization and technological development--the logic of political conflict in Malaysia has remained nearly identical from 1957 until today, and as a consequence the legal and rhetorical tools employed by the incumbent BN regime remain the same as well. Viewed in historical perspective, the basic cleavage structure (1) of Malaysian politics (a Malay/non-Malay cleavage overlaid by a class cleavage) looks strikingly similar to the cleavage structure at independence.

Malaysia's cleavage structure congealed amidst the political contestation preceding independence. Since then, the broader socioeconomic context sustaining this cleavage structure has changed, but without upsetting this essential foundation for Malaysian political conflict. The identity of the "players" of Malaysian politics has changed over time, and I argue in this essay that the social, economic, and global political contexts surrounding Malaysian politics have changed in important ways that should not be ignored. But until either a particular individual or event, or a set of social or technological changes, can unsettle the fundamental logic of Malaysian politics, political change will be superficial, any overtures towards political liberalization will not be genuine, and crackdowns on the opposition will continue. Individual elites and important opposition groups may favour political liberalization, but Malaysia's political order will resist because incumbents do not want to reform the policies and institutions that sustain the BN.

This essay therefore interprets the rise of Malaysia's new media as having political consequences that are similar to those generated in previous decades by modernization and globalization. New media help to create new coalitions, place new challenges on the incumbent regime, and introduce new tactics for the political opposition, but they do not themselves cause political liberalization. Theoretically, these conclusions fit well with existing research on the ambiguities of modernization in the newly industrialized economies of Southeast Asia (2): despite the emancipatory potential of new technology in Malaysia, political change will most likely occur only after Malaysia's cleavage structure fractures. This argument is also consistent with general theories of democratization as an outcome driven by events rather than one driven by structural preconditions. (3)

After first presenting a brief overview of the origins of Malaysia's cleavage structure, this essay discusses the ways in which socioeconomic change has shaped the ethnic and class cleavages that drive Malaysian politics, and in response, how Malaysia's political order has rearticulated these cleavages in ways that protect the existing political order. From there, it uses this historical perspective to interpret three recent political developments: the Hindraf rally of 2007, the March 2008 election, and the 2011 Bersih 2.0 rally. …

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