Malaysia’s 2018 elections were ground-breaking. BM-UMNO’s stronghold over Malaysian politics was broken for the first time in the country’s history. Nevertheless, the 2018 elections were a contest between two populist ideologies. The victorious PH-alliance sought the high moral ground as an inclusive, secular, and anti-elite party, while BM-UMNO gained support from conservative pro-Malay and Muslim factions. After its victory, PH has struggled to enact its populist agenda of economic growth and anti-corruption. Meanwhile, populist, Islamic, right-wings parties such as the PAS have successfully formed an alliance with BM-UMNO. Economic stagnation is likely to bring volatility in socio-ethnic tensions, further fuelling both populist ideologies.

Malaysia is located in Southeast Asia. It is a federal constitutional monarchy with thirteen states and three federal territories. Historically, the region has been inhabited by a diverse group of people and is home to a variety of ethnicities and religions. It identifies as a Muslim country but allows non-Muslims the freedom to practice their faiths. The country’s system of government derives from the British, who colonized the country from 1867 – 1963 (with a gap during WWII) and is a Westminster parliamentary system and a series of common laws. It is ruled by the Prime Minister, and the head of the state is selected through an elected-monarchy system.

Malaysia was deeply impacted by the Second World War. The country was occupied by the Japanese until their surrender in 1945, followed by the re-colonization of the British. In Post- WWII Malaysia, the Malay independence movement gained steam and was led largely by Bumiputera Muslims. By the time the country gained independence, its Malay population lived side-by-side with a vast number of Chinese and Indians. These minorities were encouraged by the British to migrate to the region to work in rubber plantations and at tin mingling (Cavendish, 2007). Since its independence, Malaysia has used science, tourism, and trade to become one of the best performing economies in Southeast Asia.

Since 1947 and post-independence, Malaysia has been ruled by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), a coalition-based party. Its right-wing ideologies are a blend of national conservatism and social conservatism along with ethnic and religious ideals. While predominately Muslim, Malaysia is home to a wide array of ethnicities and religions. The UMNO has espoused Malay ethnic identity coupled with Islam to gain broad support. Since the 1970s, a series of affirmative action plans to promote the economically disadvantaged Muslim-Malay population have been passed. The 1970s marked the formation of Barisan Nasional (BN), a nationalist conservative, pro-Malay-Muslim party. It is the largest group within the UMNO.

The UMNO’s Mahathir Muhammad  was the longest-serving Prime Minister in the country’s history, remaining in office from 1981-2003. Mahathir was able to consolidate power by appealing to conservative Sunni Muslims due to his outright pro-Malay policies that marginalized non-Malays, Indians, Chinese, and non-Muslims. At the same time, he presented as an anti-establishment politician: he introduced punch-cards and nametags for civil servants to dissipate their “elitist aura” – and so that the public could file complaints if they encountered a “rude or indolent” officer (Shah, 2019).

Apart from his populist charm, Mahathir freely used authoritarianism to maintain his power. For instance, he was responsible for introducing the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), which was used to oppress critics and evade judicial review of his government’s actions. The ISA was also used to execute discriminatory, pro-Malay social and economic policies (Juego, 2018). In the 1980s, under the ISA led to a crackdown on opposition media outlets, judiciary, and civil society such as student unions; many dissidents were detained without trial. In 1987, activists from a wide spectrum of political beliefs were tortured under the ISA. These opposition groups included feminists, environmentalists, political opposition, and leftists (Shah, 2019).

The economic turbulence of the 1990s throughout East Asia eventually led to Mahathir’s resignation in 2003. Following Mahathir’s resignation, the BN introduced a “softer” version of Islam and its single-party rule, allowing it to retain power until its historic defeat in the 2018 elections by the alliance party Pakatan Harapan (PH). The party was ultimately brought down by leader Najib Razak’s infamous corruption scandal, a prolonged history of human rights violations, and a mounting external debt crisis (Azhari & Halim, 2019).

In the 2018 elections, two populist factions struggled to assert their power. The BN-UMNO rallied support from conservative Sunni Muslims, specifically Bumiputras, on the basis of ethno-religious nationalism (Shah, 2019). While it promised economic reform, its overall oratory for the election was heavy on “ethno-religious sentiments.” It characterized Malays and Muslims as “sacred people” up against “others” – Christians, Hindus, liberals such as LGBTQ+ activists, and non-Bumiputras. It also selectively differentiated between the “good” minority – Catholics – and the “bad” Malaysian Christians and anti-BN Evangelicals (Shah, 2019). The BN’s rural base, political patronage, and widespread use of malapportionment and gerrymandering were in full swing during the 2018 elections (Azhari & Halim, 2019; Shah, 2019).

On the opposing side was the populist, anti-establishment PH party, which ran against corruption. It mobilized various minority factions based on economic grievances and promised a country that promoted multiculturalism and good governance. It inspired hope by promising to end the rule of the “out-of-touch elites” whose corruption was squandering that which belonged to the people of Malaysia (Azhari & Halim, 2019; Zaharia, 2017). Their populist rhetoric advocated for changes for the average citizen and to reinstate their lost pride and honor, which had been taken away by the corrupt, self-serving, and conservative members of the status quo (Shah, 2019).

While PH sought the moral high ground, it is notable that it harbored a number of coalition parties and politicians who were UMNO defectors, thus splitting the party on core human rights issues regarding LGBTQ+ rights. In fact, their candidate for Prime Minister was none other than Mahathir Mohamad, the former Prime Minister. Mahathir left the UMNO in 2016 and founded the Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia (PPBM). PPBM would become one of the PH’s coalition partners. Mahathir reinvented his populist image. He was now the “bold Mahathir” who, during the lost decade of the 1990s, was able to keep Malaysia from beholding to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In 2018, in an effort to “protect” the country from external influences, he pledged to stay away from Chinese investment loans during a growing external debt crisis (Zaharia, 2020).

Despite his authoritarian legacy, he was able to connect with the people by ensuring he did not follow the “VIP” culture during a public event. He prayed with the common people, visited the bazaars, and got meals with his wife alongside ordinary citizens, reflecting “good family values” and his connection with the populace (Saat, 2018). The PH promoted economic nationalism, with a re-branded Mahathir cast as their “reformer” (Juego, 2018).

Since the 2018 elections, the PH has faced a number of challenges. Mahathir resigned in February 2020, leaving a huge void. Anwar Ibrahim, the presumptive heir, and former vocal Malay advocate has been side-lined. Due to his activism, Ibrahim has the populist support of the Muslim Malay; meanwhile, his anti-establishment stance gained the support of Chinese and Indian Malaysians. However, he was outflanked by Muhyiddin Yassin, the current Prime Minister and another former UMNO party member. Yassin has been able to use the old-style political patronage, pursuing a corruption probe against Ibrahim. Yassin, in just a few months in power, has used repressive, UMNO-established laws to curb opposition (Banyan, 2020). Ibrahim still seeks to topple Muhyiddin, creating fears of further political instability (Banyan, 2020).

In the 2019 local elections, the BM-UMNO showed signs of regaining its voters. It entered into an alliance with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a right-wing, pan-Islamist party seeking to establish a sharia driven Islamic state in the country. PAS advocates for “modest” clothing for women, discourages ethnic dance and music, and warrants the death penalty for Muslims who convert to other religions. The party is currently led by a conservative Sunni Muslim scholar and political leader Abdul Hadi bin Awang. Malaysians know Hadi for the controversial Amanat Hadi, a “dark period” during the 1980s. Hadi spread the ideology of “kafir mengkafir” throughout the villages of Malaysia. Kafir mengkafir meant calling Muslims of different political persuasions “infidels.” Being pro-PAS made one a Muslim, while any other political affiliation made one an “infidel.” Over the years, Hadi has participated in right-wing conventions around the globe and advocated for an “Islamic awakening” (Hussin, 2018).

While forming pacts with Islamist factions, BN-UMNO also, for the first time, placed ethnic Chinese and other minority politicians in prominent positions ahead of the 2018 elections. This was done in an effort to rid the party of its reputation as anti-multicultural and with a pro-Bumiputera Muslim agenda (Beech, 2020). If the Ibrahim-Muhyiddin power struggle further fractures the PH, the BN-UMNO is prepared to consolidate voters (and power) under its own populist umbrella. So far, the PH has been unable to deliver on its promises, potentially forecasting a BN-UMNO win in the next national elections.

Malaysia, despite its electoral process, rates as an un-free country, and its electoral system remains precarious. In a post-COVID world, economic tensions for an already indebted country – with its tourism industry severely damaged – will be ripe for a fresh wave of populism. For now, the 2018 elections make it clear that the two streams of populism are economic nationalism and inclusivity versus socio-political, religious and national conservatism.

October 11, 2020.


Azhari, Aira and Halim Abdul Faiz. (2019). “The Changing Nature of Populism in Malaysia.” Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs. Working Papers Series: Populism in Asia 4. file:///C:/Users/admin/Downloads/4.Populism_Malaysia.pdf (accessed on October 4, 2020).

Banyan (2020). “Anwar Ibrahim is in a familiar place, close to leading Malaysia.” The Economist. October 3, 2020. (accessed on October 4, 2020).

Beech, Hannah. (2020). “Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Resigns.” The New York Times. February 24, 2020. (accessed on October 4, 2020).

Cavendish, Richard. (2007). “Malayan Independence.” History Today. August 8, 2007. (accessed on October 4, 2020).

Hussin, Rais. (2018). “Unmasking the recalcitrant Hadi.” MalaysiaKini. January 21, 2018. (accessed on October 4, 2020).

Juego, Bonn (2018). “Human Rights Against Populism: A Progressive Response to the Politics of Duterte and Mahathir.” Heinrich Boll Stitftung. December 28, 2018. (accessed on October 4, 2020).

Saat, Norshahril. (2018). “Mahathir’s ‘reinvented’ populism has weakened ideological barriers, but what next?” Today. June 2, 2018. (accessed on October 4, 2020).

Shanon, Shah. (2019). “Populist Politics in the New Malaysia.” New Diversities. 21(2). (accessed on October 4, 2020).

Zaharia, Marius. (2020). “Mahathir’s shock Malaysian election win raises populist economics specter.” Reuters. (accessed on October 4, 2020).


Geographic Location: East Asia

Area: 329,847 sq. km.

Regime: Federal Constitutional Monarchy

Population: 32,467,676 (2020 September est.)

Ethnic Groups (2017 est.): Bumiputra 61.7%, Chinese 20.8%, Indian 6.2%, Others 11.3%

Languages: Main language groups feature Malayic, North Bornean, Melanau-Kajang, Aslian, Land Dayak, Sama-Bajaw, Philippine and Creole.

Religions (2010 est.): Islam 61.3%, Buddhism 19.8, Christianity 9.2%, Hinduism 6.3%, Chinese religions 3.4%

GDP (PPP): $1.079 trillion (2019)

GDP Per Capita (PPP): $29,525.6 (2019)

Socio-political situation: Politically Unstable   

Main Populism Factors:

  • Ethnic Tensions
  • Islamification
  • National & social conservatism
  • Anti-elitist
  • Anti-Corruption
  • Right-wing authoritarianism

Regime’s Character: Flawed Democracy

Score: 72/100


Pakatan Harapan, PH (Alliance of Hope)


Leader: Anwar Ibrahim

Ideology: Anti-establishment, reformism, Islamic-modernism, economic nationalism, multiculturalism, social justice, and anti-corruption

Populism: Center-left

Position: 20/70 seats in Dewan Negara, 108/222 seats in Dewan Rakyat, and 216/593 seats in Dewan Undangan Negeri

Pertubuhan Kebangsaan Melayu Bersatu, UMNO (United Malays National Organisation)


Leader: Ahmad Zahid Hamidi

Ideology: Malay nationalism, national conservatism, and Islamism

Populism: Right-wing

Position: 11/70 seats in Dewan Negara, 39/222 seats in Dewan Rakyat, and 140/593 seats in Dewan Undangan Negeri

Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, PAS (Malaysian Islamic Party)


Leader: Abdul Hadi Awang

Ideology: Islamism, Islamic democracy, Islamic conservatism, and pan-Islamism

Populism: Islamist right-wing

Position: 6/70 seats in Dewan Negara, 18/222 seats in Dewan Rakyat, and 90/593 seats in Dewan Undangan Negeri.