Malaysia, a relatively stable and peaceful multiethnic state, is approaching developed-country status after decades of rapid growth. Since independence in 1957, Malaysia has endured a range of internal threats—a communist uprising, ethnic tensions, political instability, and subnational tensions. The country has maintained sometimes uneasy relations among ethnic and religious groups and across political rifts, with few significant incidents or violent conflicts.
Malaysia’s democratic political system and sustained economic growth are core factors in its relative stability. Successive governments of the Barisan Nasional coalition offered continuity and managed competing interests. Since the late 1960s, the country’s New Economic Policy has offered a program of affirmative action that primarily supports the indigenous majority, providing benefits to alleviate their lower socioeconomic status and to reduce ethnic tensions. The delicate balance of appealing to all groups while also favoring Malay and Muslim interests has persisted through decades of increasing religiosity in this modern and progressive Islamic nation.
In 2018, elections led to the country’s first regime change since independence. Mahathir Mohamad returned as prime minister under the Pakatan Harapan coalition, becoming the world’s oldest head of government. But in February 2020, tensions within the coalition led to its collapse, and Muhyiddin Yassin, a veteran establishment politician, formed a new coalition government with a slim majority in parliament. Political contestation was effectively suspended for the duration of the state of emergency that was declared in response to the Covid-19 pandemic on January 12, 2021. In August, after just 17 months in office and amid political turmoil, Muhyiddin Yassin resigned along with his cabinet. He was replaced as prime minister by Ismail Sabri Yaakob of the venerable United Malays National Organisation.
During election campaigns, political leaders have continued to draw on deep social cleavages, and particularly on ethno-religious Malay identity, while also seeking a degree of consensus. Regional frustration in the states of Sabah and Sarawak has led to demands that the national government offer them greater rights and status. Other low-level tensions persist. International recognition of the Malaysian government’s effectiveness in tackling violent extremism echoes earlier successes in countering communist insurgency from 1948 to 1960 and from 1968 to 1989. Recent terrorist attacks have been rare, although concerns persist over jihadist returnees from the Middle East and the risk of local networks reemerging. Rates of local electoral violence, resource conflict, and criminal violence are also low by regional standards.
The first case of Covid-19 in Malaysia was confirmed on January 25, 2020. The pandemic exacerbated both ethnic and political tensions within Malaysia, particularly tensions surrounding Rohingya refugees. Civil society groups drew attention to hateful online messages targeting the Rohingya community.