For Myanmar, the main features of the national populist context, with the two core elements of populism – anti-elitism and anti-pluralism – and the additional feature of the disregard of facts, are described elsewhere in this report (see case study 08).
In Malaysia, by contrast, the May 2018 election has been described as a ‘democratic disruption [standing] apart in a year of populist nationalism’. The Barisan National coalition that had ruled since 1957 lost power, ending the dominance of ‘communal race-based politics’. There was real optimism of a ‘New Malaysia’ following this seismic change, and that the equal rights of previously marginalised groups would finally be recognised and respected, but, one year after the elections, major concerns were still being raised around the continued restrictions on fundamental freedoms. In addition to the failure around progressing promised institutional and political reforms, increasing ethnic and religious intolerance continues to threaten stability, and both political leaders and the Malaysian public have noted growing concern about incendiary rhetoric concerning race and religion.
The Malaysian government has an important role to play in curbing ‘hate speech’ and other forms of intolerance, but needs to do this through policy solutions that do not restrict speech, are aligned with international standards and law, and focus not only on criminal measures but also positive initiatives to ‘address discrimination and conflict in society and to promote tolerance and intercultural understanding’. This raises interesting questions about the roles and expectations of new political leaders in ‘post-populist’ contexts, where the effects of social divides perpetuated by the previous leaders are still present.
Moreover, the looming threat of populist politics is still present, with the fact that the Pakatan Harapan ruling coalition’s electoral victory was actually dubbed as a struggle against “a corrupt and entrenched Umno and Barisan Nasional elite, who, through excessive and large-scale corruption, weak governance and the mismanagement of the economy, greatly harmed the livelihood of the people and ruined Malaysia’s standing among its peers” (the anti-elitism core element). It remains to be seen whether this would be mere rhetoric or an actual basis for greater equality and change.