There has been much discussion about the existence of a deep state within Malaysia. This essay looks at its components. The deep state is not a unified and coordinated mechanism. It is heterogeneous and diverse. It is probably only bound together by a common narrative, sometimes interpreted differently. At different points of time, different aspects of this deep state exercise more power over the others. Other times, there is even conflict between the various elements.
Below is a description of what Malaysia’s deep state may look like.
The Special Branch
Malaysia’s Special Branch, a secretive division within the Royal Malaysian Police force (PDRM), has functioned as one of the country’s most covert units, or did until earlier this year, when the human rights NGO Suhakam accused it of being behind the disappearance of two social activists, Amri Che Mat and Pastor Raymond Koh.
The new Director General of Police, Abdul Hamid Bador, denies the accusation, claiming that the unit has no operational capabilities. Nonetheless, the accusation shines a light on a shadowy organization that had its beginnings as an intelligence unit established by the British after WWII to primarily gather human intelligence (HUMINT) on the communist insurgency throughout North Borneo and Malaya as well as spying to counter the growing Communist influence as well as watching the Singaporean trade union and political movements. A third important task was to undertake surveillance and infiltrate the Chinese triads operating in the towns throughout Malaya.
As a colonial creation, it has never been legitimized by act of Parliament, It has, no public charter, and reports neither to the National Parliament or the executive. It became an arm of the police organizational structure with a director who reported to the Director General of Police (IGP). The only indication of its mission and objectives are on the police website, stating that it is “responsible for collecting and processing security intelligence to preserve the law and order of the public and maintain Malaysia's peace and security.”
Today it conducts surveillance, intelligence gathering, and infiltrations that span all aspects of Malaysian society including religious organizations, mosques, churches, and temples, Chinese schools, universities, the state and federal civil services, government agencies, local government, trade unions, NGOs, media organizations, social activists, and even Royal households.
Special Branch attends many public gatherings, press conferences, and events where there are people of interest. Both opposition and government members of parliament are kept under surveillance. It has expanded from just utilising HUMINT gathering and now utilizes all the tools of modern electronic intelligence gathering, with sophisticated cyber abilities.
A former officer who wants to remain anonymous told Asia Sentinel writer that during the first Mahathir era in the 1990s, his responsibility was to film and photograph cabinet ministers and state chief ministers in compromising situations which could be utilized as a lever against them if necessary at some future point. The ex-officer went on to say that a number of guest rooms in hotels around Malaysia have been set up for this specific purpose, making it intriguing that recently Mohamed Azmin Ali, the former Selangor chief minister and current minister of economics, was allegedly surreptitiously filmed in a homosexual liaison by unknown actors.
Politicians from Sabah and Sarawak are of particular interest due to the sensitivities about succession from the Federation. Just recently Parti Warisan Sabah, a member of the Pakatan Harapan government, announced publicly that they would ban SB officers from their press conferences. However, Abdul Hamid Bador, formerly the agency’s director, said it is the SB’s prerogative to send in their people to press conferences despite the ban.
The unit has even been involved in royal household politics, choosing sides in a power struggle within the Kelantan Royal household in 2010 by reportedly ambushing the then-Sultan Ismail Petra on the road to prevent him from travelling to Singapore for medical treatment and restrained him in hospital.
The SB’s Political Division monitors the political climate and regularly undertakes its own polling. Its officers actually knew that the Najib government would most likely lose GE14 when that was by no means clear to political analysts. However, we will never know what role it played during the election and transition.
However, the warning that Abdul Hamid Bador gave to Najib when he was dismissed as deputy director and mothballed within the Prime Ministers Department before the election may in retrospect be very telling. The Political Division conducts propaganda and misinformation campaigns.
During the first trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim for sodomy, the then director Mohamed Said Awang told the court the Special Branch had conducted ‘turning over operations’ to change the political views of targets. Wikileaks revealed correspondence between Australian and Singapore security agencies in which the Singapore agency told the Australian agency that the allegations against Anwar were true and result of a ‘honey trap’ set up.
Activities are not restricted to Malaysia. Officers are found in countries where Malaysians are studying including Australia, New Zealand, UK, Germany, Ireland, the United States, and Egypt. SB officers monitor the activities of Malaysian students and also use the opportunity to groom and recruit potential informants, where those students on scholarships will be future civil servants. Officers usually work independently of Malaysian consular missions, although some officers may either work within the consulates or are the consul in charge of student affairs.
The SB also operates in Thailand, especially the southern provinces. Another SB officer who also wished to remain anonymous told me the main focus in Thailand was to monitor Malaysian criminals and Islamic sects with Malaysian connections. The officer also said that if the SB wanted to capture their targets, they would abduct and take them straight across the border. These extrajudicial renditions are usually carried out on those wanted in Malaysia and using Thailand as a safe haven.
The Malaysian and Singaporean special branches (ISD) have very close relationships. A Malaysian officer once told me the Singapore SB are “their brothers,” which allows Malaysian SB influence to flow down into Singapore. Time Magazine reported that the Malaysian special branch knew Sarawak Report editor Clare Rewcastle Brown had planned to visit Singapore and had arranged for their Singapore counterparts to arrest her upon arrival.
The SB uses the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA) which replaced the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA) as a platform to arrest and interrogate people of interest. Although hundreds of suspected terrorists have been arrested and held under SOSMA, the Act has also been used to arrest and hold civil rights activists, including Maria Chin Abdullah of Bersih.
This is purely political. Other detainees under SOSMA/ISA have included politicians Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Kit Siang, Jeffrey Kittingan, Karpal Singh, Michael Jayakumar, Lim Guan Eng, Mohamed Sabu, and Teresa Koh.
According to ex-detainees the special branch methods to interrogate suspects include stripping them, forcing them to stand for long periods of time in the cold, intimidation, threats against families, isolation in spotlights or darkness, sleep, food and water deprivation, ‘good cop, bad cop’ routines, and truth drugs. The aim is to make the detainees completely dependent on their captures to break them down mentally.
Detainees have no right to lawyers, no right to judicial review, or other legal recourse. The SB itself has no known system of checks and balances, which leads to abuse. The 2005 Dzaiddin Royal Commission into Police Reform found that many SB actions fall outside the law. Interrogations also contravene the 1984 UN Convention Against Torture, a treaty which the Malaysian government has refused to ratify.
Mahathir as Prime Minister has always been close to the Special Branch. In 1987 he cracked down on his critics in what was known as Operation Lalang, rounding up more than 100 politicians, social activists, academics, students, artists, and people seen as being critical of the government. The prime minister’s hold over the unit is just as strong today with his staunch ally Abdul Hamid Bador, the newly appointed IGP. Mahathir in support of the SB was dismissive of Suhakam’s findings about the abduction of Pastor Koh.
This is in stark contrast to former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s experience. Suspicious of the SB is that it built its own security apparatus from the Malaysian External Intelligence Organization, known as ME10. Building ME10 up to more than 1,000 operatives, Najib bypassed the SB. The charges against the former Director-General of ME10 Hasanah Abdul Hamid for misappropriation of election funds can be seen as payback for the letter she wrote to the CIA before Najib lost the federal election last year.
Today, the SB has a budget of more than RM500 million, which doesn’t include the slush funds it has to run secret and sensitive operations. Over the last decade SB staff have more than doubled to over 10,000. This doesn’t include 10-15,000 informers that the SB is handling across the country. This represents about one SB operative to 1,500 citizens, a ratio not unlike the old East German secret police, the Stasi.
Rather than use sodomy to destroy an adversary of Mahathir, ironically the SB is now using misinformation dissemination, aka ‘deepfake’ to protect a Mahathir ally. Many more clandestine operations to handle the transition are certain to follow.
The SB is now in the hands of a person who has used it before to blackmail, silence, incarcerate, and detain his critics. If Malaysia aspires to be a true democracy, then the SB is totally out of control. Who is a subversive or terrorist is left for the SB to decide. Extra-judicial abductions are unconstitutional. Many detainees have been prisoners of conscience or prisoners for their religious beliefs.
The investiture of Pahang Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad Shah as Malaysia’s 16th Yang di-Pertuan Agong, or King, shined a light on one of the world’s most unusual royal institutions, with the county’s eight sultans and one Raja rotating the kingship between them every five years.
The institution is based on nine old Malay states that came together with two of the Straits Settlements, Melaka and Penang, (and later with Singapore, which was expelled in 1965), Sabah and Sarawak to form the Federation of Malaysia. Official histories of the royal families have been shaped to show the monarchs as heroic and legendary.
Malaysian royalty is technically a constitutional monarchy. Yet the monarchy is at the apex of an ancient Malay class-based authoritarian feudal system with all its artefacts, ceremonies, customs, and language. To some degree, Malaysia can still be seen as a patriarchy rather than a democracy.
There is occasional criticism of royal behavior. Mahathir during his first stint as prime minister used public sentiment to limit their powers in the 1990s. However, there is very little public questioning the legitimacy of the royal institution today, even though considerable government expenditure is required to maintain the monarchy.
The Malay monarchy is embedded deep within the Malay psyche, giving them patriarchal authority. The sultan is head of Islam in each respective state as well as defender of Malay and indigenous rights. The rise of Ketuanan Melayu narratives after the New Economic Policy was introduced has strengthened the monarchy’s position even more.
There is a degree of absolute power in the hands of the monarchs that doesn’t devolve to other constitutional royal families. They can appoint a chief minister from their respective state assemblies without their picks being tested. They have used these powers to appoint the chief minister they want over the candidate from the largest party or coalition in the state assembly. Terengganu in 2008 saw a political impasse when the sultan insisted that Ahmad Said be chief minister over UMNO’s choice Idris Jusoh. In Perlis in 2009 the Raja refused to swear in Shahidan Kassim as chief minister and swore in Md Isa Sabu instead. In Selangor 2014 in what was called the Kajang move, the Sultan refused to appoint then-opposition leader Anwar Ibraham’s wife Wan Azizah as chief minister, picking Azmin Ali even though he didn’t have apparent support from the majority of assembly members. In Perlis 2018 the Raja swore in Azlan Man as chief minister, even though the ceremony was boycotted by assembly members who supported Ismail Kassim.
This also extends into advice from the chief minister where in 2009 the Perak Sultan refused then chief minister Nizar Jamaluddin’s request to dissolve the assembly after three members of his government defected.
In addition to appointing the chief minister, Sultans also have the right to appoint top civil servants. In 2011 the Sultan of Selangor confirmed the appointment of Muhammed Khusrin Munawi as Chief Secretary even though the then Chief Minister Abdul Khalid Ibrahim and his executive council opposed the appointment. The Agong delayed affirmation of Tommy Thomas as Malaysia’s Attorney General and the Chief Justice for more than two months.
Bakri Musa was critical on the role of the Agong in the transition after GE14 which left Malaysia without a government for a number of days when the swearing in of Mahathir as Prime Minister was delayed.
The monarchy’s influence over the political arena extends well beyond appointments. The government had to back down on ratifying the Rome Statute when the Johor Sultan argued that the treaty on crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes would undermine Islam, the Malays, and the monarchy.
The Johor Sultan ordered the state assembly to ban e-cigarettes in 2015 and unilaterally banned vaping in Johor in 2016.
The monarchy has enormous informal power. Sultans hold regular weekly meetings with their executive councils, providing an opportunity each week to give views on the running of the state to the chief minister and executive councilors. Insiders have told Asia Sentinel that Sultans are generally very forthright on what they think is best for the state.
Sultans make regular visits to federal and state government departments, agencies, universities, schools, colleges, police and military stations, mosques, and organized events around their states meeting with politicians, civil servants, academics, police, military personnel, and people generally. Most also hold both formal and informal sessions at the palace where state business is often discussed in small informal groups. They ensure civil servants know their line of thinking, which sometimes is much more powerful than directives given by the state executive.
The majority of members within the civil service are very loyal. In each state a select group of civil servants, academics, medical doctors, police, military form what is called by insiders as the “A Team”. These groups are very fond of royalty. Each member personally knows the sultan and his family members on a close personal basis. These “A Teams” network through common alumni such as the elite Malay College in Kuala Kangsar which extends nationwide with people who share the same sense of purpose.
The Sultans are also patrons of traditional Malay martial arts or silat organizations in which members have cross-memberships with Malay rights organizations such as Perkasa, and Perkida. Organizations like Perkasa were opposed to the ratification of the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) on the basis that it would threaten Malay rights.
Section 44 of the constitution places the Agong beside the Senate and House of Representatives with responsibility for legislative power. Some loyal groups see the Sultan as the absolute law, more trustworthy than politicians who come and go. Article 153 of the Constitution gives the Agong the power to safeguard the position of the Malays (and indigenous peoples). A strong sense of Malay identity maintains the traditional feudal cultural environment which has a long history.
This is a continuation of the long-standing social contract between the Sultan and the Rakyat (people), something that existed long before the formation of Malaysia. This can’t be seen at a national level but is extremely important at the state level.
Thus, in the eyes of many government servants, loyalty to “Tuanku” overrides loyalty to the democratically elected government.
The Agong is also the Commander in Chief of the Malaysian Armed Forces. Sultans hold military ranks, are ceremonial commanders of military regiments, chancellors of universities, and patrons of various organizations.
Traditionally Prime Ministers have been lenient with the monarchy. The first Prime Minister was a member of the Kedah Royal Household. Both Najib Razak and Abdullah Ahmad Badawi tended to be subservient and allowed the monarchy a lot of business concessions.
Anwar Ibrahim has placed importance on building his relationships with the royal households since his release from jail last year. He also wants the Federal Court to declare null and void the Federal Constitution provision that allows bills to be automatically passed as law in 30 days, without the King’s assent. Mahathir brought in this provision to curb Royal power in 1994.
The Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) actively watches social media for any criticism of the monarchy. The Sedition Act which Pakatan Harapan promised to abolish is being used as a proxy lese majeste. Islamic preacher Wan Ji Wan Hussin recently had his jail sentence increased on appeal for criticising the Sultan of Selangor seven years ago. Ahmad Abdul Jalil was arrested for allegedly ridiculing the Sultan of Johor through social media. Constitutional Law Professor Abdul Aziz Bari was pressured to resign his university position and received death threats after he made comments about the monarchy. The police generally intimidate anybody who discusses the monarchy by hauling them up for questioning as the recent Fadiah Nadwa Fikri case shows.
PKR parliamentarians are still calling on the police to investigate alleged seditious comments in the press discussing royalty. The Pakatan Rakyat Government is planning even more draconian legislation that will provide even harsher penalties for criticism of the monarchy.
The monarchy is the nexus between the state Islamic apparatus and the Special Branch and has been able to push back criticisms of JAKIM and calls for reforms. After the Mahathir era, the monarchy should be able to return to the understanding it has with the Special Branch, particularly with the numerous people they have nurtured into the force’s rank and file.
How much power and influence the institution will yield will greatly depend upon the nation’s social and political evolution. A lot will depend upon how future Royals conduct themselves behind the scenes and present themselves in public.
Soon after Mahathir Mohamed became Prime Minister in 1981, he embarked upon bringing Islam into Malaysia’s government. He opened an Islamic university, started an Islamic banking sector, strengthened Islamic jurisprudence and centralized Federal Islamic affairs under the Prime Minister’s Department.
Thirty-eight years later, that has created an unassailable Islamic bureaucracy that is independent of the executive branch, with their own sources of funds in addition to federal and state budget allocations. Elected governments, even under a new reformist Pakatan Harapan coalition that drove out the United Malays National Organization and the component parties of the Barisan Nasional, do not dare to cut down the size of the Islamic bureaucracy due to the potential political outcry that would follow from ultra-Malay-Islamic groups across the country.
This is a radical change from the country at its birth in 1957, when Tunku Abdul Rahman, who loved horse-racing and Scotch whiskey, was the head of state and entertainers like P Ramli dominated the movies whose audiences included miniskirted teenagers.
With or without Mahathir, the Islamic resurgence began in the early 1980s where ethnic Malays, thrilled with the Islamic wave created by Ayatollah Khomeini that humiliated the west in Iran, were becoming much more religious, with Malay social codes becoming much more observant of Islam. More women began covering their heads, Arabized dress started becoming synonymous with Islam and the Malay language itself was becoming Arabized.
An astute Mahathir saw this being translated into growing support for the rural-based Parti Islam se-Malaysia or PAS. In 1982 Mahathir recruited the popular Anwar Ibrahim, who was president of the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement (ABIM) into his party UMNO to strengthen his Islamic credentials. Anwar moved through the senior political ranks very quickly, becoming Youth & Sports Minister in 1983, Agriculture Minister in 1984, Education Minister in 1983, Finance Minister in 1991, and finally Deputy Prime Minister in 1993.
Mahathir was able to decimate PAS in the 1986, leaving them with only one parliamentary seat although PAS rebounded and wrested the Kelantan state government from UMNO in the 1990 general election and has ruled it since.
The Malaysian Constitution specifies that Islam is the official religion of the nation, although freedom of religion is also supposedly guaranteed. In addition, under the constitution, ethnic Malays cannot convert to any other religion unless the Sharia Court grants permission, which is unheard of. Islam is a matter for the states to regulate and each head of state, raja or sultan is also the leader of Islam. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong or king is the head of Islam in the Federal Territories and states which don’t have a royal head of state.
As Islam is a state responsibility, each state has a Multi Department which issues fatwas based on interpreting the Quran, Hadiths, and Sunna, maintains mosque operations, and identifies and controls the spread of deviant Islamic teachings. State Islamic Departments are responsible for family law, mosque maintenance, Sharia enforcement, education, and general Islamic affairs. Each state will also have an agency and Islamic foundations which invest in Islamic insurance, Islamic education, and the spending of Zakat monies. The operations of these business arms are substantial, and the control of Zakat monies creates massive outreach into the community.
Although each state government has an executive council member responsible for Islamic affairs, the Mufti and State Islamic Departments tend to run autonomously without political interference.
During Mahathir’s first tenure, the Division of Islamic Affairs was upgraded to the Islamic Development Department of Malaysia (JAKIM). With a Director-General in charge, JAKIM became responsible for Islamic affairs in all Federal Territories. JAKIM’s aim was to maintain the purity of Islam and Islamic teachings, coordinate law enforcement, and oversee Halal regulation. Within JAKIM is the National Fatwa Council made up of state Muftis and an additional five Islamic Scholars selected by the Conference of Rulers. Once a fatwa was approved by the Conference of Rulers and gazetted, it becomes legally binding within the Federal Territories.
Fatwa decisions are based upon the principle of collective decisions (Shura) of the Fatwa Council. They are opinions based upon the Islamic texts and advice given to the council. In effect, Fatwas cannot be challenged although there have been many cases of contradictory fatwas issued by various councils, where on occasion they have also been contradictory of the Federal Constitution.
JAKIM and the state religious departments have strong connections with the police. This relationship is outside the control of ministers and state executive councillors. The Selangor Islamic Department (JAIS), for instance, conducted raids with the police in 2014 on the Malaysian Bible Society that were embarrassing for the then-opposition Pakatan state government in Selangor.
These massive state and federal bureaucracies are directed by unelected bureaucrats and muftis. Their modus operandi based their interpretations upon the Quran, Hadiths, Sunna, and Fiqh texts, which cannot be challenged. The royal connection due to the Sultans and Yang di-Pertuan Agong being the heads of Islam takes away any accountability. Any attack upon the actions of the Islamic bureaucracy can easily be deemed an attack upon Islam and royalty itself.
This tenure with royalty is also mutually serving both parties’ interests. State Religious Departments and the rule of ‘Islam’ are protected by Royal patronage and royalty is protected by its position as the head of Islam.
The nexus here is Islam-Royalty-Malay Rights which is a completely unchallengeable platform, enabling agendas to be carried out that are not even trusted to the political parties of the country. This is the core of the deep Islamic state within Malaysia. A massive group of civil servants is loyal to this philosophy rather than flag and modern nationhood. This is an almost unmovable barrier to any sense of secularism.
This deep Islamic state is ever increasing its powers, aided by the previous deeply corrupt government headed by Prime Minister Najib Razak, who saw in embrace of religion a bulwark against a secular insurgency spearheaded by the opposition. It worked for a long time.
Imams in mosques have long been forbidden to present their own speeches for Friday prayers as they are forced to read state prepared texts. JAKIM stopped non-Muslims using the Arabic word ‘Allah’ in 2007. JAKIM treats the LGBT community as deviant. The deep state prevented the federal government ratifying the ICERD treaty on anti-discrimination. JAIS acted against a forum on Malay women’s rights to not wear the hijab. Now JAKIM is opening a new special unit to investigate insults to Islam.
The disappearance of Pastor Raymond Koh in 2017 was found by the Malaysian Human Rights Group Suhakam to have been undertaken by the state. The further disappearances of Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth, converts away from Islam, and that of Amri Che Mat, a Muslim activist abducted by masked men in SUVs in Perlis, remain unexplained. Mahathir remains publicly unperturbed.
This Islamic state has turned Islam into an authoritarian and totalitarian tool for control of peoples’ daily lives. Malaysia has become a pseudo-theocracy where anyone with opposing views will be pursued and prosecuted. Anybody giving a talk on Islam requires a permit.
Soon after the Pakatan Harapan victory last year, calls by a group of eminent Malays known as the G25 were made to the Conference of Rulers to review the functions of JAKIM. This was resisted. Mahathir announced in July 2018 that there would be an inquiry into the functions of JAKIM and was attacked by the Malay Rights group Pemantau Malaysia Baru, led by Lokman Noor Adam. Until now there is no sign of any report.
When Pakatan Harapan first came into office, Mujahid Yusof Rawa, the minister responsible for Islamic affairs, tried to reel in JAKIM’s enforcement activities, but after criticisms have backed off. Islam mixed with politics and the philosophy of Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy) has brought many skewed discussions about Islam.
There were other strong forces, an influential fifth column led by Perlis Mufti, Dr Mohd Asri Zainul Abidin, popularly known as Dr Maza, with a close relationship to both Perlis politician Shahidan Kassim and the royal household. This influence blossomed under the PH time in government. Prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin met with Dr Maza before forming his cabinet, seeking support of a group called the Alumni, made up of graduates from local and Middle Eastern universities in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as UK graduates, who return home and join the civil service, armed forces, religious organizations, schools, and universities, some of whom now enjoy prominent positions. They dominate the Fatwa Councils, JAKIM, and some state religious administrations. Many within the alumni are highly intelligent, articulate, well educated, well connected, and don’t necessarily disclose their true beliefs and inclinations in the interests of exerting influence over other peoples’ ideas. This group also protects the image of the movement. According to a MAIPs insider, every member of the alumni is given a dakwah allowance of RM5,000 per month, increasing over time, which is in addition to the salaries they earn in their employment, primarily funded by Saudi monies.
Their influence can be seen with what former education minister Maszlee Malik did within Malaysia’s education system, i.e., appointing Salafi sympathizers and members of Pertubuhan Ikram Malaysia to important public university posts, until former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed sacked him. Like Maszlee, the current minister within the Prime Minister’s Department for Religious Affairs, Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri, according to a number of sources has strong leanings towards this group.
National debate about important Islamic issues is strongly inhibited. Issues relating to ethics, social justice, equity, corruption, the alleviation of poverty, education, and racial tolerance from any Islamic perspective are glossed over in favor of more trivial issues that hold the Malaysian narrative captive today.
Within this framework there is little real debate regarding social, spiritual, and the economic evolution of what Malaysia should be. The paradox is that there is actually little Islamic influence upon policy and decision-making within administrative government. The agenda and tight grip on bureaucracy and the executive are too hard to undo. Both Anwar and Mahathir helped to create this deep Islamic state. When they are both gone, this is the legacy the people of Malaysia will be left with.
The Civil Service
The Malaysian civil service, which grew out of the old Malay states and British Malayan administrations into a multi-tiered and diverse group of ministries, departments, and agencies at federal, state and local government levels, has lost the luster that once characterized it, becoming an unresponsive government unto itself within the government.
The civil service is primarily mono-ethnic, which doesn’t reflect society’s diversity, having devolved into a one-dimensional organization whose insular single-track thinking presents a barrier to ministries finding the best solutions and/or new approaches to problems and issues.
Changing Malaysia’s policymaking malaise is totally dependent upon the reform of the civil service. The reality is that the civil service is more powerful than the executive government. Changing governments is possible through the ballot box, but changing public policy is another thing.
Although three separate administrations have held the reins of Malaysia’s government over as many years, they have one thing in common. While their narratives have been vastly different, all three pursued in practice the same public policy framework. It hasn’t really mattered who governed Malaysia, policy has been consistent across all successive federal and state administrations, and local government.
At the political level, it’s all about slogans and personalities, but at the administrative level governments differ only on emphasis. There are three distinct aspects to Malaysian public policy: the grounded philosophy, the mode of policy formulation, and hierarchy of implementation.
Malaysia as a post-colonial and post-independent economy was strongly influenced by British economic advisers who were close to the Anglophile Malay political elite at the time. The prevailing economic dogma within orientalist academia favored public sector-led development economic theory. The race riots of May 1969 highlighted the need to close the racial wealth gap between Chinese and Bumiputera groups, at the time cited as an underlying source of the violence. The New Economic Policy (NEP) was formulated as a policy to create new wealth within Bumiputera groups to facilitate an economic catch up with the Chinese.
Although the NEP was intended as a temporary policy to be dissolved once bumis caught up, successive Barisan Nasional administrations transformed it into a political philosophy. Ketuanan Melayu, or Malay supremacy doctrine grew out of a reinterpretation of the Constitution mentioning the special position of the Malays. The NEP was its manifestation, and an appealing policy philosophy to the rural Malay electorate. Ketuanan Melayu is evident over all public policy, membership of the armed forces and civil service, places in education, preference to Bumiputeras in business, and even the establishment of high-interest-yielding special investment accounts such as ASN and ASB, exclusive for Bumiputeras.
Former prime minister Mahathir Mohamed and his then deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, pushed for the Islamization of the civil service during the 1990s, which developed a one-dimensional ethnic and quasi-religious culture within a multicultural country. Its informal mission became the Malay agenda.
Since the 1963 formation of Malaysia, the civil service is where public policy is formulated. The Prime Minister’s Department is by far the largest ministry, housing the Economic Planning Unit (EPU). The EPU has produced successive five-year national and sector plans covering all aspects of government and the economy. They became the basis of policy, budgeting, the allocation of resources and implementation. Each state has its own EPU, which usually works in close tandem with the federal EPU, primarily because, the federal one controls development fund allocation.
Bureaucrats produce these plans. As a consequence, these bureaucrats have wielded great influence, with successive administrations tending to follow civil service advice on most policy issues. Over the past couple of decades, outside parties, including local academics, and later consultants were brought in to assist in specialist areas.
Economic planning, report writing, and implementation began to be outsourced during the Abdullah Badawi administration (2003-2009). This became a very lucrative consulting area, with Najib Razak, once he became minister, immediately establishing the Performance Management and Delivery Unit (PEMANDU) under former politician Idris Jala, who set up the Government Transformation and Economic Transformation Programs. Most policy formation was focused here, with lucrative consultancies dished out to private subcontractors.
The effect of consultants taking over Five-year plan preparation changed the format of these reports from very detailed to glossy table book presentations. Government policy and plans have lost their substance, degenerating into catchphrase headings with complex and colorful diagrams.
However, politicians through the selection and employment of outside consultants have more influence over the direction of public policy. There is now a large industry of local consultants pitching ideas at ministers for this lucrative work.
The power dynamics between politicians and civil servants is not unsimilar to other countries. The minister is a go-between the prime minister and cabinet and permanent director-general of the ministry. In Malaysia, the prime minister as government leader is usually the most powerful, with individual ministers carrying out his agenda.
A minister’s influence over his or her ministry most often depends upon how ‘hands on’ they are, hinging on the minister’s knowledge of his or her portfolio, ability to communicate, persuade and motivate the ministry director-general to follow the political line. Some ministers like former international trade minister Rafidah Aziz, and current minister in the prime ministers’ department Mustapha Mohamed are well known for their domination and micro-managing of their ministries, while others like former minister Noh Omar, tended to leave almost total decision making to the bureaucracy.
Parts of the civil service don’t always cooperate with their respective ministers, as the current minister for religious affairs in the Prime Minister’s Department is finding with JAKIM, the religious certification department. The Selangor Islamic Department (JAIS) in 2014 conducted raids with the police on the Malaysian Bible Society that were embarrassing for the then-opposition Pakatan state government.
Pakatan leaders have warned publicly that civil servants loyal to the previous government are out to topple the current one. Kedah Chief Minister Mukhriz Mahathir in particular has warned of a ‘fifth column’ of civil servants supporting the opposition with their own agenda.
In other areas, civil servants act for the direct benefit of their political leaders rather than national interests. Asia Sentinel has learned that officers at the National Registration Department (JPN) in Sabah are issuing identity cards to illegal immigrants. These identity cards aren’t connected to the national database. However, the Electoral Commission (EC) will accept them for voter registration.
The Malaysian civil service is not apolitical. The majority of bureaucrats have a Malay-centric worldview. Any policy or decisions that run counter are stalled or blocked, overtly or sub rosa. Malaysia’s civil service is strongly Islamized, with an extremely strong culture that suppresses any deviation from accepted assumptions, beliefs, and values embedded with this Malay-centric worldview. When Pakatan Harapan took over the government, ministers found this an insurmountable barrier to implementing reforms.
Although Malaysia’s states are sovereign territories, state public policy is generally compatible with federal policy, except on land and religious issues. Politically, prime ministers have controlled who takes up the office of chief minister in states where the same party governs. State dependence on funding is the federal government’s dominant lever in influencing state policy. In many cases policy is implemented at district levels through agencies like FELDA, MARA, and KEMAS. With the exception of Kedah, Pahang, and Johor, and Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia, states have very small civil services, with federal civil servants seconded to assist in state administration work. In states where opposition parties govern, federal governments have traditionally bypassed state government, and implemented policy through federal agencies. There have been no elections for local government since 1964. Mayors and local government councils are state government appointees who generally subscribe to state policy directives.
The unexpected win of the Pakatan Harapan reform government in GE14 is a good example how public policy remained almost the same, even though there was a change of government. Although the government created a long-term platform in its buku jingga or orange book, the administration almost totally relied upon the civil service to develop policy. This was certainly true in health, agriculture, primary industries, housing, rural development, and defense.
The only exception was education, when then-minister Maszlee Malik, went rogue, micro-managed and implemented his own set of policies which further Islamized the higher education sector, rather than reforming it.
One of the Pakatan Harapan administration’s greatest mistakes was the failure to overhaul the public policymaking process. That process is locked into the inertia of developing policy through the ritualization of strategic planning tools done at great cost. Consultants who are in favor with politicians and top bureaucrats guide these processes to predetermined outcomes. Little change occurs to policy outlooks, just a set of key performance indexes or targets that look good.
Participants have little opportunity to introduce new “out of the box” ideas. The community is rarely approached for input. Policy generation is still very much blinkered and inward-looking, run by the elite civil servants of Putra Jaya.
For example, when Mustafa Mohamed became minister for Agriculture and Agri-based Industries in 2008, he asked the ministry for new thinking to be pursued in the floundering agriculture sector. The ministry was unable to present the then-minister any fresh ideas, due to the insular paradigm it had been working within for so long.
Each successive administration taking on the reins of government has become dependent upon this process for policy development. Different administrations may espouse different political ideas, but policy is still grounded within this same domain.
The policymaking framework has other longstanding structural and dynamic weaknesses. The traditional dependence on public sector leadership in opening up new economic and business sectors is another such area. Regional economic and business development was made the responsibility of regional corridor authorities who have promoted public-sector and GLC business participation over the private sector and micro-businesses especially.
The Information technology industry was promoted through the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, and biotechnology through various public sector agencies, leading to massive waste. These initiatives have all basically been terrible failures, leaving behind an ineffective bureaucracy, instead of vibrant sunrise industry opportunities. Public sector interference has actually created unnecessary barriers to entry for innovative start-ups, rather than providing assistance.
Government-linked companies, sovereign corporations, and state economic development authorities have actually restricted, rather than opened the economy. In many cases these agencies create companies which dominate a sector and prevent the private sector from any meaningful market entries. Private start-ups in many sectors rely on political connections rather than new ideas, capital, skills, and competencies capable of exploiting entrepreneurial opportunity. Creativity and innovation are stifled in sectors like aviation, agriculture, transport, direct marketing, shipping, and logistical distribution.
The policy paradigm is a hangover from the 1960s, designed at a time when the government had to step in as a pioneer in many economic sectors. The successes of agencies like FELDA, FELCRA, UDA, and MARA served as antiquated models for present-day public policymakers to develop the multi-media, biotechnology, and halal sectors with lackluster results.
Many government sector market intervention corporations like the Federal Land Development Agency, which once was vital in rural development and uplift of rural families, now require massive taxpayer funded bailouts. At the state level numerous agencies and special purpose companies also suffer from massive losses. The extent and scope of these losses nation-wide is hidden by poor government transparency in these activities.
Almost 45 percent of Malaysia’s budget goes to paying wages and pensions to past and present civil servants. The civil serve directly employs 11.8 percent of the country’s total workforce, continuing to grow due to the government’s belief in heavy market intervention. The civil service also serves as a vote bank for Malay political parties, particularly UMNO.
Malaysian politics has always been more about personality, than policy. Malay based parties such as UMNO and Bersatu rely on a Malay identity for survival. PAS relies upon its Islamic identity. They are satisfied and complacent with the civil service as the prime generator of policy. With the electoral system heavily malapportioned towards rural Malay electorates, Ketuanan Melayu as a policy anchor is here to stay. The only way for this to be removed is electoral reform, which is not going to happen.
Just how influential and powerful the civil service really is in formulating and implementing policy in government is best seen with the current Covid-19 pandemic, where Health Director General Noor Hisham Abdullah is calling all the shots without political interference.
The success of the civil service’s handling of the pandemic last year has bolstered the image of Muhyiddin Yassin, who was promoted on billboards all over Sabah during the recent state election campaign. The financial support provided to Sabahans during the pandemic made him personally popular. This has also enhanced the position of his Bersatu party, winning 11 seats as a Malay based party that can potentially challenge the dominance of UMNO.
Transparency and accountability of the civil service is also non-existent. The bulk of the annual Auditor-General’s report is not released to the public. Information about state civil services and agencies is extremely difficult to obtain within the public domain.
No Freedom of Information Act (FOI) exists although it was promised. The Official Secrets Act (OSA) has been routinely used to hide information about tenders and other government business. The Whistleblower Act is extremely weak and the government still prefers to intimidate and threaten whistleblowers rather than investigate allegations of fraud and corruption within the civil service. There is still a prevailing culture, that existed even with the former Pakatan Harapan government, that transparency is still a prerogative of government.
Contemporary politicians only really contribute to policymaking through their narratives and symbolism. However, this can come undone very quickly when narratives mismatch policy reality. The 1Malaysia slogan quickly wore out its luster with the electorate when the public saw the same policies in action. PH’s reformasi didn’t happen, partly leading to the government’s downfall. Their political staff found it difficult to deal with the mandarins of the civil service. They very quickly learnt they can’t make decisions within ministries.
Consequently, politicians in Malaysia prefer to make symbolic gestures rather than dabble in serious policy reform. Changing the name of iconic streets in Kuala Lumpur, as with the name change from Jalan Raja Laut to Jalan Palestin is much easier than abolishing child marriage. Making political statements popular with the Malay rural heartland, and handing out assistance to voters wins more votes than policy reform.
Over time, because of the New Economic Policy promulgated after 1969 race riots and with covert encouragement from superiors, a ‘Malay agenda’ has developed, designed to cater to ethnic Malays and little else. That has created a collective narcissist, inward-looking, overly sensitive culture within the leadership of the civil service. There is an extremely strong power-distance relationship between superiors and subordinates in which subordinates are not encouraged to question their superiors. Leaders often become self-important.
The culture is male-dominated, with males often uncomfortable and intimidated by female superiors. Issues are politicized. Officers are oriented to achieving “KPIs” – short-term goals --, or developing long-term visions, that won’t be met during their career lifetimes, resulting in events and meetings to impress and please superiors rather than specific, concrete objectives.
For all intents and purposes, the civil service is the government. Whether Pakatan Harapan, UMNO-PAS, or something in-between is in power, the civil service will remain the same. There is a much deeper level here below the public hype. Mahathir and Anwar together back in the 1980s and 90s created the culture within the civil service that exists today. So far there is no real evidence to indicate any politicians in government want to substantially change it.
The Ketuanan Melayu narrative – Malaysia’s Malays-first policy – has enabled an embedded deep state to become the dominant political, social, and economic force in the country. It is the primary tool the power elite have used to justify and cover their actions in pursuing their covert objectives over national policy.
The deep state is a guileful legacy of colonial times. The British built up the persona of the sultans – most of them local warlords -- as a buffer to thwart any potential revolt. Any political movement against the British would be construed as a revolt against them. Further, the British knew that Malays would not challenge a ruler due to strong respect for their sovereign (Daulat) and the mystical aura the monarchs were perceived to possess.
Twentieth-Century communist infiltration of the union movement, and the beginning of the communist insurgency after WWII gave rise to the formation of Special Branch within the Malayan Union police force. Special Branch was Malayanized after independence and has ever since carried out a strong political agenda.
In 1969 the Alliance Government, the forerunner to the Barisan Nasional, was returned to power with a greatly reduced majority. In a boiling political environment, race riots soon erupted in what is known as the May 13 incident. After the riots, Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman disappeared from day-to-day running of the country and eventually formally handed over power to Tun Abdul Razak.
Contradicting the official line that the May 13 incident was started by Chinese opposition and the Malaysian Communist Party, declassified British Embassy dispatches indicate that Malay political leaders from within UMNO organized along with police and the army to deliver what amounted to a coup d’état against the Tunku for his perceived pro-Chinese stance.
Not all documents relating to the May 13 riots have been, or are likely to be released by the Pakatan Harapan Government in the near future.
Tun Abdul Razak developed a New Economic Policy (NEP) which was purportedly designed to enhance the economic position of Malays without disadvantaging other races. Rukunegara, similar to Indonesia’s Pancasila, was promoted to encourage national unity among Malaysians, and the Barisan Nasional government was formed with a spectrum of parties representing the major races in Malaysia.
Mahathir Mohamed, a Malay extremist politician who lost his parliamentary seat in 1969 to PMIP (the forerunner to PAS) wrote a provocative book The Malay Dilemma. Mahathir took up the old British narratives about the “lazy natives” and argued the Malays’ non-confrontational approach to other races was dispossessing them of their own land. Thus, affirmative action was needed to keep the economy from being dominated by the Chinese.
Mahathir returned to UMNO politics in 1973. PAS became a fierce competitor for UMNO in the Malay heartlands. Article 153 of the Constitution guaranteeing special rights for the Malays (and other indigenous peoples) fueled a much stronger pro-Malay narrative, which became known as Ketuanan Melayu.
The NEP drastically changed the nature of government policy and structure of the economy. State intervention to correct economic inequalities, regulation, license and permit restrictions, were introduced. State mercantilism on a massive scale was developed and the government became embedded within most aspects of the economy. Banks and agencies were utilized to dispense easy loans to Malays.
Although the NEP helped create a Malay middle class, it also created a super-rich Malay elite. There were many other undesirable side effects. An apartheid system was introduced into the civil service, eventually bloating it and making parts of it inefficient. With easy access to loans, Malays became risk adverse, leading to many business failures and bankruptcies.
Some industries became monopolies or duopolies yielding bumper profits. State enterprises in many cases were corrupt and inefficient and often competed directly with entrepreneurs and SMEs. Equity accumulation became more important than raising incomes, leaving many still in poverty. Licenses and permits fell into the hands of political cronies who rented them out to others for profit.
Cronyism and corruption became the norm. The NEP ended up dividing the country even more and created a deep-seated resentment towards the Malays by other races.
After nearly 50 years of the NEP and its hybrids, distinct covert objectives can be observed.
The NEP has created a class-based neo-feudal society headed by a small elite group. Even though there was a change in government last year, the elite still holds the reigns of power. A kleptocracy has been created, primarily based on rent-seeking rather than innovation. This has maximized the return to monopolists but left a narrowly diverse, inefficient economy that needs urgent overhaul. It has also amassed great wealth to the elite, with UMNO reported to have over RM 100 Billion in assets alone.
To achieve the above objectives, society has been engineered, the politics of division played out, and a culture of dependence created.
The symbols within Malaysian society today reflect class and feudalism. Royal titles and VVIP rooms in government offices depict feudalistic class distinctions.
National narratives are shepherded by Malay ultra-nationalist groups to continually force capitulation of non-Malay groups in society. This is reinforced by nonsensical attacks on architecture that may resemble a cross on a building, the banning of non-alcoholic beer, the exclusive use of the word Allah for Muslims, and the banning of forums and books.
The Islamic renaissance in Malaysia has been associated with Arabism, so many Malays today appear so visually different than their non-Muslim peers in society.
Hantus or bogeymen have been created to unite Malays against others in what can be professed as hate politics. The narratives of pendatang, attacks on Jews, the reaction against the Rome Statute and ICERD, all serve the purpose to create an aura that Malays are under attack.
A culture of dependency has been manufactured. This is based on the assumption that bumiputeras should be given continuing help because Malaysia is their land alone and that other races are interlopers. At election time politicians use this as leverage for votes in the Malay heartlands, where electoral malapportionment makes it the primary electoral battleground.
This has been soul-destroying on Malay confidence to the benefit of the elite. Malays have been taught to fear, be dependent, and metaphorically to wait for their savior. Politicians want to project themselves as saviors rather than enablers of society. This will be the psychic battleground for the hearts and minds of voters next election.
The Malay persona of a peaceful village life, cooperation, self-sufficiency, living a within a rich Nusantara culture, where there is amity towards others, once an integral part of self-identity, has been trampled on in favor of unemployment, lack of opportunity, drug abuse and subservience. The middle-class is locked into debt and a conformity-ridden lifestyle. A large number of Malays still live on bare means, totally ignored by the governing elite in Malaysia’s neo-feudal society once their votes have been extracted.
The mythical concept of Malay unity has been reframed to mean that any diverging opinions against the Malay agenda are a threat to unity. Arguing against Malay unity is viewed as disloyalty and even treason to one’s race. The mythology of Malay unity is keeping Malays within a psychic prison, stifling self-expression, self-confidence, and self-respect. Society has become super-sensitive to criticism where it’s now taboo to discuss many issues, even with a new government in power.
Ketuanan Melayu is still the philosophical basis of all policy making within government today. Members of the prominent elite like Tun Daim Zainuddin stand up from time to time to defend the need for maintaining the NEP, be it in some modified form. The narrative is a fiction designed to keep its perpetrators in power. Those who benefit the most are the ones who shout out about the need for the NEP.
The history of Malaysia has been completely rewritten to suit the elite and preserve the feudal status quo. The British negotiated the Merdeka Constitution from Malaya with the royals and elite of Malay society, while the voices of the rakyat, the people, were glossed over. Massive national protests and a civil disobedience movement fought against the Merdeka Constitution. Opposition movements proposed a more egalitarian constitution, which was totally ignored by the elite and the British. On 18th June 1948, the British rounded up protest leaders and held them without trial.
Declassification of the May 13 documents would destroy the mythology the government created as the foundation of Ketuanan Melayu. There is a distinct possibility, if the British Embassy dispatches at the time are correct, that many of the elite, some still alive today, would be incriminated in instigating the incident. This is perhaps the real reason the Rome Statute ratification was sabotaged.
Today, Malaysia is chained to this feudal-like society. The last election didn’t change that. Ignorance is the key to perpetuating the myths that are keeping Ketuanan Melayu in place, allowing the continuing plundering of the nation that has been going on since British times.
Malaysia is still colonized, just by a different group. The different races making up Malaysia are kept divided to prevent true nationhood. This is the country’s tragedy.