The Limits of Protest and Prospects for Political Reform in Malaysia
Author: Sheila Nair
The 1997 Asian currency “crisis” affected Malaysians in profound ways and complicated dominant nation and modernity narratives centered on economic growth and development and the stability of ethnic relations. In the ensuing months, Malaysia's political landscape—dominated by one party and its leadership — was also reconfigured. The ouster of Malaysia's deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, heir apparent to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad set the stage for the Reformasi movement, which was arguably the country's first organized large-scale protest movement to embrace a range of social actors, including nongovernmental organizations, grassroots groups, and political parties. By 2001 Reformasi was in decline and meaningful political and social reform had failed to materialize. What happened to this once vibrant movement? How can we account for its decline? This article analyzes the challenges encountered by Reformasi in confronting these dominant narratives and in reframing political discourse. The article situates Reformasi's decline in the context of its struggles with the dominant Barisan Nasional-led state as well as the complex relationship between different elements of the movement. It also explores how democratic deepening, the movement's inability to provide an alternative discourse that takes into account ethnicized divisions in Malaysia, and the tensions between the party political and movement aspects of protest politics have contributed to Reformasi's demise.