The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Most people don’t know enough about Malaysia and its government. Here’s what you should understand.

A map of Malaysia (Laris Karklis / The Washington Post)

Malaysia's government is in the spotlight due to its handling of the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, which disappeared just 40 minutes after leaving Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing on March 8.

It's an unusual situation for the country. Malaysia doesn't usually make headlines -- it's not a huge tourist destination, like its neighbor Thailand, and it hasn't had a recent disaster like the Philippines or Indonesia. Instead, Malaysia has mostly become known as a quiet success in Southeast Asia in recent years, where GDP per capita was well ahead of Thailand and Indonesia and the economy was expected to grow between 4.5 percent and 5.5 percent in 2014.

Now, with the Malaysian government facing scrutiny from all corners, everyone is beginning to wonder: Is there more to Malaysia than meets the eye?

The geography and history of Malaysia

Look at a map of modern Malaysia and the geography of the place may strike you as unusual. Roughly half of the country exists on the Malay Peninsula, bordering the lowest tip of Thailand. The other part of the country is on the northern part of Borneo island, which it shares with Indonesia. In both of these two parts there are smaller states: the city-state of Singapore, which sits just off the coast of the Malay Peninsula, and Brunei, which is in the Malaysian part of Borneo.

The modern Malaysian state began with the Federation of Malaya's independence from the British Empire in 1957, but the area had been populated for a far longer time -- in Sarawak's Niah Caves in East Malaysia, there's evidence of human remains from 40,000 years ago. The first independent state covering the region is commonly considered to be the Malacca sultanate, an Islamic Malay monarchy that controlled the area from 1400 to 1511, when the city of Malacca was captured by a Portuguese invasion. After a long period of Portuguese rule, the Dutch took it over in 1641, with the British Empire gradually taking over Penang in 1786, Singapore in 1819, and Malacca itself in 1824, ultimately securing control of what would later become Malaysia.

British rule continued until World War II, when Japanese troops were able to overrun the unprepared British authorities and take over the area. After Japan lost the war, the British returned but could not regain the authority they had before due to their war. An anti-colonial insurgency known as the "Malayan Emergency" began in 1948, compelling Britain to create the Federation of Malaya that same year, which in turn became became independent in 1957. In 1963, modern Malaysia was created with the Malaysia Agreement; North Borneo, Sarawak and Singapore joined it in a new independent state, though Singapore would be expelled two years later. (Brunei, which had once been at the center of the Bruneian Empire, remained an independent, and oil-rich, sultanate).

Malaysia's complicated ethnic politics

Toward the end of British rule, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) emerged as a political force dedicated to protecting ethnic Malays and the Islamic religion. Since independence, the party has been a part of every government alliance.

Today, Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, loosely modeled after the United Kingdom: The head of state is the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, effectively a monarch elected by Malaysia's traditional Malay rulers. The prime minister is the head of government, officially appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to lead a majority in Malaysia's lower house of parliament. While the constitution of Malaysia, which came into force in 1957, says all Malaysian citizens are equal, Bumiputera (a designation that refers to the indigenous people of Malaysia, including ethnic Malays) are singled out for special treatment in Article 153. That section of the constitution begins:

  1. It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article.

The logic behind Article 153 was that Chinese and Indian immigrants to Malaysia had been favored during British rule, and both had subsequently gained economically while Malays and others remained in poverty.

After independence, these economic disparities had begun to cause problems in the country: Singapore's removal from Malaysia was based in part upon a number of race riots that took place in the country between Chinese and Malay groups in 1964, and Kuala Lumpur had its own race riots in 1969. In 1971, economic measures referred to as the “New Economic Policy” (NEP) were implemented to favor Bumiputera, offering them positive discrimination in the civil service and business in a bid to improve their economic standing.

The quiet, yet successful, economy

Under British rule, Malaysia became one of the world's biggest exporters of tin, palm oil and rubber. And as one of the three countries that controls the Strait of Malacca, an important shipping route, it still plays a key role in international trade. High-tech manufacturing has  become a successful part of Malaysia's economy, and Kuala Lumpur is now a global center for Islamic banking. The city is also home to Petronas Towers, which replaced Chicago's Sears Tower (now Willis Tower) as the world's tallest building in 1998 and held the title until 2004.

All this has resulted in a pretty favorable economy. The Doing Business Project recently ranked the country as 6th in its annual rankings, and GDP per capita is higher than neighbors like Thailand and Indonesia.

Despite these good signs, there have been criticisms that the country's ethnic policies were in effect creating a lack of competition and stifling opportunities for non-Bumiputera. The Economist recently noted that 25 percent of the population is thought to be Chinese and to control much of the country's business, while Indians were said to be around 7 percent and overrepresented in professional careers. The magazine warned that Malaysia faces a brain-drain unless more opportunities are put in place for non-Bumiputera ethnic groups.

An angry opposition

As you might expect, 50 years of virtually uncontested rule has resulted in some problems. Writing recently for Bloomberg Businessweek, Joshua Karlantzick argued that the country's ruling coalition only managed to win elections last year due to "gerrymandering, outright thuggery, and opposition parties’ inability to stop squabbling and make connections with rural voters." Despite some minor signs of change, the NEP remains a significant factor in Malaysian political life and its business world, with the ruling parties apparently afraid to alienate the Malay majority who make their base.

The Malaysian government's manner of dealing with opposition leaders also appears to show it's on the back foot. The best-known opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, was sent to jail on corruption and sodomy charges in 2000. While the sodomy charges were overturned in 2004 and he was released, Anwar is now facing the threat of jail again on more sodomy charges.

An ethnic Malay and former member of UMNO, Anwar was once deputy prime minister of Malaysia but fell out with leaders. He now leads a multi-ethnic three-party opposition group called Pakatan Rakyat, running on a manifesto that aims to end the NEP ethnic policies and promote a system of meritocracy.

Why this all matters to MH370

The response to the disappearance of MH370 from the Malaysian government and Malaysia Airlines (a state-run company) is seen by many as evidence of a lack of ability among the country's political and business elite -- a result of decades of positive discrimination in favor of Malays and a lack of competition in business and politics. Malaysian officials aren't used to dealing with a free and open press, and they have blundered in their attempts to deflect questions about the plane. While they are no longer suspected of involvement in the plane's disappearance, the fact that two passengers were traveling on fake documents has embarrassed both the airline and the state.

It's possible Malaysia's internal politics could have played a direct role in the plane's disappearance. It's true, for example, that pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah was a member of an opposition party and distantly related to Anwar (Anwar himself has said that the speculation about political motives was "grossly unfair" to the pilot). The country's Muslim Brotherhood-styled Islamist party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), is also a part of Anwar's opposition coalition and increasing in popularity, though speculation about an Islamist-backed terrorist attack remains just speculation.

A more likely problem for Malaysia is that of perception. A country once known for its quietly strong economy is becoming better known as something else: a disorganized, unmeritocratic country completely unable to cope with a real emergency.

Correction amended 3/25/2014: This post originally stated that the Federation of Malaysia was created in 1948, where it should have said Federation of Malaya. This post has been updated to correct the error.