Path: ICPP > ICPP 1980 > List of Countries > Malaya (Now Malaysia)
Kenneth Janda
Political Parties: A Cross-National Survey
New York: The Free Press, 1980: pp. 732-734
MALAYA (now Malaysia): The Party System in 1950-1956 and 1957-1962
(Text as published in 1980 citation above)

British influence on the Malayan peninsula extends back well into the nineteenth century. Following the interruption of British rule by the Japanese occupation in World War II, eleven of the Malayan states were merged into the Federation of Malaya in 1948. Only the city-state of Singapore at the tip of the peninsula was excluded from the Federation, which was seen as a step toward independence. The problems of self-government, however, loomed large for a land with sharp ethnic, language, and religious differences. Roughly one-half of the population was Malay, one-third Chinese, and one-tenth Indian--not to mention several other distinct categories of inhabitants. Political parties had formed to represent the three salient communal groups, and prospects for the emergence of parties that were broadly aggregative of communal interests seemed dim. To complicate matters, a state of emergency was declared in 1948 to combat a Communist insurrection in the countryside. The "emergency" lasted from 1948 to 1960, shaping party activities during most of the period covered in this analysis.

The problem of communal cooperation was met by the creation of an umbrella organization called the Malayan Alliance, which was first formed in 1953 between the United Malay National Organization (UMNO) and the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). They were joined in 1954 by the Malayan Indian Congress (MIC), thus representing all three of the major ethnic groups. The essence of the Alliance was cooperation on the level of national politics while avoiding electoral competition at the local level, where the component parties presented candidates for elections in constituencies which were dominated by their ethnic groups. The Alliance formula proved to be successful in the first elections to the legislative in 1955, when the Alliance candidates captured almost 80 percent of the vote and nearly all of the elected seats in a body that was half appointive.

The encouraging political situation advanced the case for independence, which was granted in 1957, and the Federation of Malaya entered the British Commonwealth of Nations. In the first fully elected parliament of 1959, the Alliance continued its dominant position, obtaining 72 percent of the seats, but it was challenged by the Pan Malayan Islamic Party, an openly communal party that obtained 13 percent of the seats. Not competing in any of the elections was the illegal Malayan Communist Party, still a major disruptive force in Malayan politics-although losing the guerrilla war and allowing the state of emergency to be ended in 1960.2 The close of our time period corresponds to the end of the Federation of Malaya, which was succeeded in 1963 with the formation of the new nation, Malaysia, composed of the former federation plus Singapore and two other British colonies on the island of Borneo: Sarawak and Sabah.

Continuity and Change since 1962

With the addition of Sarawak and Sabah, Malaysia became divided into "east" and "west" regions separated by the South China Sea. East Malaysia consisted of Sarawak and Sabah, both of which shared the north side of the island of Borneo and bordered upon Indonesia on the south. West Malaysia consisted of the lower portion of the Malay Peninsula and until 1965 included Singapore, the city?state at its tip. Changes in the country's physical boundaries after 1962 contributed to changes in its party system. While four of the five original parties continued throughout, four new parties attained enough strength and stability to qualify for study.

Original Parties, Terminated

585 Communist Party. Military action against the Communist Party succeeded in reducing it to a small armed group that took refuge across the border with Thailand. In 1960, the "emergency" of the Communist threat was declared ended. Although the party did not disband, it eventually fragmented into different armed revolutionary groups. The collection of independent Communist bands in the 1970s is sufficiently different from the revolutionary party that battled the Indonesian forces in the 1950s to regard the "old" Communist Party as having terminated. Somewhat arbitrarily, we fix its termination in 1970, when dissidents from the party's Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) established rival organizations, the CPM(RF) and the CPMML (Yearbook of International Communist Affairs, .978, p. 284).

Original Parties, Continuing

581 United Malayan National Organization. UMJO remained the largest single party in Malaysia and the mainstay of the Alliance, which was converted in 1974 into the National Front, a broader collection of parties than the tripartite Alliance. UMNO even increased its strength in the July 1978 federal elections.

582 Malayan Chinese Association. The MCA lost about half of its seats in the 1969 elections to other Chinese-oriented parties, especially the DAP (see below). After an internal shakeup, it reversed its decline in the 1974 elections and continued as second only to UMNO in parliamentary strength.

583 Malayan Indian Congress. MIC was by far the weakest party in the Alliance, and it continued to play this role, winning only about 2 percent of the seats in elections and even less of the vote.

584 Pan-Malayan Islamic Party. Traditionally opposed to the Alliance, PMIP changed its name in 1971 to the Islamic Party of Peninsular Malaya (Partai Islam Se Tanah Melayu, PAS) and abruptly joined the National Front coalition. PAS participation in the National Front ended in 1977, however, and the party lost seats in the July 1978 election.

New Parties, Continuing

586 Democratic Action Party. DAP was founded in 1966 as an offshoot of Singapore's ruling People's Action Party (PAP). A predominantly Chinese party with a socialist orientation, DAP functioned in opposition to the Alliance/National Front and especially in opposition to its Chinese component, the MCA. DAP won sixteen seats (10 percent) in the July 1978 federal elections and become the main opposition party.

587 Sarawak Alliance. In 1963 five parties in Sarawak--Barjasa, Panas, Pesaka, the Sarawak National Party, and the Sarawak Chinese Alliance--merged to form the Sarawak Alliance. By 1970, the Sarawak Alliance embraced Bumputera (a mixed ethnic party), Pesaka (a Dyak and Malay party), and the Sarawak Chinese Association. The Sarawak Alliance functioned as part of the National Front.

588 Sarawak National Party. SNAP was founded in 1961 and itself was one of the founding parties of the Sarawak Alliance. Although SNAP withdrew from the Sarawak Alliance in 1966, it became a component of the National Front in 1976.

589 Sabah Alliance. Formed in 1962, the Sabah Alliance combined the Sabah Indian Congress, the Sabah Chinese Association, and the United Sabah National Organization. The Sabah Alliance became part of the National Front.


The ethnic character of politics in the old Federation of Malaya was continued in Malaysia after 1962, and geographical divisions introduced additional cleavages in the party system. When the country expanded to include Sarawak and Sabah on Borneo, the dominant Alliance parties on the peninsula forged new coalitions with east Malaysian parties, some of which had banded into mini?Alliances of their own. The result was the National Front of about ten parties. In federal elections held on July 8, 1978, the National Front continued its domination of parliament, winning 85 percent of the seats and facing only two parties, DAP and PAS (PMIP), with more than one seat. Because this election occurred after the middle of 1978, its results are not included in the graph of party representation for 1950 to 1978. Although the National Front faces only small opposition parties in parliament, it must struggle to maintain its unity, which, given its ethnic and regional composition, will not be easy

1. Our study of party politics in Malaya is based on a file of 2,348 pages from 60 documents, all of which are in English (see Table 1.3). Note that our approach has been to focus on the component parties of the Alliance, which we treat as a coalition of parties rather than a party itself. The bibliographic search and indexing of material for the file was done by Irving Rockwood, who also coded UMNO and MCA on the variables in the ICPP conceptual framework. Jeffrey Gilbert coded the remaining three parties. Cynthia Enloe was our consultant.
2. Cynthia Enloe notes a problem with focusing on only these five parties. It gives the impression that there were no other legal non-Malay parties operating. In fact on the local (state and city) level, especially in Penang and Perak (two West Coast states with large non-Malay populations) there were such parties contesting elections. What makes these omitted parties important is that their very activity shaped Alliance leaders' party strategies, shaped voters' perceptions of what they would get if the Alliance crumbled, and finally shaped the future character of the party system. Out of the early non-Malay opposition parties such as the Socialist Front and the People's Progressive Party, came today's opposition parties and the Alliance's recent expansion to coopt some of these to offset the decrepit MCA. (Personal communication, January 8, 1975.) See below for a discussion of new parties reflecting some of these concerns.