Overview | Government

This series of profiles of foreign nations is part of the Country Studies Program, formerly the Army Area Handbook Program. The profiles offer brief, summarized information on a country's historical background, geography, society, economy, transportation and telecommunications, government and politics, and national security. Derived from The Library of Congress.


Government Overview: Malaysia is a federated constitutional monarchy based on a parliamentary system of government and an independent judiciary. States in Malaysia have their own constitutions and governments. Political institutions continue to evolve for many reasons, including recent emergence from colonialism, greater focus on economic rather than political development, and coexisting traditional and nontraditional authorities. Indeed, the supreme institution is the Conference of Rulers (Majilis Raja-Raja), which is composed of the hereditary rulers of nine states in Peninsular Malaysia and four state governors appointed by the king. The nine hereditary rulers in the Conference of Rulers elect one of themselves as the “supreme sovereign” or king (Yang di-Pertuan Agong) who acts as head of state for a single five-year term. The deputy head of state is elected in the same manner and, although exercising no power, is available to fill the king’s position if the latter is absent or disabled. Technically, all government acts are legitimized by the king’s authority, and the civilian and military public services officially owe their loyalty to the king and hereditary rulers. However, the king only acts on the advice of both parliament and the cabinet, and in practice the prime minister is the most powerful political authority.

From 1981 to 2003, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed was unquestionably the most powerful and influential political figure in Malaysia, substantially influencing economic and social development. His successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, has focused on reducing public spending, deferring several large-scale infrastructure projects, and promoting agricultural and educational development. Since the 1960s, the same political coalition, led by Mahathir and Abdullah’s political party, has governed the country. Some observers contend that corruption is problematic in politics, but international organizations that focus on corruption generally suggest that while Malaysian politics and business exhibit a degree of corruption, Malaysia has less corruption than most countries in the world.

Executive Branch: Malaysia has several bodies that can exercise executive power. The Conference of Rulers (Majlis Raja-Raja) is the supreme institution that is constitutionally empowered to select the king (Yang di-Pertuan Agong), approve appointed judges, rule on administrative policy changes, and deliberate on national policy questions. The king is the head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces, and he may authorize requests to dissolve parliament and approve parliamentary bills. However, the king actually has limited executive powers and may act only under the advice of the prime minister and cabinet. The prime minister, leader of the party that holds a plurality of seats in the House of Representatives (lower house of parliament), is the head of government and exercises most executive power. The prime minister appoints cabinet members with the king’s consent.

Legislative Branch: The legislature consists of the king and a bicameral parliament with an upper house (Senate, or Dewan Negara) and a lower house (House of Representatives, or Dewan Rakyat). The Senate is a permanent body consisting of 70 members that serve three-year terms; each of the 13 State Legislative Assemblies elects two members; and the king appoints 44 members, four of whom are from the federal territories of Kuala Lumpur (2), Labuan, and Putrajaya. The Senate elects its president and deputy president from among its own members. The House of Representatives consists of 219 members who are popularly elected for five years from single-member constituencies. The Senate may initiate legislation, but only the House of Representatives can initiate legislation that involves the granting of funds. Both houses of parliament and the king must approve legislation for it to be enacted into law. The king has few other legislative powers, but he may dissolve the House of Representatives on the prime minister’s advice.

Judicial Branch: Malaysia has an independent judiciary and two court systems. The sharia system, which issues rulings under Islamic law, is composed of a high court and courts in each state. A system of superior and subordinate courts handles civil and criminal law. Superior courts include the Federal Court, the Court of Appeals, and two High Courts. The Federal Court is the highest judicial authority and final court of appeal. It has original, referral, and advisory jurisdiction as well as jurisdiction over disputes involving states and the federal government. The Federal Court has a chief justice and 10 judges; the number of judges needed for rulings varies according to the type of case. The Court of Appeals acts as an appeals court between the Federal Court and the High Courts. The High Courts—one each for eastern and western Malaysia—have original, appellate, and revisionary jurisdiction. A Special Court hears civil and criminal cases involving state rulers and the supreme ruler. The attorney general, as the principal legal officer and public prosecutor, provides legal advice to the executive branch and may draft bills for deliberation and enactment by parliament.

Subordinate courts include 60 sessions courts, 151 magistrate courts, and the Court for Children, which hears juvenile cases. Subordinate courts have jurisdiction over criminal cases not subject to the death penalty. Sessions courts can hear civil cases valued up to US$65,693, and magistrate courts have jurisdiction over civil cases valued up to US$6,596. Native courts in Sabah and Sarawak and penghulu (village headman) courts in the peninsula handle misdemeanors and civil disputes according to traditional customs, but under state jurisdiction.

Administrative Divisions: Malaysia is a federation of 13 states and three federal territories. The states are Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Perak, Perlis, Pulau Pinang, Sabah, Sarawak, Selangor, and Terengganu. The federal territories are Kuala Lumpur, Labuan, and Putrajaya. Peninsular states are divided into a total of 137 administrative districts, Sabah is divided into four residences, and Sarawak is divided into five residences.

Provincial and Local Government: The Ministry of Federal Territories administers federal territories, but states have their own governments and constitutions. State governments are composed of a legislative assembly, a speaker of the house, and a head of state. Legislative assembly members are elected by single-member constituencies, and assembly members in turn elect the speaker. Legislative assemblies may make or enact laws not reserved for the federal legislature and on subjects under the concurrent purview of federal and state governments. Heads of state are hereditary rulers, except in Melaka, Pulau Pinang, Sabah, and Sarawak, which have governors appointed by the king upon the chief minister’s advice. The head of state appoints a chief minister from among legislative members, may dissolve assemblies on the chief minister’s advice, and must approve all legislation. The head of state is the chief executive, subject to advice from an executive council headed by the chief minister. However, chief ministers actually handle state administrative matters, assisted by a cabinet of ministers. State-level agencies enforce and administer state laws, just as federal agencies do for federal laws. District and municipal councils handle policy matters at those respective levels.

Judicial and Legal System: The federal constitution of Malaysia is the supreme law of the land, and the legal system is based on English common law. The judiciary is a newly established and evolving institution. Until 1985 the highest court of appeal was the Privy Court, located in the United Kingdom. Malaysia has a death penalty and no trial by jury. Critics and jurists contend that the system is beset by many problems, such as case backlogs, corruption, poor legal representation, and a changing institutional structure.

Electoral System: Malaysia has universal suffrage for citizens 21 years of age and older.

Politics and Political Parties: Since independence, Malaysia has been governed by a coalition of political parties called the National Front (Barisan Nasional—BN), which consisted of 14 political parties in the 2004 elections. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has been the dominant party in both the BN and the country. The Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC; formerly the Malayan Indian Congress) have also been influential in the BN. Significant opposition parties include the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia—PAS) and the People’s Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Rakyat—Keadilan). Political parties often draw much of their support from distinct ethnic or religious communities, and their electoral success appears to rely on an individual leader’s influence. Political parties often are characterized by factionalism, publicized internal disputes, and near cloak-and-dagger internal relations. As the perennial majority party in the BN, the UMNO has also created barriers for parties to compete in elections, such as increasing the amount of required deposits.

Measured by the number of seats in the 2004 elections for the House of Representatives, the most supported political party was the UMNO, which won 109 of the 219 seats, followed by the MCA (31 seats), Democratic Action Party (12 seats), Parti Pesakea Bumiputera Bersatu (11 seats), and Parti Gerakan Rakyat Malaysia (10 seats). All other political parties won fewer than 10 seats. The BN coalition won 198 out of 219 seats in the 2004 elections. In the 12 general elections since 1955, the BN and its predecessor, the Alliance, have won at least 70 percent of seats, except in 1969 when they won only 51 percent of seats.

Mass Media: Mass media are often discussed in terms of the substantial legal restrictions on acceptable content rather than the increased availability of media. The 1998 Communications and Multimedia Act liberalized acceptable broadcast content and made broadcasters responsible for regulating their own content within legal parameters. The Ministry of Energy, Water, and Communications and the Communications and Multimedia Commission regulate electronic and print media and may revoke the license of any company that is deemed to have violated acceptable media content. The constitution protects freedom of the press, but critics contend that legal parameters on content are highly restrictive and politically motivated.

Government-owned Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM), the predominant broadcaster, operates nine national radio services and 16 regional radio services. The government also owns Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia, a religious radio broadcaster. The Voice of Malaysia (VOM) is the government’s international radio service. Malaysia also has seven commercial radio broadcasters and two university radio stations. In 2001 there were 35 AM radio stations, 391 FM radio stations, and 15 shortwave radio stations. RTM has two national television services, and three commercial broadcasters serve only the peninsula. The Malaysian National News Agency (Bernama) is the official news agency and has exclusive rights to receive and distribute news in Malaysia. In 2000, Malaysia had 31 daily newspapers with a total average circulation of 2.2 million.

Foreign Relations: During the Cold War, Malaysia’s foreign policy was directed toward defeating domestic insurgency and constraining international communism. Since the defeat of the insurgency in 1989 and the later decline of socialist governments, Malaysia’s foreign relations have been largely characterized by economic and trade issues and by its domestic treatment of immigrants. Relations with many Asian countries have improved as a result of growing trade, but Chinese, Indonesian, and Philippine authorities have expressed concern about official and societal treatment of fellow ethnics within Malaysia. The United States regards Malaysia as having undertaken important steps against terrorism, such as creating a counterterrorism training center, but Malaysian authorities have been upset by the U.S. listing of Malaysia as a “terror-risk” country. Relations with the Philippines also have been strained over allegations that members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Filipino insurgent group, have commandeered parts of Borneo as a haven. Relations with Brunei and Singapore have been tense because of disputed territorial claims that involve commercial and natural resource interests.

Membership in International Organizations: Malaysia is a member of numerous international organizations including the Asian Development Bank; Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation; Association of South East Asian Nations; Bank for International Settlements; Colombo Plan; Commonwealth; East Asia Summit; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations; Group of 15; Group of 77; International Atomic Energy Agency; International Bank for Reconstruction and Development; International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes; International Chamber of Commerce; International Civil Aviation Organization; International Confederation of Free Trade Unions; International Criminal Police Organization; International Development Association; International Development Bank; International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies; International Finance Corporation; International Fund for Agricultural Development; International Hydrographic Organization; International Labour Organization; International Maritime Organization; International Monetary Fund; International Olympic Committee; International Organization for Standardization; International Telecommunication Union; Inter-Parliamentary Union; Multilateral Investment Guarantee Association; Nonaligned Movement; Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons; Organization of the Islamic Conference; Permanent Court of Arbitration; United Nations (UN); UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; UN Industrial Development Organization; Universal Postal Union; World Bank; World Confederation of Labor; World Customs Organization; World Federation of Trade Unions; World Health Organization; World Intellectual Property Organization; World Meteorological Organization; World Tourism Organization; and World Trade Organization.

Major International Treaties: Malaysia is a signatory to numerous international treaties including the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal; Chemical Weapons Convention; Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (signed but not ratified as of July 2006); Convention on Biological Diversity; Convention on Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas; Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna; Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; Convention on the Rights of the Child; Convention on Wetlands of International Importance Especially as Waterfowl Habitat; Geneva Protocol; International Tropical Timber Agreement 1983; International Tropical Timber Agreement 1994; Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone layer; Protocol of 1978 Relating to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973; Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Under Water; Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification; United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; and United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.


Armed Forces Overview: Malaysia has three military services—the army, navy, and air force. Foreign observers estimate that in 2005 active-duty armed forces personnel totaled 110,000: 80,000 in the Malaysian Army (Tentera Darat Malaysia), 15,000 in the Royal Malaysian Navy (Tentera Laut Diraja Malaysia), and 15,000 in the Royal Malaysian Air Force (Tentera Udara Diraja Malaysia,). There were also 51,600 reserves—50,000 in the army, 1,000 in the navy, and 600 in the air force. Historically, security threats have been largely internal. Thus, the country’s military is primarily organized to address internal security matters and is strongly oriented toward infantry. The government also has attempted to address internal security through emphasizing ethnic harmony and economic growth.

Malaysia’s geography poses inherent security problems and benefits. The physical separation of Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia by the South China Sea, numerous shared borders, and an extensive coast create obstacles for securing the country. However, the peninsula’s position on one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, the Strait of Malacca, also means that numerous countries are economically interdependent with Malaysia and thus invested in its national security and stability.

Foreign Military Relations: In terms of multilateral military relations, Malaysia has a common defense agreement with other nations in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and is a member of the Five Power Defence Agreement with Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Kingdom. In regard to bilateral military relations, Malaysia allows the United States to use naval and air repair and maintenance facilities in Malaysia.

External Threat: Malaysia has no immediate external security threats. The country does have territorial disputes with other countries, but none has resulted in a militarized dispute since the 1960s or is expected to do so in the near future.

Defense Budget: From fiscal year (FY) 2002 to FY2004, Malaysia’s defense budget increased from US$2.2 billion to US$2.2 billion but decreased from 2.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2002 to 1.9 percent of GDP in 2004. In the same period, foreign military assistance increased 50 percent from US$800,000 to US$1.2 million.

Major Military Units: The army consists of two military regions, one headquarters field command, and four area commands. In addition, the army has one mechanized infantry brigade, 11 infantry brigades, and one airborne brigade. The army’s combat units include five armored regiments, 28 infantry battalions, three mechanized infantry battalions, three airborne battalions, five engineering regiments, one helicopter squadron, and one special forces regiment. The army’s reserves are officially called the Territorial Army, consisting of 16 infantry regiments and five highway security battalions. The navy is organized into two commands: Naval Area 1 for the peninsula and Naval Area 2 for Sabah and Sarawak. The navy also has an aviation wing and a naval commando unit. The air force is organized into one air operations headquarters, two air divisions, one training and logistics command, and the Integrated Air Defence Systems Headquarters. The air force has three ground attack squadrons, two fighter squadrons, one reconnaissance squadron, one maritime reconnaissance squadron, and four transport squadrons.

Major Military Equipment: In 2005 the army was believed to have 26 light tanks, 186 reconnaissance vehicles, 111 armored personnel carriers, 130 105-millimeter towed artillery, 34 155-millimeter towed artillery, 232 81-millimeter mortars, 18 multiple rocket launchers, 60 antitank guided weapons, 584 rocket launchers, 260 recoilless launchers, 60 air defense guns, 48 surface-to-air missiles, 9 helicopters, and 165 assault craft. The navy has 4 frigates, 41 patrol and coastal combat vessels, 4 mine warfare vessels, 1 amphibious vessel, 4 support vessels, and 6 armed helicopters. The air force inventory includes 73 combat aircraft, 59 fighter and ground attack aircraft, 19 reconnaissance aircraft, 35 transport aircraft, 40 transport and search-and-rescue helicopters, 3 reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicles, 20 training aircraft, and 13 training helicopters. The air force also has air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, although the number is publicly unavailable. Since the mid-1990s, the countries that have provided the most military hardware to Malaysia have been France, New Zealand, Poland, Russia, and the United Kingdom.

Military Service: The minimum age for voluntary military service is 18. Women can serve in the military but only in noncombat positions. Malaysia’s only form of conscription is the National Service Program, which requires three months of military service for approximately 80,000 18-year-old men and women randomly selected from the population. The program was established in February 2004 to improve the military and to promote national integration and patriotism. However, the program has been revamped to address problems such as its poor organization and ethnic divisions among recruits.

Paramilitary Forces: Malaysia has numerous paramilitary organizations, but estimates of their total personnel vary. Malaysian paramilitary forces include the General Operational Force with approximately 10,000 personnel, the marine police with 2,100 personnel, the police air unit whose personnel numbers are publicly unavailable, and area security units—an auxiliary force of the General Operations Force—with 35,000 personnel. In addition, there are 1,200 border scouts (in Sabah and Sarawak) and the People’s Volunteer Corps, which has approximately 300,000 members and is involved in domestic security and community development projects.

Foreign Military Forces: Australia has 148 military personnel in Butterworth, Malaysia, as part of an ongoing commitment to the Five-Power Defence Agreement.

Military Forces Abroad: As of 2006, Malaysian troops were serving in United Nations (UN) peacekeeping operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, East Timor, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Liberia, Serbia and Montenegro, Sierra Leone, and Western Sahara. Malaysian troops previously have served on other UN peacekeeping missions.

Police: Malaysia’s federal police force is the Royal Malaysian Police (RMP), which is under the direction of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). States have their own police forces, which are subordinate to the RMP. Data on police are scant, but in 2000 the RMP had 82,383 total personnel, or 353.6 police for every 100,000 persons. In the same year, there were 167,173 total crimes (717.5 crimes per 100,000 persons), mostly thefts and burglaries. Most RMP personnel are Malay; females made up 9.7 percent of total personnel in 2000. The public often perceives the police as excessively forceful, repressive, and unprofessional. International observers contend that Malaysia’s police force is among the country’s most corrupt institutions, and a 2006 MHA report criticized the police for human rights violations, poor policing, and corruption.

Internal Security and Terrorism: Some observers regard religious fundamentalism as a potential danger to Malaysia’s domestic security while others argue that religious extremism has been on the wane since 2001. Both the Malaysian government and outside observers contend that there is little terrorist activity in Malaysia but that the country is used as a haven for terrorists from neighboring countries. The government has forcefully cracked down on suspected terrorists and has developed high levels of counterterrorism capability and cooperation with Western governments. However, at least two notable militant groups are believed to have been active in Malaysia since the mid-1990s: the Kumplulan Mujahideen Malaysia (KMM) and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which is believed to be active in several countries in Southeast Asia. These two groups are allegedly linked, and the JI is believed to have links to al Qaeda. In 2001 the KMM was found to have possible links with the Pan Malaysian Islamic Party. Malaysian police have allegedly demolished another Islamic militant group called Federal Special Forces of Malaysia (Pasukan Khas Persekutuan Malaysia—PKPM,). Most extremist activity has occurred in the states of Johor, Kedah, Perlis, and Selangor, all on the western side of Peninsular Malaysia.

Malaysia has also experienced periodic protests and riots, for several reasons. Governmental limits on freedom of expression and political participation have contributed to such events. Perhaps even more troubling is that after these events there has been some evidence of increased ethnic divisiveness, including a rise in support for political parties with specific ethnic or religious constituencies. However, other evidence suggests that Malaysia has managed ethnic differences better than other pluralistic societies in Asia.

Human Rights: International and domestic human rights organizations and foreign governments are critical of the Malaysian government and in particular the Royal Malaysian Police (RMP), but human rights groups and foreign governments generally do not regard Malaysia as being among the world’s worst abusers of human rights. International human rights groups have publicly expressed concern that preventive detention laws such as the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA) and the Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance 1969 allow for abuses such as detention without trial or charge. Moreover, human rights groups have documented severe abuse of prisoners. At least 112 people were detained under the ISA, and most were alleged to be Islamic militants, counterfeiters, and practitioners of religious faiths deemed deviant by the government. Critics also contend that the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has used the ISA to detain an estimated 10,000 dissenters since 1960. Human rights organizations also insist that migrant workers are regularly abused, and indeed migrant workers are excluded from many provisions of Malaysian employment law. The RMP has been particularly criticized for unlawful killings, torture, and arbitrary arrests and detentions, although the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia was established in 1999. In addition, human rights groups affirm the presence of quotidian violence and oppression against women and children, including human trafficking.

Index for Malaysia:
Overview | Government


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