Reading Malaysia through Six Decades of Elections: A Roundtable Discussion

Jointly organized by the Malaysia Study Group of Asia Research Institute, Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, and ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.


Date: Monday, 23 January 2017
Time: 4:00pm – 5:30pm 

Venue: Asia Research Institute Seminar Room, AS8 Level 4, 10 Kent Ridge Crescent, Singapore 119260



This roundtable discussion will focus on the recent book by Johan Saravanamuttu, Power Sharing in a Divided Nation: Mediated Communalism and New Politics in Six Decades of Elections in Malaysia (2016). This book is based on the author’s many years of observing and researching electoral politics in Malaysia. The ruling National Front (BN), with its consociational model, has dominated central political structures while the Opposition Alliance (PR), which collectively advocates multicultural ideals, remains weak institutionally. Both the BN and now the PR have been effective in pooling the votes of Malaysia’s ethnic communities in elections by moving or spinning politics to the centre of the political terrain and by advocating moderate ethnic policies. The tendency for Malay-Muslim political parties such as UMNO (United Malays National Organisation) and PAS (Islamic Party of Malaysia) to gravitate towards extremist and purist ethnic and religious lines has escalated within the last few years. Taking into account the notion of centripetalism as well as the older notions of communalism and consociationalism, the book introduces an approach, namely, mediated communalism, that could account more fully for electoral successes and failures in the Malaysian case. The book serves to test the salience of a distinct approach to ethnic power sharing and electoral dominance, a practice that is peculiar to a social formation such as Malaysia, which is ethnically, religiously and regionally divided, yet remarkably and tenuously integrated throughout its electoral history.



Moderator       Goh Beng Lan | Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore

16:00               Presentation by Speaker
Johan Saravanamuttu | S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

16:30               Commentary Remarks
Ooi Kee Beng | ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore
Bilveer Singh | Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore, and S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies,
Nanyang Technological University, Singapore
Mohamed Nawab Mohamed Osman | S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

17:00               Q&A


About the speakers

Johan Saravanamuttu, Adjunct Senior Fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, held previous positions as Professor of Political Science at Science University of Malaysia (USM) and Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. He is the author of Malaysia’s Foreign Policy, the First 50 Years: Alignment, Neutralism, Islamism (ISEAS, 2010) and Power Sharing in a Divided Nation: Mediated Communalism and New Politics over Six Decades of Elections in Malaysia (ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, 2016). His current research focuses on party capitalism, money politics and electoral democracy.

Ooi Kee Beng is the Deputy Director of ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. His book, The Reluctant Politician – Tun Dr Ismail and His Time (2006) won the “Award of Excellence for Best Writing Published in Book Form on Any Aspect of Asia (Non-Fiction)” in 2008, while Continent, Coast, Ocean: Dynamics of Regionalism in Eastern Asia, was named “Top Academic Work” in 2008. Other major works include The Eurasian Core and Its Edges: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (2015); Lim Kit Siang: Defying the Odds (2015); Young and Malay: Growing Up in Multicultural Malaysia (2015); Merdeka for the Mind: Essays on Malaysian Struggles in the 21st Century (2015); The Right to Differ: A Biographical Sketch of Lim Kit Siang (2011); In Lieu of Ideology: An Intellectual Biography of Goh Keng Swee (2010); Malaya’s First Year at the United Nations (2009); March 8: Eclipsing May 13 (2008); and Lost in Transition: Malaysia under Abdullah (2008). He is a columnist for The Edge Malaysia, and is founder-editor of ISEAS Perspective as well as Penang Monthly, and editor of Trends in Southeast Asia.

Bilveer Singh is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore. He was Acting Head, CENS from January to December 2010. He graduated with Masters and PhD in International Relations from the Australian National University. His current research interests include studying regional security issues focusing on the rise and the management of Islamist terrorism in Southeast Asia, security issues in Indonesia, especially the challenge of separatism in Papua, the role of great powers in Southeast Asia, especially China and India, as well as the domestic and foreign policies of Singapore. He has published widely, his latest work being on the Rohingyas in Myanmar. Currently, Bilveer is the President of the Political Science Association of Singapore.

Mohamed Nawab Osman is the Coordinator of the Malaysia Program at RSIS. His research interests include the domestic and international politics of Southeast and South Asian countries, transnational Islamic political movements and counter-radicalization. Nawab has written various papers, books and journal articles relating to his research interests. Some of these articles have been featured in prominent journals such as Southeast Asia Research, South Asia, Terrorism and Political Violence, Indonesia and the Malay World and Contemporary Southeast Asia. Several of his opinion pieces have been featured in leading dailies such as The Straits Times, India Express, The Nation (Thailand), Jakarta Post, Manila Times and Today’s Zaman (Turkey). Nawab is a frequent commentator on political Islam, terrorism and Southeast Asian politics on CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera and Channel News Asia. Nawab is a social activist and serves as the President of Critical Xchange, an organization that seeks provide a mutually beneficial platform for Muslim citizens and incoming expats to exchange news, views and skills with the local Singaporean community. He also sits in the boards of Association of Muslim Professionals and Jamiyah Singapore. In 2014, he was nominated to attend the inaugural Young Southeast Asian Leader’s Initiative, a program initiated by President Barack Obama. He also attended the inaugural YSEALI workshop in Singapore as a mentor. Nawab has attended a number of prestigious fellowship program organized by the governments of the United States, France and China.



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