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50 Years of the Malaysian Dream and the Future of Malaysia

Dr Pingtjin Thum
University of Oxford

17 September 2013 marks 50 years of the existence of Malaysia. But official observance of the date in Malaysia has been minimal, especially compared with 50 years of Malayan independence in 2007. Likewise, in Singapore, the date is going almost unnoticed, despite the date marking half a century of independence from the British Empire.

This roundtable seeks to re-evaluate Malaysia in the context of the hope and promises of its founding, as compared to the reality of the past 50 years. In particular, it focuses on two issues. Firstly, has Malaysia lived up to the multiethnic, federal, democratic rhetoric of its founders? Or was that rhetoric quickly overtaken by more prosaic concerns of ethnicity, political power, and geopolitics? Is there a Malaysian identity, or has it always been Melayu Raya, thinly veiled colonialism over Singapore and Borneo?

Secondly, what does the success/failure of the Malaysian vision portend for the original constituents of Malaysia – the Federation of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore? Despite Singapore’s exit, Malaysia persists. Indeed, of numerous proposed post-independence mergers, Malaysia is among the rare few which persist. Does the vision still retain currency? Or is there a need for a new Malaysian dream?


Senator Dato’ Seri Abdul Wahid Omar is a Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of Economic Planning. He oversees a number of government agencies such as Economic Planning Unit, Public-Private partnership Unit (UKAS), Department of Statistics, Ekuiti Nasional Berhad (EKUINAS), Talent Corporation (TALENCORP), TERAJU and Yayasan Pendidikan Peneraju Bumiputera. Prior to his cabinet appointment, Dato’ Sri Abdul Wahid was formerly the President and CEO of Maybank, Malaysia’s largest banking group and the fourth largest in Southeast Asia, from May 2008. He was also the Chairman of The Association of Banks in Malaysia. He is a Fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (UK) and a Member of the Malaysian Institute of Accountants.

Dr Graham Brown is Senior Lecturer in the Politics of Development at the Department of Social & Policy Sciences of the University of Bath, and Research Associate at the Centre for Research on Inequality, Human Security and Ethnicity at the University of Oxford. He is also Associate Researcher at the Centre for Research on Peace and Development at Leuven University; and, Research Fellow at the Social Development Research Initiative. His research is primarily concerned with the nexus of inequality, identity, and political mobilization, including violent conflict, with a focus on the Southeast Asian region. Recent publications include (with Arnim Langer, eds.), The Elgar Handbook of Civil War and Fragile States. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar (2012) and (with Arnim Langer and Frances Stewart, eds.), Affirmative action in plural societies. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave (2012).

Dr Alice Nah is a Research and Teaching Fellow at the Centre for Applied Human Rights at the University of York. Her research relates to human rights defenders; migration and asylum in Asia; as well as organisational effectiveness in civil society. Recent publications include “Globalisation, Sovereignty, and Immigration Control: The Hierarchy of Rights for Migrant Workers in Malaysia.” Asian Journal of Social Science, 40(4): 486-508; and “Legitimizing Violence: The Impact of Public ‘Crackdowns’ on Migrant Workers and Refugees in Malaysia.” Australian Journal of Human Rights 17(2): 131-157.

Tony Pua is the Member of the Malaysian Parliament for Petaling Jaya Utara under the Democratic Action Party (DAP). He is also the DAP National Publicity Secretary, as well as the investment liaison officer for the Penang Chief Minister based in the Klang Valley. He is author of The Tiger that Lost its Roar , on Malaysia’s political economy, and is a graduate of the University of Oxford.

Clare Rewcastle-Brown is founder of The Sarawak Report, an investigative journalism online news resource that offers “an alternative vision of justice, transparency and a fairer future in Sarawak”, and its sister organisation Radio Free Sarawak, an independent radio station that brings alternative news for 2 hours a day via shortwave to remote indigenous communities in Sarawak, East Malaysia.

Dr Pingtjin Thum is co-ordinator of Project Southeast Asia; Academic Visitor at the Oxford Centre for Global History, University of Oxford; Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. He works on the history of decolonisation and the Cold War in Southeast Asia and the history of Singapore and Malaysia. Recent publications include ‘The Fundamental Issue is Anti-colonialism, Not Merger’: Singapore’s “Progressive Left”,Operation Coldstore, and the Creation of Malaysia (ARI WPS 211) and “Flesh and Bone Reunited As One Body: Singapore’s Chinese-Speaking and their Perspectives on Merger”, in Hong, Lysa and Poh, Soo Kai (eds.), The 1963 Operation Coldstore in Singapore: Commemorating 50 Years. Kuala Lumpur: Strategic Institute of Research and Development (2013).