Malaysia : Constitution and politics


National monarchy
Parliament of Malaysia
31 August 1957

Malaysia is a parliamentary democracy with a federal constitutional monarch, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, as head of state. This monarch is chosen for a five-year term from among their own number by the nine hereditary rulers of Peninsular Malaysia. These rulers also elect a Timbalan (deputy) di-Pertuan Agong. The nine hereditary states are Perlis (ruled by the Raja), Negeri Sembilan (ruled by the Yang di-Pertuan Besar) and Kedah, Perak, Johor, Selangor, Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan (ruled by Sultans). The head of state in the four states that do not have hereditary rulers – Melaka, Pulau Pinang, Sabah and Sarawak – is the Yang di-Pertuan Negeri, or governor, and is appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong for a four-year term.

The federal parliament consists of two houses. The upper house, Dewan Negara (council of the nation or Senate), has 70 members, of whom 44 are appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and 26 are elected by the state legislatures (two each). The lower house, Dewan Rakyat (council of the people, more usually called House of Representatives), has 222 members who are directly elected by universal suffrage. The maximum life of the House of Representatives is five years; members of the Senate hold office for six years. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong appoints the Prime Minister and, on the Prime Minister’s advice, the cabinet.

Bills must be passed by both houses and assented to by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. A bill may originate in either house, with the exception of a money bill, which may not be introduced in the Senate. The Senate has the power to hold up for one year a bill which is not a money bill and which has been passed by the Dewan Rakyat. Each house regulates its own procedure and has control over its own proceedings, the validity of which may not be questioned in any court. A two-thirds majority of both houses is required before the constitution can be changed.


In his closing speech to the United Malays’ National Organisation (UMNO) annual congress in June 2002, 76-year-old Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced his retirement, but subsequently agreed to continue as Prime Minister until October 2003, when his deputy, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, duly succeeded him as UMNO leader and Prime Minister.

In an early general election in March 2004, the ruling UMNO-led National Front coalition received a strong mandate to proceed with reforms proposed by the new Prime Minister, including action against corruption. It took 199 seats in the 219-seat federal parliament, regaining Terengganu and conceding only one state, Kelantan, by a small margin to the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). The Democratic Action Party (DAP) took 12 seats and the PAS seven.

The Sultan of Terengganu, Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, became Yang di-Pertuan Agong in December 2006.

In the March 2008 elections, the ruling National Front faced a united opposition at both national and state levels. Although it won in seven of the 12 states contested and took 140 of 222 seats – and 51.1 per cent of votes – in the federal parliament, it was National Front’s worst performance since 1969 and the first time the coalition had failed to attain the two-thirds parliamentary majority required to enact constitutional changes. Opposition parties took 82 seats. Abdullah was returned as Prime Minister. In April 2008 three opposition parties that had worked together in the election, DAP, PAS and the People’s Justice Party, formed a coalition, Pakatan Rakyat.

His ban from politics having expired (imposed in April 1999 following his conviction for corruption), former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim was elected to parliament in a by-election in August 2008 and became leader of Pakatan Rakyat.

In April 2009 Abdullah stood down as Prime Minister and UMNO leader. His deputy, Najib Razak (the son of the second Prime Minister of Malaysia, Abdul Razak), who had been chosen to lead UMNO at the party’s general assembly, was sworn in as Prime Minister.

The Sultan of Kedah, Tuanku Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah, who had previously reigned 1970–75, was chosen as Yang di-Pertuan Agong in December 2011.

In national and state parliamentary elections, held on 5 May 2013, the National Front took nine of the 12 states contested, and 133 of the 222 seats – and 47.4 per cent of votes – in the federal parliament, fewer than in 2008 and again short of the two-thirds parliamentary majority required to enact constitutional changes. The remaining 89 federal seats – and 50.9 per cent of votes – were won by the Pakatan Rakyat coalition. Razak was returned as Prime Minister.

Head of government

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Prime Minister
Tun Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad is a Malaysian politician currently serving as the seventh Prime Minister of Malaysia. Born and raised in Alor Setar, Kedah, Mahathir excelled at school and became a medical doctor. He became active in the UMNO before entering Parliament in 1964. He served one term before losing his seat, subsequently falling out with Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman and being expelled from UMNO. When Abdul Rahman resigned, Mahathir re-entered UMNO and Parliament, and was promoted to the Cabinet. By 1976 he had risen to Deputy Prime Minister, and in 1981 was sworn in as Prime Minister after the resignation of his predecessor, Hussein Onn. During Mahathir's first tenure as Prime Minister, Malaysia experienced a period of rapid modernization and economic growth, and his government initiated a series of bold infrastructure projects. Mahathir was a dominant political figure, winning five consecutive general elections and fending off a series of rivals for the leadership of UMNO. However, his accumulation of power came at the expense of the independence of the judiciary and the traditional powers and privileges of Malaysia's royalty. He deployed the controversial Internal Security Act to detain activists, non-mainstream religious figures, and political opponents including the Deputy Prime Minister he fired in 1998, Anwar Ibrahim. Mahathir's record of curbing civil liberties and his antagonism towards western interests and economic policy made his relationships with the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, among others, difficult. As Prime Minister, he was an advocate of third-world development and a prominent international activist.