Skip to main content

Photo: “Putrajaya Malaysia Perdana-Putra-01“, by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0. Hue modified from the original

Weiss, Meredith L. “The Limits of “Populism”: How Malaysia Misses the Mark and Why That Matters.” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs (2020): 1868103420935555.


Politics in Malaysia seems ripe for a populist upsurge. Parties assume fairly exclusive, ethnic boundaries, inviting insider–outsider pandering. Personalities loom large. Economic inequality is among the highest in the region. Regardless, the extent to which Malaysian politics might be understood as “populist” rather than merely polarised, illiberal, and prone to particularism is dubious. I argue that Malaysian politics is neither populist nor likely to veer that way. However, the case offers a useful test of the boundaries between populism and personalisation of politics, the extent to which appeals designed to maximise popular support suffice to code a polity as populist, and which specific illiberal features facilitate or preclude populism. This examination thus clarifies a messy concept by exploring how populism might develop or falter in a multi-party, parliamentary, and hybrid rather than democratic regime – suggesting the relative reach of institutional rather than personalistic or zeitgeist-related explanations.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.