Malaysia’s green movement: Old continuities and new possibilities

Wei Lit Yew, Azmil Tayeb

Research output: Chapter in book/report/conference proceedingChapter


The environmental movement in Malaysia has been a relatively underexplored subject, even though it arguably stands as one of the liveliest in Southeast Asia. As this chapter will show, it is constituted of a number of established civil society organisations and a multitude of communitydriven protest groups, involving a wide range of actors and issues. It is perhaps remarkable that the movement has progressed under testing semi-authoritarian conditions, suffering from restrictions over registration of organisations, as well as fears of state intimidation and coercion (see Lemière's chapter in this volume).

Environmental movements in authoritarian regimes have attracted significant attention, not only for representing a critical component of an emerging civil society, but also for their democratic potential in fast-tracking political change. Whether it is the movement's contribution to regime transitions in former communist Eastern and Central Europe, or the vibrant contestations environmental nongovernmental organisations (ENGOs) have undertaken in one-party China, environmental mobilisation has unleashed attempts in various degrees that pry open closely patrolled public spaces (Ho and Edmonds, 2008; Jancar-Webster, 1998). As such, there is value in seeking to understand the extent to which Malaysia's environmental movement measures up as a democratising force, as well as the existing obstacles that constrict that potential force.

Through a historical perspective, this chapter aims to chart the evolution of the Malaysian environmental movement from its beginnings in the early 1970s to the anti-Lynas campaign in recent years. The historical overview will proceed through the lens of different political eras. While highlighting the changes in grievances, mobilisational technologies and tactics, and actors, this chapter also maps the connection between the movement dynamics and the wider political context, in particular the regime in power and global environmental issues. Brief case studies of historically significant environmental campaigns will illustrate the imperative of coalition-building among protest organisations that extends beyond pre-existing Malaysian ENGOs networks, and sometimes beyond national borders. Next, the systemic challenges, which include racialised politics, constraints on civil society, and a highly institutionalised party system, that continue to stymy environmental activism in Malaysia are discussed. This is followed with concluding remarks on the new possibilities for the green movement.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIllusions of Democracy: Malaysian Politics and People
EditorsSophie Lemiere
PublisherStrategic Information and Research Development Centre
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9789048542666
ISBN (Print)9789462989887
Publication statusPublished - 2017


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