This paper discusses three factors accounting for the transition to democracy, namely the absence of mass or armed resistance to democracy, the internal strength of the state, and the cohesion of the political elite. In the case of Malaysia, the structural conditions that emerged in the late colonial period, that is the absence of mass resistance movements, allowed for the rise of a relatively democratic postcolonial state. Conditions had been relatively conducive to the development of democratic political culture. However, recent years have seen the development and exertion of a more authoritarian trend among the political and religious elite that has accompanied a process of Islamisation of governance. These developments resonate with a more feudal, hierarchical and authoritarian culture that can be traced to the pre-colonial past and which has an affinity with a more authoritarian interpretation of Islam so typical of the contemporary state religious establishment. The future of democracy in Malaysia depends on the ability of democratic tendencies within the state as well as civil society to work against these authoritarian forces. This future would require drawing upon the more egalitarian and humanist tradition of precolonial Islam and the modernist movement of the colonial Malay world.