Malaysia’s Crucial Election and Its Islamic Sideshow

Date Published:
May 8, 2018

There are four major conversations that underscore Malaysian politics today and will shape the outcome of the upcoming general election. 

The first is leadership, well telegraphed in the media, which pits Najib Razak – the incumbent of six years from the Malay nationalist party UMNO – against Mahathir Mohammed, the 92-year-old former prime minister whose two decade-long administration put the country on the world map. Mahathir is the candidate of the united opposition Pakatan Harapan.

The second is the perception about the role of government in the lives of citizens and whether the raft of subsidies, currently being dismantled, should remain large or should diminish in order to keep this manufacturing, export-orientated economy on an even keel.

The third is the place of the relatively less populated, but resource-rich states of Sabah and Sarawak in the country’s East that feel they have been neglected because in the electoral calculus they became “safe deposits” for the peninsular-based party of Najib Razak and the coalition he leads, Barisan Nasional, or National Front.

Finally, and arguably the most crucial for the fabric of Malaysia’s Muslim dominated but significantly multi-ethnic and multi-racial society, is the Islamic political imaginary – i.e. how those wanting a greater role for their religion, plan to push that agenda in this constitutionally secular country.

The leading voice in this conversation is the Malaysian Islamic Party, known by its acronym PAS, which governed the northern peninsular state of Kelantan for decades before joining the federal opposition coalition to create the most formidable challenge to the National Front, which has controlled Malaysia since independence in 1957.

However, after two successful electoral cycles in which it joined forces with other anti-establishment political parties to capture two of the most economically advanced states in the federation, securing the backing of urban voters and crafting a common policy platform calling for institutional reform and the end of endemic corruption, PAS broke away from the main opposition force, Pakatan Rakyat, as it was known.

PAS is now playing a high stakes game in which it openly aspires to be “kingmaker” and therefore determine the shape of governance and public policy from a minority position, a strategy that some could argue is perfectly democratic.

While critics point to the many theories as to why the PAS leadership would abandon its erstwhile partners in the democratic movement – some alleging millions have been paid to party leaders, or personal rivalries – one needn’t have to look further than the vision of a full Islamic polity and Malaysia’s unique political calculus to understand the actions and strategies of PAS.

In the broad conversation about Islam and its relation to politics that exists in Malaysia, PAS stands committed to the parliamentary process. This contrasts sharply with those like the local chapter of Hizbut Tahrir, who say that god’s law cannot be subordinated to the parliamentary process, and, on the other end of the spectrum, those who argue that it is enough for Islamic principles to infuse governance – a position that satisfies more religiously orientated secularists. 

PAS is also committed to the ethno-nationalist Malay agenda despite its assertions that there cannot be race-discrimination by a truly Islamic administration. This is, in part, a reflection of the history and social base of the party as one of the oldest political movements in modern Malaysia.

Under the leadership of the late Nik Aziz, long time chief minister of Kelantan, PAS kept its distance from UMNO. Proximity never helped it electorally and the party also had theological justification for its political cooperation with non-Muslim based and non-religious orientated Muslim parties.

With his recent passing, those eager to cooperate with UMNO on the basis of ethnic-unity gained the upper hand, and took the party in a very different direction.

While a PAS splinter party, with many charismatic Islamists leaders, has remained with the federal opposition, the departure of the mother party from the opposition coalition raises important questions about the desirability of Islamists to associate their struggle with the broader challenge of democratisation. 

The sources of the political conundrum for Islamists lies in the formation of the current federal opposition configuration, which began with the crisis in the ruling party in the late 1990s following the Asian financial crisis.

The sacking of then deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, once an Islamic firebrand student leader inducted into UMNO, brought a unique opportunity for anti-establishment politics. 

Anwar’s unique straddling of major currents in Malay-Muslim politics, plus the crisis of legitimacy for the ruling party, allowed the coalition he led to make significant gains in the general elections of 2008 and 2013.

While it started as an electoral pact, the political formation lead by Anwar Ibrahim’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party) formed stable state governments and formulated what it called the Common Policy Platform, a vision appealed to the middle ground of the political spectrum.

In 2013, Anwar’s federal opposition – which had PAS as a constituent – won the national popular vote but because of extraordinary distortions of the Malaysian electoral system, Najib’s Barisan Nasional formed the government.

For some Islamists, this was good news as it delivered PAS from its stronghold in the rural north east of the Peninsula. Non-Muslims and secular Muslims voted enthusiastically for a party they once viewed with deep suspicion as representing all that was backward, obscurantist and anti-women.

Becoming mainstream in Malaysian political life could be read as a great success but it did mean that their vision would be have to be negotiated within terms it could not set for itself.

For other Islamists, this common policy platform must have been the writing on the wall. It lacked the ‘Malaysia as an Islamic state’ agenda, and necessarily so, as it is seen as divisive and sectarian by secular political forces and the middle-ground. 

As the prospects of imminent capture of federal state power became palpable with the crisis of the Najib administration, it became clear that the Pakatan Harapan coalition would likely become the nucleus of the third iteration of the national consensus – the dreaded middle-ground in which radical, sectarian politics withers on the vine.

Clearly, for some leaders in PAS to give up on creating an Islamic state was not acceptable especially as they saw an opportunity in the compromised leadership of Najib Razak a chance to have a disproportionate influence on government.

Razak once touted Malaysia as the model “moderate Muslim” state, but the imperatives of political survival have pushed him to risk the fine balance of forces that keeps the country firmly on the middle-ground.

He has dangled the prospect of enhancing the Islamic penal code and by extension of increased Islamist influence over governance. This is a dangerous game for the country if Najib does not win convincingly and needs PAS to hold on to power.

If on the other hand, PAS is unseated in its home-state of Kelantan and either side of the current divide wins convincingly, then we can expect there will be much more soul-searching for Islamists about this “kingmaker” strategy.

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