Malaysia’s political war has begun

NEVER mind the fact that the date for the next Malaysian Federal Elections hasn’t been declared yet: The battle for hearts and minds has already begun.

By Farish A. Noor

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Published: Wed 21 Feb 2007, 8:15 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 1:09 AM

Keen observers of Malaysian politics will tell you that it is the nature of Malaysian politics that election campaigns are fought out in earnest long before the date of the elections are announced. Despite the fact that the ruling coalition in power holds the mandate till 2009, speculation is rife that elections may be called as early as late 2007 or early 2008.

In the context of present-day Malaysia there are really only two major contenders: The ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party that leads the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition, and the opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). Demographic factors have added to the rise in prominence of both parties, as the emigration of non-Malays abroad and the growth of the Malay-Muslim population combine to ensure that the Malay-Muslims of Malaysia become the dominant political constituency in the country. For some, winning the Malay vote effectively translates as winning the country.

Or does it? For decades the Pan-Malaysian Islamic party was seen and cast as a Malay-Muslim party calling for an Islamic state and catering exclusively to the Malay heartland up north. This was particularly true in the 1970s when PAS was led by the vocal and charismatic Asri Muda, seen by many as the champion of Malay rights and Muslim issues. PAS was then thought to be so Malay-centric that it was even seen as being more ethno-nationalist in outlook than its rival UMNO.

But things have changed radically over the past decade. Following the economic and financial crisis of 1997-98, PAS took on the mantle of reform and democratisation, and has tried its best to re-present itself as a Malaysian party (albeit an Islamic one) that caters to the Malaysian people as a whole. This belated embrace of multiculturalism has sprouted a number of interesting developments. In the northern state of Kelantan, which happens to be the only state in the Federal system under PAS control, the Islamic party has initiated a grand project of building a Chinese-style mosque, in a predominantly Malay state. The rationale behind this move was to show to the country’s Muslims that PAS is fundamentally an Islamic party but not an ethno-nationalist one, and that it is actually Chinese-friendly.

This year PAS will transfer the base of its operations from its old office near Jalan Pahang to the predominantly Chinese quarter of Bukit Bintang in central Kuala Lumpur, which has for decades been seen as a Chinese area. The rationale for the move is once again pragmatic and logical. As Dr. Hatta Ramli, one of the senior leaders of PAS and head of the party’s research and analysis bureau, told this writer during a recent trip to Berlin: “This will show to the Malaysian public that we in PAS do not think in racial terms and we do not base our politics on racial communitarianism or sectarianism. By moving to the Chinese area of Bukit Bintang we show that we are now an urban-based party with urban support, and that we cater to all the ethnic and religious communities of Malaysia.”

Not to be outdone, the ruling UMNO party is bent of taking back the state of Kelantan which it had repeatedly lost to PAS for the past few decades. Should an early election be called however, UMNO’s chances of winning Kelantan from PAS are stronger than ever now. For a start, PAS’s grip on the Kelantan state assembly is held by a meagre single seat (PAS has 23 while UMNO holds 22 seats in the Kelantan assembly). Furthermore UMNO’s Kelantan Division is determined to appeal to the Kelantanese voters to give UMNO a chance, and continues to harp on the ‘poor’ record of governance by PAS thus far.

But as local political analysts point out, UMNO’s campaign in Kelantan has always been along the lines of playing to the gallery, and to demonstrate the nationalist party’s own Islamic credentials, thereby engaging PAS in an ‘Islamisation race’ to show who is more Islamic than the other. Ironically, while PAS is trying to reinvent itself as a Malaysian party committed to multiculturalism and transparent governance, UMNO in Kelantan is trying to woo Malay-Muslim voters with religious seminars and public talks on Islam.

Thus as election fever begins to raise the political temperature in Malaysia yet again, we may be witnessing the return to a politics of ‘holier than thou’ that was so prevalent in the 1980s. What is more the mood in the country has decidedly shifted Malaysian politics to a more religious, and specifically Islamic, character. In 2006 a number of prominent and controversial cases of religious conversion from Islam to Christianity and Hinduism mobilised scores of Malaysian Muslim NGOs and lobby groups, leading to loud public demonstrations in ‘defence of Islam’ and even death threats sent to Malaysian lawyers who defended the right of freedom of belief.

At the same time, at the UMNO General Assembly UMNO leaders were seen brandishing their kerises (Malay daggers) and talking about blood and ethnicity, falling back on an essentialist discourse of ethno-nationalism couched in terms of injured racial and ethnic pride. With Malay-Muslim sentiments set to boil, the contest between UMNO and PAS at the coming elections may well be decisive in determining the long-term political future of Malaysia, and whether the country will remain on the path of secular democracy.

What is clear however, is the fact that while parties like PAS are engaged in hasty ideological make-overs and re-presenting themselves as being multicultural; ethnic and religious sentiments still run deep in Malaysia and will undoubtedly be employed at the coming elections, regardless of whether the date for the elections have been announced or not.

Dr Farish A Noor is a Malaysian political scientist and human rights activist



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