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Rising Intolerance, Sinking Hopes in Malaysia

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
2019-09-13
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Supporters of former Malaysian strongman Mahathir Mohamad shout slogans during an election rally in Kuala Lumpur, May 6, 2018.
Supporters of former Malaysian strongman Mahathir Mohamad shout slogans during an election rally in Kuala Lumpur, May 6, 2018.
AP

The Pakatan Harapan coalition’s stunning victory in the 2018 general election was supposed to usher in a new era of politics in Malaysia. Unlike the Barisan Nasional government that preceded it, Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) consists of parties that have strived to get past their narrow race-based identities and share power by dividing up cabinet positions.

But a number of cases suggests that Malaysia remains stuck and is sinking more deeply into divisive sectarian and ethnic politics.

The opposition has bet that its only path back to power is branding the government as being anti-Islam and against the interests of the Malay community, which accounts for 60 percent of the country’s 32 million people.  

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) party, which had led a ruling bloc for 61 years since Malayan independence, could have used the opportunity to reform itself. Former Minister of Youth and Sports Khairy Jamaluddin had suggested this path. The party’s leadership, still in the hands of loyalists of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, appears to have rejected this.

The electoral drubbing of UMNO’s two ethnic-based coalition partners, the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, has allowed the party to double down on the race-based politics of Malay supremacy.

UMNO appears to have written its former Barisan Nasional allies off and is working on forming a new political alliance with the Islamist party PAS, which not only fared better than expected in the 2018 election, winning 18 of 222 seats (8 percent), but also governs two of the 13 state governments.  September 13-14 saw the first formal meeting to consummate the “wedding” between the two parties, once bitter rivals.

No longer trying to forge a middle ground by appealing to members of Barisan, UMNO can double down on pro-Malay policies. This plays into the hands of PAS.  

Ideologically, PAS will be the agenda setter. And, politically, PAS has a very strong grassroots network, while UMNO’s proved to be much weaker in 2018. UMNO’s political machine requires a lot of cash; PAS does not.  

Playing the race and religion card

The core of the UMNO-PAS strategy is to paint the Pakatan government as anti-Islamic and selling out the interests of the Malay majority.

They have done several things to portray the government as holding back the development of Islam. First, they have targeted the attorney general, Tommy Thomas, arguing that a non-Muslim cannot be in charge of the judiciary, which includes the sharia court system.

Second, they are trying to expand the purview of sharia courts by bringing cases before it, or by convincing the secular courts to defer judgments on issues that may have a sharia component. Importantly, the Department of Islamic Development of Malaysia (Jakim) is trying to centralize sharia court authority, normally the purview of the states.   

Third, Jakim has launched attacks on the minority Shia community, and in one documented case recently, religious authorities in Selangor ordered sermons at state-controlled mosques to attack Shia-ism.

Thirty Shia Muslims were recently detained in Johor and Selangor during the Feast of Ashura, a Shia festival. Although all were released, the government continues to deem Shia-ism as a “deviant sect” and proscribe it under the law. This sets a dangerous precedent for other minorities.

Although Jakim is a government department, the Pakatan government does not appear to control it. And while most government agencies continue to deal with tight, if not shrinking budgets, Jakim’s seems to be growing. Fiscal appeasement is only emboldening religious authorities.

In many cases, UMNO and PAS are simply trying to get the government to adopt its policies by boxing it into a corner.

The most clear-cut example of this is the case of the radical preacher Zakir Naik. Naik is a fugitive from India where he is wanted on charges of money laundering and fomenting hate speech; he has permanent residency in Malaysia. Naik has clearly violated Malaysian law by inciting ethnic tensions, most infamously in a speech where he referred to Malaysian Chinese as “guests.”  

The government has refused to extradite him for fear of provoking a backlash from both Islamists and Malay chauvinists. The radical preacher is now banned from giving sermons. Still, he continues to receive rock-star treatment. By not arresting him or extraditing him, the government is giving tacit acceptance to his continued incitement.

Islamists have also launched online calls for boycotts of goods from non-Muslim companies, even if they have halal certification. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has rejected this, yet calls for the boycott have not been silenced.

A vicious circle

Beyond sectarian issues, UMNO and PAS have accused the government of not advancing the interests of the minorities at the expense of the Malay community.

There are constant snipes at Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng, the first ethnic Chinese to hold that position after 44 years. Although Lim led the renegotiations for projects under China’s One Belt, One Road initiative that were first negotiated under the leadership of Najib, Lim and most of his Democratic Action Party are still portrayed as advancing Chinese interests.  

Such attacks will only grow. China is too economically important for Malaysia. Though Singapore remains Malaysia’s largest economic partner, China is its largest trading partner and a major source of capital and investment. And should the Pakatan government hope to get re-elected, it will have to stimulate economic growth.

There is a vicious circle: Should the government not be able to grow the economy, then it will be forced to cut the subsidies that the Malay community has grown dependent on. That in turn will lead many Malay voters to accuse Pakatan of selling out the preferential rights of the Malay community, and to defect back to UMNO or PAS in the next election.

UMNO and PAS are clearly taking advantage of the internecine conflict within the multi-ethnic People’s Justice Party (PKR), which won over so many Malay voters in the 2018 election. While the rivalry over succession between Anwar Ibrahim and Azmin Ali has died down, it was really divisive and hurt the appeal of the largest party within the ruling coalition.

Intolerance, never far beneath the surface in Malaysia, is likely to be weaponized as it is the only path to power for UMNO and PAS. The Pakatan government was formed with only 30 percent of Malay support, which UMNO and PAS are determined to win back. It is a cynical but calculated ploy that will only increase in the run up to the next elections in 2023.  

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.

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