Watch out for Malaysia’s ‘green wave’

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Watch out for Malaysia’s ‘green wave’ A father carries his son who holds a Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) flag as he campaigns for PAS’ political coalition, Perikatan Nasional, in Permatang Pauh, Penang, Malaysia, Nov. 18, 2022.
Hasnoor Hussain/Reuters

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim heads a new “unity government” in Malaysia cobbled through a multi-ethnic coalition that brings together his Pakatan Harapan bloc, longtime rival Barisan Nasional, and parties from Sabah and Sarawak.  

Since the king appointed him PM to break an electoral impasse, the headlines have focused on Anwar’s 24-year journey to the top political office, or how the fragile ruling coalition that he heads will govern a deeply divided Malaysia.

But the real story from this election was the gelombang hijau – green wave – of parliamentary gains made by the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS). It won the most number of seats among all parties contesting the Nov. 19 polls, making it the single largest party in parliament.

Because PAS ran as part of the losing Perikatan Nasional bloc against Pakatan, the conservative faith-based party won’t be able to directly shape public policy under the new government, but it will surely have a say and can no longer be viewed as a fringe, regional party.

Having claimed the lion’s share of parliamentary seats, PAS is now the standard bearer for the majority Malay population. PAS has gone from a party with a power base in the rural and conservative northeast, to a national party with deep ties to the urban middle class and young Malaysians.

This represents a watershed in Malay politics and is evidence of the country’s increasing religiosity and growing intolerance.

How PAS pulled it off

In the election, PAS scored big parliamentary gains at the expense of every other party vying for the crucial ethnic Malay vote.

The United Malays National Organization (UMNO), for decades the standard bearer of Malay politics, was routed.

The election was a thorough rejection of the party’s corrupt and scandal-tainted leadership, and old-school politics. This made UMNO’s role in forming a new governing coalition all the more galling.

Absolute unknowns in PAS defeated seasoned Rakyat parliamentarians.

Nowhere was this more evident than in the defeat of Nurul Izzah, Anwar’s daughter who had served as an MP since 2008.

PAS dominated in the Malay heartland, sweeping the seats in the UMNO strongholds of Kelantan and Terengganu. But the Islamic party made gains throughout, including in Kedah and Pahang, and elsewhere.

PAS’s stunning performance defied pre-election polling. So how did the party bring about this green wave?

For one thing, the electorate was tired of the corruption-tainted UMNO, which had long taken Malay support for granted.

Second, according to a preliminary analysis, PAS did very well with the youngest voters. This election saw the voting age go down to 18, which added 1.4 million new voters to the voter rolls.

PAS has been on a decades-long project to move beyond the rural Malay heartland, and make conservative Islam mainstream. It has made significant inroads among people from the urban middle class who are disgusted with the country’s endemic corruption, and among urban professionals who have embraced religion as part of their identity. 

Abdul Hadi Awang, leader of the Malaysian Islamic Party (fifth from left), raises hands with Perikatan Nasional chairman Muhyiddin Yassin (fourth from left) and other leaders from the coalition at a press conference in Shah Alam, Selangor, Malaysia, Nov. 20, 2022. [S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

But PAS has made enormous inroads amongst young people. Its social media campaign has been slick.

They have spent enormous efforts on “dahwah” outreach in the schools. Known for their “TikTok Ustadz,” PAS has cultivated the youth vote like no other party. And it has taken advantage of religious conservatism among young Malaysians that has been growing for years.

Third, PAS today embraces a Malay-first agenda, equating religion with race, which it hadn’t previously done by focusing instead on the implementation of Sharia law.

Fourth, PAS and Bersatu, its partner in Perikatan, waged a nasty and racist campaign that mainly targeted the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party.

The campaign was full of racial slurs, fear-mongering and hate speech. And because the economy was slow to come out of a pandemic-induced recession, people were looking for scapegoats.

Fifth, PAS was able to take advantage of the rural-urban divide.

Progressive urban Malays who vote for Anwar’s People’s Justice Party (PKR) and Pakatan Harapan tend to be condescending towards the rural Malay electorate. Pakatan has nothing to offer rural Malays in terms of policy or values. PAS does, but it also has an urban strategy.

Sixth, as a political party, PAS is competent. It is not plagued by the factional infighting of its rivals. PAS candidates are more disciplined and on-message. PAS has a very effective ground game that’s based on ideology, not money politics.

What does it mean?

As a consequence of PAS winning the most seats on the Perikatan side, Bersatu and its chairman, Muhyiddin Yassin, now find themselves as the junior partner in the opposition bloc. That means Muhyiddin, a former prime minister, is bound to become even more ethno-nationalist and intolerant. 

And although PAS vowed not to join the unity government and remain a “constructive opposition,” the Muslim will have some effect in shaping public policy. PAS and its Perikatan partners will push for a very conservative social agenda and continue to chip away at the rights of the non-Malays and non-Muslims.

They will attack UMNO and other Malay parties for cooperating with the Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party, and selling out the interests of the Bumiputras. During the campaign, PAS normalized incendiary hate speech.

In addition, PAS expects the unity government to be short-lived, and is maneuvering for a 2020 Sheraton Accord-style putsch that brought about the collapse of the multi-ethnic Pakatan government.

PAS already has some willing allies in UMNO.

Ten UMNO members voted to not join the Pakatan alliance and were forced to do so due to under pressure from the king.

Calls for UMNO President Ahmad Zahid Hamidi to resign after the electoral drubbing, have subsided since he maneuvered UMNO out of the political wilderness and into the new government. But his leadership will be challenged at the UMNO conference on Dec. 21.

Finally, the Malaysian Islamic Party is poised to grow. PAS captured the majority of the vote among young Malays, and the party’s ground game, educational and religious outreach, and social welfare programs remain very popular.

In short, PAS has the largest share of the Malay vote, and that has consequences for public policy, the stability of the unity government and the future of politics in a very polarized society.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews. 


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.


Andrew Rajah
Nov 30, 2022 12:11 AM

They won big due to bribery. They paid voters who pronounced an oath in the name of their God.