Inter-ethnic compromises were challenged by Muslim nationalists in the run-up to the recent state polls.
The electoral growth of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) is read by most as reflecting the growing popularity of Islamism or religious conservatism.
It might be more accurate, however, to term the ideology of many PAS leaders as Muslim nationalism.
PAS is now the largest single party in Malaysia’s parliament with 20 percent of its seats and presents a growing threat to Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s Pakatan Harapan (Alliance of Hope) coalition.
Malaysians recently went to the polls for elections in six states which saw a status quo outcome but with PAS making significant gains in both traditional and non-traditional seats. In parliamentary elections last November, PAS and its allies confounded pollsters by sweeping four states in what was dubbed a ‘green wave’.
Far from being a monolithic and rigid party, PAS has experimented with different positions, from inclusive Islamism to now hard-hitting Muslim nationalism. It has even welcomed into its fold Mahathir Mohamad, a vocal former foe, to gang up against Anwar and pluralism.
As the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which dominated Malaysian politics until 2018, is now the junior partner in Anwar’s coalition government, PAS is the standard barrier of Malay-Muslim nationalism alongside UMNO’s splinter party, Bersatu.
Since the 1980s, UMNO has found the need to compete with PAS on Islamisation. In 1982, Anwar, then a firebrand Islamist, was co-opted by then prime minister Mahathir to embark on UMNO’s own Islamisation project.
A year earlier, Anwar’s contemporary in PAS, Abdul Hadi Awang, delivered a sermon that changed Malaysia’s political history. Hadi is now the president of PAS, which has benefited from UMNO’s cyclic schisms.
Termed “Hadi’s Message” (Amanat Hadi), an excerpt of that sermon painted a different vision of nation-building and provided PAS – having lost power in the state of Kelantan in 1978 – a powerful ideological weapon to survive and fight UMNO’s ethno-nationalist hegemony.
Hadi declared, “[…] we reject BN (the ruling coalition then headed by Umno)…because it preserves the colonialist Constitution, the infidel law and the pre-Islamic (jahiliyyah) rules.”
In simple language, Hadi offered a radical vision of anti-colonialism: true independence means restoration of the pre-colonial past when Islam and Muslims reigned. Hence, the post-colonial Malaysian state cannot be truly independent if it preserves the infidel colonialist’s political structure.
Early UMNO leaders were pro-England aristocratic-bureaucratic elites who wanted Islam only as a symbol of state, not the basis of socio-politico-economic order.
Islam upholds religious freedom. The Quran has verses that respect diversity and individual choices, such as “For you is your religion; for me is my religion.” (al-Kafirun); “And if Allah had willed, He could have made you (of) one religion, but He causes to stray whom He wills and guides whom He wills” (An-Nahi).
Inclusive Islamists – some may call themselves Muslim democrats – use a brief seven-year period of multifaith nationhood in Medina under Prophet Muhammad as the religious basis to advocate for inclusive citizenship in modern nation-states.
Living in bitter memories of the Crusades and wars involving Islamic empires and others, Muslim nationalists often view non-Muslims as a threat to the faith and the congregation. In that sense, colonisation is subjugation of Muslims by infidels or vice-versa.
Without mentioning anything about equality — a political taboo for Malaysia’s ethnic majority Malay/Muslims — Anwar’s ‘Madani Malaysia‘ is a project of inclusive nationhood to transcend the Muslim/non-Muslim dichotomy.
Launched soon after Anwar’s ascendence to premiership in November 2022, Madani Malaysia faces a strong challenge of Malay-Muslim supremacy from not just PAS and the National Alliance (Perikatan Nasional, PN) coalition it drives but also from more radical groups like Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia (ISMA).
In the eyes of Malay-Muslim nationalists, the existence of a multicultural Malaysia is a historical mistake or even an injustice to the indigenous population.
While Indians and Chinese stepped foot on the Malay-Indonesian archipelagos some 2,000 years ago, their influx into the Malaysian peninsula started only in the 19th century with colonialism.
They were brought by the British — for some Chinese, by local Malay rulers — to work in mining, agriculture and construction. In Borneo, under colonial rule, Christianity reached the indigenous tribes and stopped a slow and gradual expansion of Islam into the inland.
With colonial policy obstructing the Malays and the Borneo natives from active participation in the modern economy, Chinese and Indian immigrants became economically advanced. This disparity became a sore point in inter-ethnic relations.
In the inter-communal bargains to attain Malaya’s independence from Britain, Chinese and Indians were given citizenship but Malays were compensated with privileged treatments in employment, education and business under Article 153 of the constitution.
This ‘special status’ was later extended to cover Sabah and Sarawak indigenous people when the Borneo states merged with Malaya (and also Singapore) to form Malaysia in 1963. After the Sino-Malay post-election riots in 1969, more pro-Malay/native measures were introduced.
This uneasy but lasting intercommunal compromise was produced and sustained by UMNO until its fall in 2018. Its hegemony was challenged by not just the disaffected non-Malays but also by the Malay opposition, PAS.
In another restorationist stroke, PAS’s populist chief minister of Kedah, Sanusi Mohd Nor, recently made an irredentist claim on neighbouring Penang, the Chinese-dominated affluent state that was made a British colony in 1796. Both Hadi and Sanusi also ethnicise corruption and blame bribery on non-Muslims.
Hadi’s restorationism’s new ally Mahathir recently claimed that Malaysia is not a multi-ethnic country and slammed the name change from Tanah Melayu (‘Malay Land’, the Malay name of Malaya) to Malaysia. A Sabah parliamentarian then called out Mahathir as a Malayan colonialist and imperialist for seeing Sabah and Sarawak as Malaya’s possessions.
This does not concern the nonagenarian nationalist who was twice prime minister and now just wants to bring down Anwar, his protégé-turned-rival. If anti-colonial restorationism can draw Malay votes away from Anwar’s government, then Muslim nationalism is a useful tool.
Wong Chin Huat is a professor and Deputy Head (Strategy) of the Asia headquarters of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network at Sunway University, Malaysia. He declares no conflict of interest.
This article has been republished for the Religion in politics special report. It was first published on 7 August 2023.