Inside Story

Malaysia’s history wars at the ballot box

With the country’s Islamists still stuck in Constantinople, Anwar’s government looks likely to hold

Amrita Malhi 17 August 2023 1791 words

Moving carefully: Malaysian prime minister Anwar Ibrahim campaigning in Gombak, outside Kuala Lumpur, on 29 July. Fazry Ismail/EPA

International views of Malaysia often swing between two poles: either a wave of democratisation is imminent and academics and consultants should prepare political reform projects, or the Islamists are taking over and observers should alert their national security agencies.

A cluster of six state elections in Malaysia last Saturday supported neither view. Instead, it showed that two equally competitive coalitions remain engaged in a sharp political contest, and neither can fully meet all its supporters’ diverse and often contradictory expectations.

One side is projecting images of a postcolonial national cleansing that will subjugate Malaysia’s minorities and deliver an Islamic state, sealing Malay Muslim majority dominance forever. The other is slowly working up an argument that only it can deliver a modern economy, social harmony and national repair after years of political upheaval. Locked in battle with each other, neither has been able to stake out the nation’s direction decisively.

Saturday’s elections were all held on the Malay Peninsula: in Selangor, Penang and Negeri Sembilan on the industrialised, multiracial west coast, and in Kedah, Terengganu and Kelantan, purported “Malay heartland” states, in the north and east. All of them returned incumbent governments.

In the west, the states in question are aligned with prime minister Anwar Ibrahim’s federal Pakatan Harapan, or Alliance of Hope. Those in the north and east align with the main rival coalition, former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s Perikatan Nasional, or National Alliance. While the results produced no major surprises, they provide plenty of insights into the narratives used by the contending forces to frame and conduct their struggle for the national state and its institutions.

That struggle was at its most naked in November last year, when Anwar Ibrahim finally became the nation’s prime minister after twenty-five years’ worth of attempts. In the final days of the campaign, Muhyiddin and his Islamist running mates in the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, or PAS, drew on every racial and religious trope they could find to turn voters away from Anwar’s Pakatan.

They argued that Christians and Jews would use victory as a Trojan Horse to colonise Malaysia. Malaysian TV actor Zul Huzaimy expressed a wish to “slaughter kafir harbi,” or enemy infidels, at a pro-PAS rally in the eastern peninsular state of Terengganu. (The term is borrowed from classical Islamic jurisprudence to anachronistically demonise Malaysian racial and religious minorities for participating in the political life of the modern nation-state.)

Then, when it became clear that Anwar would form a government, PAS supporters used TikTok to call for a “new May 13” — the date in 1969 when a post-election massacre of Chinese Malaysians took place across Kuala Lumpur.

The Perikatan Nasional coalition had hoped to use similar messages and tactics to topple Anwar-aligned state governments on Saturday and trigger the federal government’s self-destruction. The Malaysian and international media pitched in, framing the elections as a “referendum” on the federal government.

PAS, which has the greatest grassroots reach of all the Perikatan parties, had been keeping its supporters in a state of constant mobilisation for exactly this purpose. It has worked hard to frame its aim as a kind of Malay Muslim decolonisation.

In February this year, for instance, a group of PAS youth caused widespread concern when it organised a rally in Terengganu in which a column of Malay Muslim men marched down a main street in white robes, brandishing swords, scimitars and shields that appeared loosely (and badly) modelled on those carried by troops of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman sultan was the caliph of Islam until the caliphate was abolished in 1924 after the Ottoman Empire’s postwar dismemberment and Kemal Ataturk’s rise to power.

PAS’s message is that Anwar’s federal government — which includes members of Malaysia’s Chinese and Indian minorities — is a legacy of colonialism and must be toppled. PAS appears to be drawing on tales of Malay rebels who built an Islamist coalition against colonial rule in 1920s Terengganu, some of whom also wore white robes and raised the Ottoman flag over their uprising against the British. (The similarity makes me wonder if Malaysia’s Islamists have been reading my own historical work on the subject.)

The Ottoman references didn’t stop with Terengganu. Later, in May, the acting PAS chief minister of Kedah, Muhammad Sanusi, compared Penang, a Pakatan stronghold, with Constantinople, and Perikatan with the Ottoman sultan Mehmed II (“the Conqueror”), who wrested it from the Byzantine Empire in 1453. The Byzantines collapsed from the impact, allowing the Ottomans to expand their empire into Christian Eastern Europe.

These messages no doubt helped Perikatan shore up its strongholds. Terengganu’s state assembly, for example, is now entirely made up of PAS members; in fact, PAS won 109 of the 127 seats it contested across the six states, slashing the total held by the once-dominant Malay party, UMNO, from forty-one to nineteen.

UMNO’s poor result has further weakened the party that led the winning coalition in every federal election from Malaya’s first, in 1955, until 2018. UMNO ruined its own fortunes so badly with the infamous 1MDB scandal, which began in 2015, that it is hard to imagine it playing a prominent role in any future election. Nationally, it is in the ironic position of being a junior partner in Anwar’s government.

PAS and the other Perikatan parties also made gains in the Pakatan Harapan states, ensuring PAS in particular even more national prominence. Gone are the days when UMNO prime minister Mahathir Muhammad could isolate PAS by associating it with “the Taliban” and promising that only his coalition could deliver development. Mahathir didn’t deliver for the PAS states, though, and people remember that well. Perikatan parties also benefit from Malaysia’s notorious electoral malapportionment, which favours Malay-dominated rural seats.

Anxious not to appear anti-Muslim, Anwar’s Pakatan government has had to pick its battles carefully. It may well have been waiting for these elections to pass before its members risked mounting an overt defence of its policies. But the alliance has nevertheless been using two sets of messages to build momentum for a victory at the next federal election, which is still more than four years away.

First, there is Pakatan’s longstanding message of racial and religious tolerance. During the 2022 election campaign that finally delivered him his victory, Anwar’s team circulated footage showing him defending the rights of minorities at a mosque in Adelaide’s Gilles Plains, where he gave a Friday sermon as a side event to his lecture at the 2013 Adelaide Festival of Ideas. Kuala Lumpur’s Malay-language radio stations reinforced the video’s message in the week after the election, playing a steady stream of commentary on how Muslims have always treated non-Muslims with respect.

One after another, religious experts and authorities discussed Islamic teachings on minority rights, dating back to Islam’s early expansion in Arabia. US-based Turkish scholar Mustafa Akyol issued a statement suggesting that Malaysians should study the Ottoman constitution of 1876, which argued that “all subjects of the empire are called Ottomans without distinction, whatever faith they profess.” Further, “they have the same rights, and owe the same duties towards their country, without prejudice to religion.”

Whatever the details, the moral was the same: there is no excuse for demonising minority groups in contemporary Malaysia, or for using the Ottomans as a means of doing so. This argument has clearly not delivered Pakatan enough protection, however, and in the lead-up to the state elections, Anwar’s federal government made a spectacle of seizing “gay” rainbow Swatch watches from the shops. It also shut down a music festival in Kuala Lumpur after a British rock band, The 1975, performed a same-sex kiss as an onstage statement. (Malaysian LGBTI activists decried the band’s “white saviourism” and ignorance of local political dynamics.)

Pakatan’s leadership must now be calculating that PAS, having done everything it can at this point, will begin to lose momentum. After all, nobody wins elections on TikTok alone, and Ottoman dreams and claims of racial supremacy won’t create new, well-paid jobs in an economy battered by the pandemic and runaway food price inflation.

This is the second of Pakatan’s themes: its focus on jobs and economic development. Deputy investment, trade and industry minister Liew Chin Tong has been urging colleagues to support nation-building measures, including policies to promote new industries that Anwar set out in SCRIPT, or MADANI, a manifesto he recently published. Anwar and his colleagues have also led work on Malaysia’s climate response, and efforts are under way to upgrade the nation’s care economy, a huge employer of underpaid women.

Anwar must also be hoping that some of the lads who love PAS will also be fans of Elon Musk, whom he recently convinced to establish Tesla’s regional headquarters in Selangor. Bringing in Tesla will force a rethink of some of Malaysia’s restrictive business regulations, which tend to protect rent-seekers and prevent economic reforms that could deliver much-needed high-wage jobs.

A fair share of new economic opportunities will also need to be directed into PAS states, one of which, Kelantan, has brown, undrinkable water running out of its taps, a travesty when contrasted with Kuala Lumpur’s fancy spas (some of which, perhaps coincidentally, are modelled on hammams similar to those used by Ottoman courtesans).

As well as pursuing economic reforms, Anwar has positioned himself as someone who can bridge the divide between Islamic State hopefuls and a multiracial Malaysia. He promises that debates about Malaysia’s future will be performed as “polylogues,” reflecting the nation’s diversity and his own ability to code switch between competing political registers.

Liew is also arguing that Perikatan, having pushed so hard on religious race-war rhetoric, won’t be able to win multiracial federal seats at the next election, and that PAS’s strength inside the coalition increasingly marginalises Perikatan’s other parties and denies them a nationalist disguise for its true aims. Perikatan also risks a tussle with Malaysia’s royal families, none of which appreciates Islamist critiques of its members’ lifestyles or their historical accommodations with the colonial state.

Amid the fierce contest over which coalition can best repair Malaysia after years of instability, it’s important to remember that the nation is not, after all, a liberal democracy but an electorally competitive authoritarian regime. Power is centralised in the federal government and the institutions of the national state, which place limits on how far challengers can push. These limits worked for UMNO for decades.

While Anwar and Pakatan are in power now, the underlying structure hasn’t changed, and there is no telling whether or how it will. For the time being, it supports the current federal government.

For PAS, meanwhile, Constantinople still stands. •