Malaysia after regime change

Thomas Pepinsky, New Mandala

PAS and Islam after regime change

As Malaysia prepares for its 13th general elections, due no later than April 2013, the long-standing competitive authoritarian regime will face one of its most difficult tests. The 2008 elections dealt a surprise blow to the incumbent Barisan Nasional (BN), and ever since, Prime Minister Najib’s government has struggled to protect its now-fragile majority. After four years of renewed opposition activism, rumours of defection from UMNO (the United Malays National Organisation), and the recent acquittal of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysians will have the chance to vote the BN out of office once and for all.

In a post-BN Malaysia, observers will closely monitor the role of Islam in public life. Much of what happens will depend on the shape of the government that follows. In terms of the composition of a post-BN government, two outcomes seem most likely: (1) a multi-ethnic Pakatan Rakyat-based (PR) coalition in which PAS (Parti Islam SeMalaysia/Pan Malaysian Islamic Party), PKR (Parti Keadilan Rakyat/People’s Justice Party), and the DAP (Democratic Action Party) all participate, perhaps along with one or more East Malaysian parties; or (2) an UMNO-PAS “Muslim-Malay” coalition, again perhaps involving the cooperation of one or more East Malaysian parties. Either way, PAS—an explicitly Islamic party—will be part of the government.

That PAS would advocate for a greater role for Islam in Malaysian public life is undeniable. PAS describes its goals as follows:

  • Memperjuangkan wujudnya di dalam negara ini sebuah masyarakat dan pemerintahan yang terlaksana di dalamnya nilai-nilai hidup Islam dan hukum-hukumnya menuju keredhaan Allah. [Fighting to create a society and government that is run according to Islamic principles and the laws which please Allah]
  • Mempertahankan Kesucian Islam serta kemerdekaan dan kedaulatan negara. [Defending the sanctity of Islam alongside independence and national sovereignty.]

The prospect of PAS in government alone is worrying for those many Malaysians (both Muslims and non-Muslims) who express concern about the Islamisation of Malaysian politics and society. Moreover, a PR-based government would struggle to balance PAS’s goals with the DAP’s largely non-Muslim constituency. That would make an UMNO-PAS alliance all the more attractive to PAS, while UMNO, whose membership is not restricted to Muslims but is overwhelming Muslim anyway, would likely not hesitate to return to power with a new coalition partner.

Questions about PAS after the BN may reflect the concerns that many non-Muslims in Malaysiahave about the role of religion in public life, and Malaysia’s Hindu minority in particular has cause for grievance on this account. But this obscures the corrosive effects that six decades of ethnic partisanship have had on the prospects for Malaysian democracy. It is a mistake, in other words, to focus narrowly on PAS, or broadly on Islam itself, when anticipating Islam in a post-BN Malaysian political order. Doing so confuses the potential consequences of PAS in government with the factors that have contributed both to PAS’s popularity and to the current state of Islam in Malaysian public life.

PAS itself has not played a major role in the Islamisation of Malaysian politics or Malaysian society. Rather, it was Malay politicians in the pre-independence period (the very same group that went on to found UMNO) who enshrined Islam in the constitution and legally defined Malay-ness with reference to Islam. This was done not in the name of Islam, but to protect what were perceived to be “Malay interests” (see for example A History of Malaysia, pp. 256-257). After independence, with communism illegal, social democracy discredited (through its historical affiliation with a largely Chinese opposition party), liberalism cast as antithetical to Malaysian values, multiculturalism or pan-ethnic solidarity discouraged through the party system, and the bumi/non-bumi split underlying every aspect of social and economic policy, the only “Malay” alternative to UMNO’s Malay platform was PAS’s Islamist platform.