Making sense of the ‘conservative’, ‘progressive’ labels post-GE15

“That’s why they choose secularism. But it doesn’t mean they abandon the religion. They still subcribe to Islamic values and laws, but they are more inclined to be secular in the context of their country.”

(MalaysiaNow) – One of millions of first-time voters, Aliff could not hide his excitement during the recent general election.

In the heat of the excitement, he uploaded a short video on TikTok, showing himself among a crowd who attended an event featuring a PAS leader in his constituency.

A day after polling, his video had more than 100,000 views, but many had left comments labelling him a “conservative” and “extremist”, and using phrases such as “this is why Malaysia is not progressing”.

The views ballooned to over 400,000, with more comments that turned into a heated political debate as the country grappled with the results of the election which saw a hung parliament amid historic gains by Islamist party PAS.

Aliff deleted his video, afraid of how the debate was taking shape around the simple clip he had posted.

“Until now I don’t understand, what’s wrong if I vote and support PAS? Why ask us to participate if those of us who just finished school were told that our votes are not important?” the culinary student from Tangkak, Johor, told MalaysiaNow.

Aliff’s experience was just a glimpse of the online mudslinging that occurred in the wake of the election outcome.

Many comments attacked first-time voters, especially those between 18 and 23, with names such as “TikTok soldiers”, as it became apparent that a large chunk of young voters had backed Perikatan Nasional (PN), with candidates from the coalition’s component PAS winning nearly 50 parliamentary seats in GE15, its biggest victory in history.

There were also claims that the Undi 18 voters were too conservative for siding with PAS, which had already been accused of extremism.

Once celebrated as a youthful voice that would strengthen Malaysia’s democracy, the Undi 18 voters were suddenly a threat to democracy, because some felt that their choice was against “progressive ideas” as defined by other political coalitions.

For prominent political scientist Chandra Muzaffar, the problem lies with terminology.

Chandra, who has studied Malaysia’s democratic history for half a century, said the use of terms such as “progressive” and “conservative” only deepens the problem, as many invoke them without understanding what they represent.

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