The Rise and Rise of Parti Islam se-Malaysia

Malaysia, its power structure with only itself to blame, starts to confront a Green Wave

Murray Hunter, Eurasia Review

If Malaysia, long thought of as a moderate, modern, multi ethnic state of 33.5 million people, becomes the first Southeast to fall under the thrall of an Arabist Islamic party that wants to implement Shariah law, it won’t be so much a victory for religious fundamentalism as it is disillusion and cynicism over the performance of successive governments.

Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) is now the biggest political party in the 222-member Dewan Rakyat, or parliament, with 43 MPs, after being confined for decades by urban modernism and tolerance to the backward northeastern states of Kelantan and Terengganu. It is looking to get bigger. With state elections due in July, PAS is confident of expanding its territory dramatically, built only partly on religion as well as ethnic nationalism and disappointment.

The party has now spread its wings not only throughout other rural areas but into the country’s urban cores as well. Its urban strategy should bear fruit in the coming Selangor and Penang state elections with reduced majorities in both for the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition – traditional support bases for both the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the latter headed by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

That is because decades of stable rule by the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition, ended in deepening corruption capped by the US$5.4 billion 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal. Reformers took power in 2018 only to be ousted in a palace coup in 2021 after 20 months of ineffective, erratic and autocratic rule. The reformers, headed by Anwar, took power again last November only to be unable to run the country and to fail outright to do anything about endemic corruption rooted in bloated government-linked companies and other corruption.

“Many of the structural issues were caused by years of abuse and corruption on the part of the Barisan and its successor,” said a prominent Malay businessman who asked not to be named. “People wanted Anwar and his cabinet to find ways to resolve these issues, even with long term plans. But there’s no plan; just whining.” The reformers’ decision to take the United Malays National Organization into power with them, an organization headed by a president charged with 43 counts of corruption, hasn’t helped.

The currency, at MYR4.957 to the US dollar, is weakening to 1998 levels. Income inequality remains high relative to other East Asian countries, according to the World Bank, which says in its latest report that while income growth for the bottom 40 has outpaced the top 60 over much of the last decade, the absolute gap across income groups has increased, contributing to widespread perceptions of the poor being left behind. Annual inflation is now at 3.4 percent, down slightly from 3.7 percent. Youth unemployment is at 11.76 percent.

And corruption remains at appalling levels. The reform government is attempting to contain a massive scandal over a RM9 billion contract signed nine years ago to the government-linked Boustead Naval Shipyard to build six littoral combat vessels with the French military contractor Thales. That has ballooned to RM11 billion and no ships have ever been delivered. That is only one of a plethora of lesser scandals.

“So, what would you do?” the businessman asked “I am not going to die a slow death with Anwar, I will grasp at straws to save myself. Unfortunately, PAS and Bersatu are more and more looking like the straws that could save the sinking man.”

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