Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim Faces the Demons He Helped Unleash

In the worldview of modern Malay Islamists, Malaysia is an inherently Malay and Islamic nation, with no meaningful place for non-Muslims.

Imran Said, The Diplomat

After coming to office with a pledge to focus on the economy, Anwar has been dogged by Malay-Muslim culture war controversies.

As Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim approaches the midpoint of his second year in office, he finds his work cut out for him. The national currency, the ringgit, was one of Asia’s worst-performing currencies in 2023, having declined 4.3 percent against the U.S. dollar. This year has so far brought no respite: on February 20, the ringgit hit a 26-year low against the dollar. An uncertain external environment has certainly not helped, with the country’s overall trade dropping by 7.3 percent year-on-year last year. Public debt remains relatively high among emerging economies in Asia.

And yet, despite these pressing economic issues, Anwar’s government has found itself constantly sidelined by the politics of culture wars. Over the last few years, public discourse in Malaysia has increasingly revolved around outrage over perceived slights to cultural sensibilities, especially those pertaining to the Malay-Muslim majority. Most recently, Malaysian society has found itself divided by some very inadvisably designed socks.

This latest controversy began on March 13, when photos were posted online of socks bearing the word “Allah” being sold at the outlet of local convenience store chain KK Mart. KK Mart is Malaysia’s second-largest chain of convenience stores, with an estimated 800 branches nationwide and nearly 1 billion ringgit in annual revenue. The socks were later found being sold at several KK Mart outlets.

Photos of the socks went viral online and triggered a backlash from many Malays, particularly given that it occurred during the holy month of Ramadan. Among those who condemned KK Mart included several politicians, as well as Malaysia’s Supreme Ruler or Agong, Sultan Ibrahim Sultan Iskandar, who called upon authorities to investigate the incident and for “stern action” to be taken.

In response, KK Mart apologized for what it called an “oversight” and confirmed it had halted the sale of the offensive accessories. The company Xin Jian Chang, which supplied the socks to KK Mart, also apologized, claiming that the socks were imported from China in packs containing 1,200 pairs with different designs. For all intents and purposes, the sale of the socks did not appear to be a deliberate move by the company to insult the country’s majority religion.

Despite this, certain Malay politicians have seen fit to continue fanning the flames over the issue. Most notably, the Youth Wing of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), a major political party and one of the component parties of Anwar Ibrahim’s unity government, called for a public boycott of KK Mart. This call was led by UMNO Youth Chief Dr. Akmal Saleh, who has become one of the public faces of the public campaign against KK Mart.

Akmal received criticism from public figures for his boycott campaign. The Malaysian Chinese Association) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), both Chinese-majority component parties of the unity government, accused Akmal of exacerbating racial tensions in Malaysia through his campaign against KK Mart. It should be noted that KK Mart is a Chinese-owned convenience store chain, and many Malay-Muslims have come to view the “Allah socks” incident as a deliberate and calculated attack by non-Muslims against Islam. In response to these criticisms, Akmal has doubled down on his boycott campaign, even warning the owners of KK Mart to “find another business.” (The fact that plenty of Malays work at KK Mart stores is probably immaterial to him and others who support the boycott.)

On March 26, five executives from KK Mart and Xin Jian Chang were charged with hurting religious feelings. KK’s chair and his wife, who serves as a company director, were charged with deliberately intending to hurt religious feelings. Three officials from Xin Jian Chang were also charged with abetting the alleged crime. All pleaded not guilty to the charges and face a maximum jail term of one year, a fine, or both on conviction.

More worryingly, public outrage against KK Mart has sparked vigilante actions by members of the Malaysian public. Two Malaysian men who had made comments online concerning the controversy which were deemed insulting to Islam were tracked down by vigilantes in real life and intimidated into making confessions about their allegedly “offensive” remarks. Both individuals were immediately arrested by police and charged, with each sentenced to six months in prison. One individual was also fined 12,000 ringgit, while the other was fined 15,000 ringgit.

In addition, in recent weeks there has been a spat of petrol bomb attacks against KK Mart stores. At the time of writing, attacks had been recorded against stores in the states of Perak, Pahang, and Sarawak. Thankfully, no casualties or extensive damage were reported in any of these cases.

These acts of vigilantism and religiously-inspired violence have raised concerns about the rise of mob rule in a country normally characterized by its political stability. They also have recent precedents. In January of this year, a Molotov cocktail was lobbed at the home of DAP Member of Parliament Ngeh Koo Ham, setting a car on fire (no individuals were hurt in the incident). It is believed that Ngeh had been targeted after suggesting non-Muslims be included in a special committee on Shariah law. (He later withdrew these comments.)

These recent attacks can be considered the more violent aspects of a larger trend of Islamization that Malaysia has witnessed over the last few decades. Besides the observable interjection of conservative Islamic mores into the country’s institutions, Islam has been increasingly harnessed for political posturing in the context of competitive politics. This has resulted in often performative religious politics being adopted by Malay politicians in order to attract Malay votes, to the detriment of inter-ethnic relations.

The Islamization of Malaysian politics is not unique; indeed, similar trends have been observed in other Muslim countries. What differentiates the Islamist movement in Malaysia from other global Islamist movements is its heavily ethno-nationalist character. Malaysia’s Islamist movement must be understood within the context of the fragile multi-ethnic nature of Malaysian society. Specifically, attention must be paid to the long-standing tensions between the majority Malay Muslims and the minority Chinese, the latter of which are generally more urbanized and economically dominant (as is the case with most of the ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia).

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