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 Malaysia have 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.

Today, in a society in which economic function and demographic characteristics such as urbanisation no longer distinguish Malays from non-Malays as easily as they once did, core issues such as religion have a new importance for voters whose political identities are constructed through an ethnic framework.

The strategic logic of political competition in Malaysia’s plural society therefore rewards parties seeking Malay votes when they appeal to the characteristics that define Malays in opposition to non-Malays. It should not surprise anyone that when Malay voters find UMNO politicians wanting, they are likely to vote for the only opposition party whose political outlook has not been labelled as “un-Malaysian” for the past half century.

Facing this, non-exclusivist opposition parties such as the DAP and PKR have struggled to transcend the ethnic paradigm in Malaysian politics. The choice for non-Malay, non-Muslim voters has been whether to cast their lot with their own regime-allied (and ethnically-constituted) parties, the “un-Malaysian” multiethnic opposition, or the Islamist PAS.

The fundamental challenge for public life in a post-BN Malaysia is not Islam, it is ethnicity’s dominant role in defining Malaysians’ political identity, and this challenge is just as pressing today as it would be if a new government with PAS comes to power following the upcoming elections. Of course, PAS’s explicitly religious goals are important to note, but there are few things that it could do in government that are not already within UMNO’s capacity today.

UMNO has presided over—and its campaign messages and public policies have encouraged—the rise of Islam in public life. It is tempting today to see what Judith Nagata called the “reflowering of Malaysian Islam” as merely a local instance of a global Muslim awakening, but this misses the very politics of Islamic politics in Malaysia.

In the Malaysian context, the rise of religion is the unavoidable consequence of the politicisation of ethnicity. A PAS-led government might go further than the BN has in prosecuting perceived insults to Islam, or in expanding the domain of Islamic family law, but such worries already mark Malaysian public life. The religious issues facing Malaysia are far deeper than the ruling party’s religious outlook, and having PAS in government is best understood as the outcome of decades of social change and religious conflict rather than a possible independent cause of future religious tensions.

It is reasonable to wonder what Malaysian politics would look like with an avowedly Islamist party like PAS in government, but as always, the meaning of Islam in Malaysian public life cannot be separated from the dominance of ethnicity in Malaysian politics.

The “solution” to the “problem” of Islam in Malaysian politics—if one believes that Islam is indeed a problem—is the same as the solution to many of the other issues that face contemporary Malaysian society: a post-ethnic movement (not merely a multi-ethnic one) in which Malaysians identify, assemble, and act as Malaysians rather than as representatives of ethnic groups in a zero-sum competition for power and resources.

This is what many hope that a PR government would mean, and in rhetorical terms, that is what Najib’s 1Malaysia campaign promises. A recent article in the Economist suggests that many young Malaysians would welcome such a post-ethnic politics. But they will have to wait, for Malaysian politics as BN-versus-PR restates the ethnic politics framework without moving past it.

Thomas Pepinsky is assistant professor of government at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY,USA. His work focuses on comparative politics and international political economy, with a special focus on contemporary issues in island Southeast Asia. His interests include the politics of finance, authoritarianism, Islam, and finding a way to move Ithaca to the tropics.

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