Malaysia's Islamists are down but not out

As the euphoria of its election triumph fades, Pakatan Harapan realizes it will have to tread very carefully
Malaysia's Islamists are down but not out

A woman sits at a bus stop with a vandalised Barisan Nasional poster in Kuala Lumpur on May 16. The coalition suffered a shock election defeat to an alliance of parties headed by the elderly Mahathir Mohamad. (Photo by Roslan Rahman/AFP) reporter, Kuala Lumpur
May 24, 2018
The general election in Malaysia that dislodged the Barisan Nasional coalition government for the first time in more than half a century also saw it knocked out in all but two of the 12 states that also held local elections.

Ominously, the Malaysian Islamic Party, better known as PAS, which many had written off, also came out as a winner on May 9.

For the moment, Malaysians are jubilant about the sweeping victories by Pakatan Harapan, which not only retained Penang and Selangor, held by them since 2008, but added to its tally by grabbing power in Negeri Sembilan, Johor, Malacca, Perak, Kedah and Sabah.

Barisan Nasional held on to only two states: Perlis and Pahang. Although it rules Sarawak, the state did not hold an election. The coalition's term ends in 2021.

PAS, which wants to see Malaysia turned into a traditionalist Muslim state armed with harsh Sharia laws, retained Kelantan and added Terengganu, both on the east coast of the peninsula. It also won representation in all the states except Sabah and Malacca.

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While the election is seen as a win for most Malaysians who seem to have moved past racial lines in voting for change, the victory of hard-line Islamists in the two states shows that rural Malays remain firm that multiculturalism is a betrayal of their Islamic values.

By not only retaining Kelantan and taking Terengganu, the Islamic party remains a contender in mainstream Malay Muslim politics despite being written off as out of step with the rest of the country and on course for a wipeout.

The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which was the custodian of Islam in the country, might have now ceded that role to PAS. The implications are ominous for those championing fairness in multicultural Malaysia.

Observers have long warned of the volatile course former prime minister Najib Razak was charting for the country when he teamed up with PAS to halt falling support for his party, first seen in the 2008 general  election and which hollowed out the party in the 2013 election.

In 2016, PAS tabled a private members' bill to amend Act 355 of the federal constitution with the support of Najib's UMNO. The bill was aimed at increasing the powers of Sharia courts to enforce some aspects of hudud, the Islamic system of crime and punishment that includes amputations and stoning.   

S. Thayaparan, a retired Malaysian navy officer who writes a regular column for independent media website Malaysiakini, notes that PAS has made inroads into mainstream politics aided by the deep Islamic state because of a compromised UMNO.

UMNO's rapprochement with the Islamists accelerated when the fallout from the 1MDB scandal began intensifying and led to Najib  becoming dependent on them for his political survival.

His desperation was summed up when his party teamed up with PAS in a drive to pass legislation for the introduction of stricter forms of Sharia in the country, starting in Kelantan.

Political analyst Chandra Muzaffar noted at the time that there were political motivations behind UMNO's support for the proposed laws.

Now ... "after defeat and in opposition, the entente between UMNO and PAS may become even closer. And, should the new Pakatan Harapan government stumble, it will be a far more cohesive, solidly grounded and purposeful Malay-backed Islamist force that will come to power in Malaysia and determine its direction," academic Clive Kessler wrote recently in the Nikkei Asian Review.

This scenario, he says, "is full of dire implications not just for Malaysia but for the region and for a world gripped by anxiety about advancing Islamism."

Another hurdle to quick reform are Malaysia's sultans, who have an outsized role in influencing policy and determining who leads their  state and who cannot. The nine states of Kedah, Kelantan, Johor, Perlis, Pahang, Selangor, Terengganu, Perak and Negeri Sembilan are headed by traditional Malay rulers. As state heads, they are also the heads of Islam in their states.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is widely believed by observers to have been on the receiving end of their displeasure in the recent election when his appointment as Malaysia's seventh prime minister was inexplicably delayed by more than 15 hours.

Pakatan Harapan, the five-party alliance under Mahathir and soon the recently pardoned Anwar Ibrahim, have the ascendancy for the moment, but they are well aware that they will have to tread carefully and address issues of Malay insecurity, especially in these Malay heartland states where PAS has managed to limit their presence.

Anwar says Mahathir is well aware of this and will seek to educate people on the new government's reform plans.

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