The Ascendancy Of Political Islam In Malaysia


By Bilveer Singh

Malaysia’s 1957 ‘racial bargain’ has begun to unravel. The country’s ‘Islam with a smiling face’ has become more ideological with Wahhabi-Salafism making deep inroads despite the dominance of the moderate Shafie-school of jurisprudence. Political Islam in Malaysia is ‘state-sponsored’, mainly by the ruling party, and hence, not anti-establishment. The ascendance of Political Islam has sharpened racial and religious fault lines in multi-racial and multi-religious Malaysia. As elsewhere, Political Islam is the use of Islam to achieve political goals. The progenitors of modern Political Islam can be traced to radical reformers such as Hassan al-Banna, Maulana Maududi and Syed Qutb, who saw reformed Islam as the panacea to cure the ills of their respective societies. In Malaysia, this is untenable as Muslims only constitute 60 per cent of the population. However, with the ruling political elites championing Islamist causes, mainly for political survival, it is within these interstices that the ascendancy of political Islam should be analyzed, especially its meaning for Malaysia’s future.

The Ghost of the Past

In 1948, the British agreed to transfer political power to the Malayan Federation where a ‘racial bargain’ had been struck among the three major ethnic groups – Malays, Chinese and Indians – but with the native Malays predominating. The Alliance Party was established with the participation of United Malays National Organization (UMNO), the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) representing the Malays, Chinese and Indians, respectively. With independence in 1957, Malay political paramountcy was constitutionally enshrined in return for Chinese and Indians being given citizenship rights and the freedom to pursue their interests. The ‘great bargain’ was further reaffirmed in the National Front which has remained in power to this day. The March 2008 elections have, however, threatened to derail the political arrangement and ‘racial bargain’. The unjust ‘bargain’ was fraught with danger and internal contradictions, and it was only a matter of time before it would unravel. The Malays-first policies have come under threat due to gross mismanagement, complacency, inherent discrimination, rising class and religious divisions among the first-among-equal Malays, and the preparedness of the non-Malays to challenge the primus inter pares position of the Bumiputeras (Malays as sons of the soil).

Collapse of the ‘Great Bargain’

Though innocuous, one of the most serious challenges to the 1957 ‘racial bargain’ came in March 2008 when the ruling National Front, for the first time, lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament. The opposition, coalesced under the Peoples’ Pact and led by a former Deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, succeeded in winning 82 seats out of 222 for the national parliament. The opposition also gained control of five state governments and since March 2008 has won eight of the 11 by-elections, signalling that the ruling coalition is in trouble and there is no guarantee that it will remain in power in the next election. The Pan Malaysian Islamic Party, PAS, which has championed Islamization since 1951, also succeeded in making deep inroads in the Malay belt at the expense of UMNO.

The National Front’s loss of public confidence stemmed from many factors including: the three major ethnic communities’ disenchantment with the policies of the Front’s leadership, especially corruption and cronyism; minorities’ unhappiness being disadvantaged by the existing system; the outright social discrimination and anti-minority posture of radicalized Muslims often with state sanction; the crisis of leadership in the various component parties of the National Front; as well as the rise of a middle class that is less committed to race-based politics and is prepared to support policies that are more secular in nature.

The Ascendancy and Challenge of Political Islam

While Malaysia has continued to operate on the premise of race-based politics, what has changed is the increasing importance of Political Islam as the new definer of Malaysian politics in the contemporary period. This has undermined the edifice that has defined Malaysia since 1957. The National Front’s setback in the 2008 elections, largely blamed on the defection by Chinese and Indian voters to the opposition, has led UMNO to concentrate on winning back the Malay ground mainly by championing Malay rights and Islam, largely in competition with PAS.

Historically UMNO’s founding fathers have tried to ‘domesticate’ Islam, with Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaysia’s first Prime Minister, arguing that Malaysia as an Islamic state would tantamount to “the drowning of every non-Muslim in Malaya.” Since then, however, there has been a sea change in attitude, with Malaysian leaders arguing that Malaysia is an ‘Islamic country’ and Mahathir even stating that the country “was already an Islamic state.” Today, the Islamist discourse has shifted to not whether Malaysia is or should be an Islamic state but on how non-Muslims would co-exist in a state based on Islamic jurisprudence.

The process of Islamization in Malaysia started in the early 1980s under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed. While external factors such as the Iranian Revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, role of transnational Islamist networks, and the debilitating politics in the Middle East were important, even more significant were domestic factors, especially UMNO’s competition with PAS. With PAS’s leadership taken over by Ulemas or religious leaders in 1982, the party focused on Islamisation more stringently by accusing UMNO of being un-Islamic, having questionable Islamic credentials, championing secularism, partaking in corruption, cronyism, materialism and pandering to non-Muslims’ interests. In short, PAS accused UMNO of neglecting the Malays, thereby placing the ruling party on the defensive, and in turn influencing Mahathir to Islamize the country to meet PAS’s challenge.

Mahathir implemented a series of measures that has led to the ascendancy of Political Islam in Malaysia. While vilifying PAS as a conservative political party bent on propagating radical Islam, Mahathir also demonstrated his commitment to Islamisation. First, he co-opted Anwar Ibrahim, the pro-Ikhwan Muslimin Muslim Youth Movement leader, into UMNO. Second, massive political and media campaigns were launched on the importance of ‘correct-moderate’ Islam versus ‘radical’ Islam of PAS. Third, PAS was linked to political extremism and terrorism, with PAS leader’s son arrested for leading a terrorist unit, Mujahidin Group of Malaysia, with alleged links to Jema’ah Islamiyyah and al Qaeda. Mahathir also strengthened the implementation of Sharia at the Federal and State levels with a Department of Sharia Judiciary set up in the Prime Minister’s Office. A number of Islamist institutions were also established including International Islamic University, Islamic Research Institute and Malaysia’s Institute of Islamic Understanding. A Department for the Advancement of Islam in the Prime Minister’s Office, with its own Minister and Secretariat, the Islamic Welfare Association of Malaysia and the Regional Islamic Dakwah Council for Southeast Asia and the Pacific tasked to proselytize among non-Muslims at home and abroad were also established. Most universities also set up faculties and departments of Islamic studies. Most of these institutions were led by individuals who were heavily influenced by Middle Eastern Wahhabi-Salafi outlooks, largely explaining the radicalization of Malaysian Islam.

Political Islam’s Blowback

What has unsettled Malaysians is not just the establishment of the plethora of institutions to implement Islamisation but rather the zeal with which these institutions have gone about in implementing their Islamisation mandate. This is evident from a number of developments : arrest of Muslim women for participating in beauty contests; ban of foreign artists, concerts and books deemed offensive to Islam; caning of Muslim women for consumption of alcohol; ban on the use of Allah by non-Muslims; firebombing of churches; arrest of Muslim and non-Muslim young couples and lovers for holding hands in public on grounds of ‘indecency’; ban on sale of pork in open air markets; and the ban of deviationist Sufi and Shia religious groups.

When Abdullah Badawi took over as Prime Minister in 2003, he championed Islam Hadhari or Civilizational Islam, aimed at moderating Mahathir’s Islamisation. Unfortunately, the reverse happened with bureaucratized Islam being implemented more aggressively. Badawi’s attempt to use state and federal institutions to implement Islam Hadhari empowered conservative functionaries, causing family break-ups resulting from forcible conversions, and, most insensitive of all, disallowing deceased non-Muslims who had secretly embraced Islam from being buried according to Islamic rituals. The demolition of many Hindu temples also flowed out of the overzealousness of local religious enforcers to keep the non-Muslim in a subordinate position. Badawi also refused to form an Interfaith Commission to improve inter-religious harmony, signalling the intensification of Malaysia’s Islamisation. In short, religious authoritarianism was on the rise.

Badawi’s successor, Najib, facing a challenge from the People’s Pact, particularly from PAS, has been unprepared to unravel the process of Islamisation. Even though Najib has launched the slogan of ‘One Malaysia’, in reality it is meaningless as the racial and religious fault lines have been sharpened beyond repair over the last three decades. Najib has also argued that Malaysia was “an Islamic state” even though non-Muslim rights would be respected. As Najib faces the possibility of losing more seats and even possibly governmental power to the opposition in the coming election, he has no choice but to continue the Islamisation process to prevent more Malays from shifting support to Anwar’s coalition, especially PAS. To that extent, the present Malaysian Government is unlikely to slow down the Islamisation of Malaysia.

At first glance, the notion of Malaysia as an Islamic state, sponsored by the ruling elites that constructed the ‘great bargain’ in 1957, appears almost unthinkable. Yet, this is exactly what has transpired since the early 1980s. This was brought about by internal and external developments, especially the threat posed by PAS to UMNO. While the strong hand of Mahathir succeeded in containing the negative aspects of Political Islam, his successors have failed to contain the unleashing of radical ideology into society, thereby harming inter-ethnic peace, especially between Malay and non-Malay. This poses serious challenges for Malaysia’s internal and external politics. How the ‘politics’ of Political Islam will eventually be played out remains to be seen. What is significant though is that the 1957 ‘racial bargain’ is for all intents and purpose a dead letter. What will come out of this and what the ‘new bargain’ will be remains to be seen even though the prognosis does not look good.

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( at

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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