Malaysia after regime change

by Thomas Pepinsky
The Malaysian Insider
Mar 03, 2012

MARCH 3 — As Malaysia prepares for its 13th general election, 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 Razak’s government has struggled to protect its now-fragile majority. After four years of renewed opposition activism, rumours of defection from Umno, 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, PKR and the DAP all participate, perhaps along with one or more east Malaysian parties; or (2) an Umno-PAS “Muslim-Malay” coalition, again perhaps involving the co-operation of one or more east Malaysian parties. Either way, PAS — an explicitly Islamist 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”. 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 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 1 Malaysia 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. — New Mandala

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

  1. #1 by raven77 on Saturday, 3 March 2012 - 11:07 pm

    PR must be absolutely absolutely ready to administer, that would be the greatest challenge if power is attained…….every bit sabotage, little napoleaning and trickery will be utilised to frustrate it from holding on to power, but hold and administer it must …

    It just cannot afford a Kedah fiasco, something the BN will always be looking forward to…

  2. #2 by shukurhasran on Sunday, 4 March 2012 - 2:38 am

    Should Islamic law be implemented, it will concern muslim, good to deter the PR muslim elected representative to uphold the responsibilities to rakyat…

    We should learn from each other, don’t become BN should this BN govt crumble…learn to live as Malaysian, dont become BN with the race issue, it’s never an issue anymore actually

    We support everybody to embrace their faith in their religion…

    BN has become opportunist..preying on every issue or create an issue..

  3. #3 by yhsiew on Sunday, 4 March 2012 - 9:17 am

    Would BN let PR take over federal government or not after PR wins GE13? Didn’t Najib said BN would protect Putrajaya with crushed bodies?

  4. #4 by sotong on Sunday, 4 March 2012 - 9:21 am

    Many Malays are now beginning to realise they do not need to vote for Malay parties like UMNO & PAS to protect their rights and the country.

    If UMNO & PAS work together for Malay votes for narrow, damaging and divisive politics of race and religion, it shows they are increasingly insignificant, irrelevant and insecure.

  5. #5 by Jeffrey on Sunday, 4 March 2012 - 10:35 am

    The necessary conclusion to be drawn from Thomas Pepinsky’s views and premises (if valid) is that prospect of an inclusive politics – with less emphasis on race and/or religion- whilst not good under BN is equally not good if not worse (due to PAS) even if regime change happens with PR taking over from BN. This proceeds on the assumption that PAS does not change its agenda if PR wins federal power; that its using the PR partnership as temporary conduit/vehicle at this moment to buttress its political capital and achieve its theocratic ends; that if its relatively more inclusive PR partners (PKR & DAP) do not, after regime change, vest it the requisite power to accommodate its theocratic agenda, PAS could leverage on and revert to the “ Umno-PAS alliance” and UMNO would not hesitate to return to power with PAS as a new coalition partner. That PAS would prefer playing the Malay unity/Umno-PAS alliance card then than now because then it would have greater bargaining power vis-à-vis UMNO than now!

  6. #6 by Jeffrey on Sunday, 4 March 2012 - 3:53 pm

    Thomas Pepinsky’s rather pessimistic views of the scenario in aftermath of regime change proceeds on the basic premises that PAS will not change its theocratic agenda and will prevail its will and agenda over its coalition partners in a PR’s victory (by reason of its flexibility/option to team with BN upon its terms). This can only be contradicted if the relatively more moderate faction of professionals or so called Edrogans will prevail in PAS over its ulamaks and conservatives. But will they? According to Pepinsky, it depends on the majority Malays to whom political parties (whether incumbent or in opposition) appeal to for vote rewards. And according to Pepinsky, ethnicity’s dominant role in defining Malaysians’ political identity is so entrenched since Dr Mahathir’s long 22 yr rule -and Religion is so inextricably entwined with Malay cultural identity – that Islam will still play a major role even in aftermath of regime change. This makes inclusive politics difficult even in a regime change as it implies the taking away of race from politics in a regime change will only be likely substituted in its stead by PAS’s brand of religious conservatism (unless of course the more moderate professionals could dominate PAS which is only possible if its traditional Malay/Muslim constituency follows in pace in tandem towards moderation/modernity than exclusive conservatism ala Hasan Ali’s brand).

  7. #7 by Kampong Orang on Sunday, 4 March 2012 - 9:50 pm

    PAS would only contest less than 1 third of total parliament seats, say about 60 seats, how could PAS change federal constitution?

    Sabah and Sarawak are big states remember?

    To change federal constitution, it would be tabled in parliament and requires 2 third. Right?

    So, how could PAS change federal constitution? Just like how could DAP change Malaysia to be a Christian country when DAP only contest less than 30 seats?

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