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Mahathir’s rapprochement with Islamists won’t heal Malaysia’s fractured polity

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Malaysia's Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim meets supporters during his first public appearance, attending Friday prayer at a mosque in Putrajaya, Malaysia, 25 November 2022 (Photo: Reuters/Zahim Mohd).

In Brief

Despite being a notch below 100 years old, Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad remains active in politics. Mahathir, a lifetime champion of Malay rights, was in frequent conflict with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) throughout much of his first tenure as prime minister from 1981 to 2003. Against this historical backdrop, the rapprochement between the Islamist PAS and Mahathir in May 2023 is perhaps surprising.


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PAS President Hadi Awang signed up to the ‘Malay Proclamation’, a 12-point document written by Mahathir which calls for Malay unity to ‘restore the political power of Malays’. Malays — who form Malaysia’s dominant ethnic group — together with other Bumiputera constitute two-thirds of Malaysian citizens. But the proclamation claimed that Malays have ‘lost’ political control — presumably under current Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim — with calls to put aside political differences to ‘revive’ and ‘save’ the Malay race.

Mahathir ostensibly has a point. He contends that Malays are split into three political camps. In Malaysia’s November 2022 general election, the Malay vote was split among three rival coalitions — Perikatan Nasional (PN), Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Harapan (PH), in descending order. The Anwar-led unity government is a coalition of PH, BN and East Malaysian parties.

Since Malaysia’s independence in 1957, racial politics has been at the forefront of political discourse. Politicians and political parties often appeal to one specific racial group. For Mahathir, ‘Malay unity’ is a dream and political slogan to galvanise support — never mind that such goals are not feasible or to be desired in the first place.

The paradox of Malay unity can be seen in the coming together of Hadi Awang and Mahathir. At the 1999 general election PAS captured Terengganu from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO). Then prime minister and UMNO president, Mahathir terminated petroleum royalty payments to PAS-led Terengganu for resources extracted within the state, even though its economic development is among the lowest in Malaysia. Hadi Awang served as the then Terengganu chief minister and relations with Mahathir soured.

Apart from being a pure power play, the conflict stemmed from competing political loyalties among Malays. PAS’ political Islam ideology — where Islam is the source of inspiration for social behaviours and politics — conflicted with UMNO’s ethnic focus on Malay nationalism. PAS also stressed spiritual advancement, while UMNO is perceived as oriented towards economic and material goals. Since the Malaysian constitution legally obliges Malays to subscribe to the Islamic faith, PAS and UMNO are essentially competing for the same pool of voters in the electorate.

Despite multiple attempts by UMNO and PAS to collaborate since the 1970s, political coalitions between the two have typically failed spectacularly, with Muafakat Nasional being the latest casualty.

Despite Anwar serving as Prime Minister, PH only received an estimated 13 per cent of Malay votes in the 2022 general election. The opposition PN coalition comprised of PAS and the Malaysian Indigenous United Party are both Malay-based ethnic parties. Against this backdrop, Anwar’s political opponents conveniently accuse his administration of neglecting Malay interests, from housing ownership to Islamic affairs.

For a multiracial country like Malaysia where non-Malays form a third of the total population, attempts to galvanise one racial group may be detrimental to the country’s social fabric. Calls for ‘Malay unity’ are exclusionary as the concept elevates Malay rights while neglecting the needs and interests of non-Malays. Such narratives could lead to a zero-sum game where Malaysians perceive each other as competitors rather than partners. Malaysia’s multiracial society would be polarised along racial lines — as it already is to a worrying degree — which increases the likelihood of social unrest.

A more inclusive approach to politics is required. Instead of focusing on race, an issue-based approach to politics would address pressing societal challenges and promote the common good. Malaysia is faced with grave development challenges, spanning from escaping middle-income stagnation to dealing with youth underemployment and recurrent severe flooding amid climate change — problems which transcend racial boundaries. A race-based approach to politics cannot solve any of the above problems. Focusing political discourse on issues that affect all Malaysians would encourage greater social cohesion and reduce the risk of spiralling political polarisation.

But it is important to acknowledge that the Malaysian government is faced with pressing challenges to obtain sufficient support from ethnic Malays. Six out of 13 Malaysian states are scheduled to hold state elections in July 2023, which will provide a good indicator on whether Malays are broadly supportive of Anwar’s administration. Malays and Bumiputera are mostly supportive of continued affirmative action for their ethnic group, as numerous opinion polls indicate. Malaysia’s federal constitution also contains several provisions which enshrine a special position for Malays and Bumiputera. A wholesale dismantling of affirmative action for Bumiputera would be political suicide. It would also play into Mahathir’s accusations that Malays are marginalised.

Anwar’s administration needs to pivot towards issue-based politics while ensuring that whatever reform the government chooses to implement does not render Malays’ wellbeing to be worse off. A need-based or merit-based approach can be implemented in certain areas of policymaking, while affirmative action may be retained in other areas. But the challenge lies in finding a balance that addresses the concerns of Malays while fostering an inclusive society.

It is time for Malaysian leaders to develop initiatives that benefit Malaysians, regardless of race. By adopting an issue-centric approach, government policies and discourse would facilitate greater social cohesion while also promote social wellbeing of all Malaysians.

Kevin Zhang is Senior Research Officer with the Malaysia Studies Programme and Regional Economic Studies Programme at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.

Siti Suhaila Harith is a former Researcher at the ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore.

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