Discover more from Asia Sentinel
Fundamentalist Islam Comes to Urban Malaysia
A power structure with only itself to blame starts to confront a Green Wave
By: Murray Hunter
If Malaysia, long thought of as a moderate, modern, multi ethnic state of 33.5 million people, becomes the first Southeast to fall under the thrall of an Arabist Islamic party that wants to implement sixth-century Shariah law, it won’t be so much a victory for religious fundamentalism as it is disillusion and cynicism over the performance of successive governments.
Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) is now the biggest political party in the 222-member Dewan Rakyat, or parliament, with 43 MPs, after being confined for decades by urban modernism and tolerance to the backward northeastern states of Kelantan and Terengganu. It is looking to get bigger. With state elections due in July, PAS is confident of expanding its territory dramatically, built partly on religion, ethnic nationalism and the failure of conventional politics. It is not a scenario greeted with enthusiasm by the country’s sizable ethnic minorities.
The party has now spread its wings not only throughout other rural areas but into the country’s urban cores as well. Its urban strategy should bear fruit in the coming Selangor and Penang state elections with reduced majorities predicted in both for the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition – traditional support bases for both the ethnic Chinese-dominated Democratic Action Party and Parti Keadilan Rakyat, the latter headed by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.
That is because decades of stable rule by the Barisan Nasional, or ruling national coalition, ended in deepening corruption capped by the US$5.4 billion 1Malaysia Development Bhd scandal. Reformers took power in 2018 only to be ousted in a palace coup in 2021 after 20 months of ineffective, erratic, and autocratic rule. The reformers, headed by Anwar, took power again last November only to be unable to run the country and to fail outright to do anything about endemic corruption rooted in bloated government-linked companies and other corruption.
“Many of the structural issues were caused by years of abuse and corruption on the part of the Barisan and its successor,” said a prominent Malay businessman who asked not to be named. “People wanted Anwar and his cabinet to find ways to resolve these issues, even with long term plans. But there’s no plan; just whining.” The reformers’ decision to take the United Malays National Organization into power with them, an organization headed by a president charged with 43 counts of corruption, hasn’t helped.
The currency, at RM4.603:US1.00*, is weakening to 1998 levels. Income inequality remains high relative to other East Asian countries, according to the World Bank, which says in its latest report that while income growth for the bottom 40 has outpaced the top 60 over much of the last decade, the absolute gap across income groups has increased, contributing to widespread perceptions of the poor being left behind. Annual inflation is now at 3.4 percent, down slightly from 3.7 percent. Youth unemployment is at 11.76 percent. There is a widespread perception that the Covid-19 pandemic was badly mishandled.
And corruption remains at appalling levels. The reform government is attempting to contain a massive scandal over a RM9 billion contract signed nine years ago to the government-linked Boustead Naval Shipyard to build six littoral combat vessels with the French military contractor Thales. That has ballooned to RM11 billion and no ships have ever been delivered. That is only one of a plethora of lesser scandals.
“So, what would you do?” the businessman asked. “I am not going to die a slow death with Anwar, I will grasp at straws to save myself. Unfortunately, PAS and Bersatu are more and more looking like the straws that could save the sinking man.”
PAS, headed by the 75-year-old Abdul Hadi Awang, who has been accused of bigotry and extremism, is seeking to take the country backward into deep religious and ethnic intolerance. PAS joined the Perikatan Nasional (PN) led by the corrupt UMNO between 2020 to 2022, spreading across the country. The PAS partnership with Bersatu under Muhyiddin Yassin propelled it into the national government, which enabled it to spread its influence.
Hadi has accused the country’s Chinese and Indian population of being at the root of corruption and forming the “majority of those involved in ruining the country’s politics and economy.” However, it is former Prime Minister Najib Razak, now serving 12 years in prison, and other members of the Malay “court cluster” of UMNO officials who are given much more responsibility. Boustead is also an UMNO-linked company.
In addition to its strong rural support and control of the state governments of Kelantan and Terengganu, PAS is in a coalition government with Bersatu in Kedah and took control of the northern border state of Perlis through the defection of former UMNO warlord Shahidan Kassim in Perlis. It has developed kampong communities in the rural areas, which have expanded into semi-urban regions, through Perlis, Penang, Perak, Selangor, Melaka, and Johor.
In the last general election, PAS won semi-urban parliamentary seats in the states of Kedah, Penang and Selangor, all from Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, as well as in Perak and Melaka, both from UMNO.
Diverse groups within PAS, including religious scholars, academics, professionals, civil servants, educators, and party activists, are establishing urban beachheads. That has been assisted by the migration of many rural youth into the cities for work.
These groups have been setting up religious study groups, Quranic and Arabic tuition centers, prayer centers and various types of businesses. They project themselves through the skillful use of social media, with urban Malay Muslims welcoming the opportunity to study Islam and the Arabic language in more depth.
Many Malay professionals, civil servants, academics, and youth are sympathetic to the philosophy/theology of PAS. It fits in with the view of Tawhid (oneness with God), and how Islam should be practiced in society.
The education factor has been advantageous for PAS. Islamic education expanded sharply by Anwar before he changed direction, and former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed during the 1990s, has done much of the hard work for the party. PAS only needs to come along and show the youth they are the natural party to support good Muslims.
It would be a big ask for PAS to win across the board. However, with the win by Bersatu, its ethnic nationalist coalition partner, in the federal district of Putrajaya, PAS should be able to build a bridgehead in the urban areas that are majority Malay.
PAS now has a deep local grassroots organization within the kampongs, which fringe into the towns. UMNO, PKR, and Amanah have campaign offices, which are only set up for the duration of election campaigns, and then disappear the day after an election. PAS offices are there all year round.
Consequently, UMNO, PKR, and Amanah are disconnected from the electorate. They just don’t disseminate the messages that resonate with voters in the rural heartlands. This partly explains why Nurul Izzah Anwar lost the long-time family-held seat of Pematang Puah, and Saifuddin Nasution Ismail lost his Bandar Baharu seat in parliament.
Mega projects, five-year plans, and new government initiatives are totally irrelevant to voters in the rural heartlands. Back in the 1980s, I was asked by a resident of Kuala Nerang in Kedah, how would the Kuala Lumpur City Center, a multipurpose development area in the capital city, benefit their lives. The whole project was irrelevant to them. Inversely for others, the KLCC became a symbol of national pride.
PAS Malays have a completely different value set to urban dwellers, which is grossly misunderstood by the rest of Malaysians. Those dismissing the beliefs and values of the PAS Malays only strengthen them.
The problem here is that many look down upon PAS Malays for what they believe in. This contempt for other Malaysian brothers and sisters is a massive line of divide in Malaysia today. This is what enables PAS to become much stronger.
All sustainable political movements must be grounded within the community. UMNO, no longer defending Malay rights, has gone from holding 88 seats in 1995 to just 26 today. The spirit of PKR lives in coffee shops around major urban areas. There is no real kampong movement. The hard core of PKR’s support base is now aged from the reformasi days, and disappointed. Pakatan Harapan’s aggregate vote only went from 5.5 million to 5.8 million votes over the last two general elections, even with the under-18 vote in 2022. Pakatan must do a lot of soul searching here.
PAS is a community-based party. It has been building communities for more than 50 years. Consequently, PAS is here to stay and be a major influence upon Malaysian politics for years to come.
*Corrected — eds.