“Malaysia, Truly Asia” is the well-known slogan that Tourism Malaysia – the government agency under the country’s Ministry of Tourism, Arts and Culture – uses in hopes of capturing the essence of the country’s unique diversity. That’s fair considering the country is home to people from a multitude of different ethnicities and religious backgrounds. Today, however, the warm embrace of the country’s multiculturalism seems to have gone cold. This is most clear when taking a closer look at the latest political developments there.
The former government of Malaysia was led by the National Front (Barisan Nasional) that is largely made up of single-race-based parties like its three founding members; the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC). Nonetheless, the coalition as a single body was always undeniably multiracial. Today, seated in the opposition, the National Front has taken a much more racial-religious approach to politics after it announced a possible union with its one-time-nemesis, the conservative Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).
Earlier this month, National Front founding members MCA and MIC expressed their disappointment in some UMNO members for their alleged racist remarks made in public as well as the party’s alliance with PAS. Both, the MIC and MCA had even gone to the extent of threatening to leave the historic coalition. This, however has not yet come to fruition.
The truth is that whispers of a loose alliance between the Malay-based UMNO and Muslim-based PAS have been going on even before the 14th General Election (GE14) which saw the National Front finally lose its 60-year-hold on Malaysia. UMNO leaders were also often photographed side-by-side with PAS leaders and had stood together on many different issues including the plight of the Rohingya in Myanmar. Neither side, however, admitted to ever actually “working together”.
However, In August last year, mere months after his loss in GE14, disgraced former prime minister Najib Razak was quoted by local media as admitting that the reason behind UMNO’s decision to become friendlier towards PAS was because of an increase in conservatism among the Malays in the country.
“A certain percentage of the Malays have gone quite conservative and they continue to support PAS. UMNO, being a Malay-based party, therefore has to come to terms with the nature of the political spectrum,” he said at the time.
Later, in September, a paper by Serina Rahman from the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute entitled “Should Malaysia Expect an Islamist Backlash?”, noted that post-election analyses showed that about 70 percent of Malay voters opted to remain with either UMNO or PAS. This was in spite of widespread dissatisfaction with issues such as the rising cost of living, the goods and services tax (GST) and allegations of impropriety among the then-ruling elite. It seems that the majority of Malay Muslims had instead prioritised concerns related to race and religion above all else.
Serina also wrote that in the race to demonstrate Islamic qualities, it is possible that rhetoric and attitudes could become even more intolerant and exclusivist and that with increasing conservatism in Malaysia, there was scant concern over rising Islamic extremism and even some support for the expression of violence towards non-Muslims.
The idea was reiterated by Jeffrey Kenney, professor of religious studies at DePauw University, who says that conservatism and political intentions are, in fact, interlinked. He added that in authoritarian settings, governments incline towards conservatism to prove their religious legitimacy to the masses, which tend to be more conservative than liberal.
“Such governments are more often than not secular, but religious conservatism provides a good public cover,” he told The ASEAN Post.
The reason an UMNO-PAS alliance is a scary thing to consider is because such a partnership would indeed have strong political implications. As Serina pointed out, the majority of Malay Muslims in Malaysia would place race and religion over all other concerns.
Most recently, Rembau Member of Parliament (MP), Khairy Jamaluddin, who is also an UMNO member, seemed to express concern regarding the path Malaysia would take in the event of a UMNO-PAS alliance.
“If you look at the cooperation previously between DAP (Democratic Action Party), PKR (People’s Justice Party) and PAS, they came up with certain principles of why they are cooperating. So, it is important for us to study and decide what our principles are," Khairy told reporters on the side-lines of the 'Malaysian Strategic Financial Outlook Forum' on 12 March.
He stressed that leaders should remain dedicated to ensuring Malaysia stays a multiracial country, by practicing progressive and multiracial politics and not restricting their focus on the Malay-Muslim community alone.
In a country where Malay Muslims make up more than 60 percent of the demographic, there is still a strong 40 percent consisting of minorities who could be forced to live in an ultra-conservative Malaysia should an UMNO-PAS alliance come into power and chooses not to heed the advice of politicians such as Khairy. The fact that playing the race and religious card may be the golden ticket to power for this unlikely couple makes one shudder to think what could happen to the rights of Malaysia’s minorities.