Malaysia after regime change

March 5, 2012

Malaysia after regime change

by Thomas Pepinsky (03-03-12)@

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 Malayness 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.

20 thoughts on “Malaysia after regime change

  1. An interesting piece that says a lot but, like most views of outsiders, misses the defining feature of our country… the decision early on by the three main races to SHARE political power rather than compete for it. This is the way we shall best move forward and I feel you are correct, Dato, about horse trading except that I guess it has already started. And that can only be good. PAS and Islam are not an issue right now.

    In whichever way the horses are eventually traded, our best chance of maintaining political stability is a COALITION arrangement — a formula that emphasizes an AND-AND partnership rather than an EITHER-OR face-off.
    Isa Manteqi,

    The Pakatan coalition is a new political phenomenon held together by Anwar Ibrahim. All predictions about its early demise have gone by the wayside.What I see is that PR is now the real alternative in our two-party democracy. Given the blunders and scandals now exposed and its unwillingness to change, UMNO-BN is now at a serious disadvantage in terms of legitimacy to govern. I only hope that UMNO-BN can exit gracefully if it fails to gain a new mandate.However,my political analyst friends say, UMNO-BN cannot accept defeat and will do whatever it takes to stay in power.That’s bad news.–Din Merican

  2. Helmet wearing Rela members and new voters in the form of Bangladeshis with the connivance of ECA will ensure there is no regime change for another 5 years. Let us dream on for changes that will not come by.


  3. I always thought the term regime was reserved for third world, tin pot, or other forms of government with a fascist hue. When Mahathir was warming up to Israel, our obedient media started refering it to as a nation or government. Once the ardor cooled, Israel reverted to regime status.

    I guess in view of all the happenings in Bolehland, regime would be an apt description. And with that, rogue nation should not be far behind. Especially when even high placed government officials are not loath to bullying and abusing helpless foreign maids. And the police and volunteer forces are ever ready to flex their muscles, and politicians their kerises, at innocent citizens expressing their fundamental rights as human beings.

  4. I would say that Pepinsky’s 1st possible outcome would not result in a greater role for Islam in Malaysian public life. PR coming to federal power will be the result of its moderate middle of the road approach. The Erdogan faction in PAS will be strengthened and the ulamak role will be further diminished. DAP and PKR will also act as the balancing forces against PAS in the PR coalition. Important issues like good governance and the economic will take center stage with racial and religious issues taking the back seat. Even now when the fight for Muslims votes is crucial, UMNO’s propaganda of perceived insults to Islam, did not bulge the moderate stand of the present PAS leadership.

    In the 2nd scenario, PR lost marginally and PAS jumped ship and joined UMNO in a coalition. This is possible if PAS did not fare well in the seats it contested but still has enough numbers for UMNO to want to court it in joining BN. PAS’s poor showing will also mean the Erdogan faction will be overran and the ulamaks have again taken control of PAS. Unlike post 1969 when PAS was in the BN coalition, this time around PAS will have more political clout in BN. UMNO-PAS will be the dominant forces and non-Malay parties like MCA, MIC and Gerakan which are expected to fare badly, will be relegated to the fringes of BN. All these only mean more ‘Islamization’ will take place in public life. It will be a sad day for reform-minded Muslims and non-Muslims if this 2nd scenario takes place.

    Although Pepinsky’s article focus on Islam and PAS role post-BN Malaysia; it would be interesting to postulate another scenario. In this scenario, PR lost marginally but instead of PAS; DAP is courted and joined in a coalition with UMNO; replacing MCA-MIC-Gerakan. Possible?? Or PKR joining BN? Ahh… politics, the art of the impossible !!

  5. UMNO wants to depart with a loud bang, with the help of PERKASA Samseng and UMNO Thugs dressed in RELA uniforms.

    Meanwhile, UMNO politicians are buying properties in South Africa, Mauritius, London and Australia to retire with their ill-gotten gains.Shahrizat made the mistake of chosing to buy properties too near to home with the cow money… and got caught.

  6. Some political pundits predict a hung Parliament after GE-13 to be followed by intense horse trading. What do you guys think?–Din Merican

    No horses in Malaysia. You will have to substitute horses for kerbau – not lembu for obvious reasons.

  7. “I would say that Pepinsky’s 1st possible outcome would not result in a greater role for Islam in Malaysian public life. PR coming to federal power will be the result of its moderate middle of the road approach. The Erdogan faction in PAS will be strengthened and the ulamak role will be further diminished” — Jamal Majid

    Wishful thinking.

  8. However,my political analyst friends say, UMNO-BN cannot accept defeat and will do whatever it takes to stay in power. — Din Merican

    I’m afraid, that’s a no-brainer. UMNO-BN has been in power for more than half a century and no one and no party having monopolized power that long and accustomed to what power brings, would let go it voluntarily. But it will not come to that because rigging the elections is an easy alternative to declaring emergency and dissolving parliament. For UMNO it is ‘been there, done that’.

  9. UMNO’s grip over power will continue post-elections whatever may be the electoral outcome, made easier by the fact that the police and the military have been trained to be subservient to civilian leadership (read: Malay and UMNO). Sorry folks!

  10. Putin winning the elections with 63%, according to his party, is a sign that no cheating took place!??
    the umno-bn gov. would get a comfortable majority and they’ll say, ‘look, what a overwhelming support, this cannot be the outcome of vote rigging’.

    Scarlet, you’ll be proven right, if vote rigging goes on as usual, if the election watchdogs don’t do their duties and many power failure occurs.
    if Bersih 2.0 has its influence and the many opposition vote watchers succeed in their their duty then Datos’ scenario will come true.
    both ways we are the losers.

    look at the bright side, many indonesians, filippinos, banglas and mamaks got their citizenship because of GE13. one mans gain is anothers loss!

  11. I think this country has changed quite a bit over the past decade since Octo’s ham-fisted misrule. I do’t see a problem with the security forces, but some trouble from the UMNO militia including Rela, Mat Pempits/Potongs, Perkasa and other social misfits. We’ll just hand OWC to them, and limit the damage. C’mon Bean, times have changed and optimism is needed.

    Hung? Not really. Wrangling definitely. Tethered actually. To the old ways, until the young ‘uns mentioned in the preceding thread take over the reins.

  12. C’mon Bean, times have changed and optimism is needed. — CLF

    Sorry, don’t mean to put a damper. But I am not here to spin one way or the other.

  13. Isa noted that:

    “…An interesting piece that says a lot but, like most views of outsiders, misses the defining feature of our country… the decision early on by the three main races to SHARE political power rather than compete for it..”

    Would you say that this is how UMNO has governed beginning with Tun Razak but especially since the Mahathir era – sharing the wealth with all Malaysians?

    Could you kindly demonstrate how this has been done?


  14. GREGORE PIO LOPEZ (We keep getting these interesting names) Sir, if you read your quote of my posting above you will have answered your own question and note that I have said, “… the decision EARLY ON by the three…”

    We definitely started off on the right track and that we have strayed since hardly needs mentioning. How to fix the problem is why we have had so many friends posting their views on this and like blogs since 2008.

    Some say let PR have a go while others feel not. So what do we do? I have already stated my view more than once on this blog and I am aware that it remains a minority opinion.

  15. Dear Isa,

    My apologies. I don’t read this blog often and have missed your other statements.

    Apologies also for misunderstanding the essence of your comment.

    By the way that is my real name, and I’m the editor of New Mandala from where this article originated. (hence my interest)

    I think the real issue is not BN or PR. The real issue is that the majority of Malays are unable to understand the concept of citizenship – that once an individual is granted citizenship – he/she has equal rights with all other citizens – past, present & the future.

    You may also find this article interesting.

    Salam hormat

  16. Tuan GREGORE : We have lots of problems and shortcomings in our country but an understanding of citizenship is not among them.

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