April 10, 2013
GE13: Political Religion in Malaysian Politics
by Farish A. Noor
A host of demands are coming from almost every ethnic and religious constituency — demands ranging from the implementation of Islamic law to the protection of churches and temples in the country.
It was in the 1970s that political Islam became a visible marker in the form and content of Malaysian politics, and there is little reason to believe that this is going to change any time soon. What is relatively new, however, is the role played by political religion in general in Malaysian politics, as demonstrated by the rise of Hindu and Christian political movements.
Between 2004 and 2008, Malaysia witnessed, for the first time, the rise of politicised Hindusim in the form of the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) movement. Its appeal was specifically to the Hindus of the country rather than to Malaysians of Indian or South Asian origin. Then, in the general election of 2008, it was evident that some Christian leaders were also involved in mobilising their fellow Christians, and that trend seems to have continued and even sharpened today.
These developments indicate that Muslims are not the only ones who are now politically active in Malaysia, but other religious communities too. There is every reason to believe that religion in general, and Islam in particular, will be a key variable that impacts the voting process.
Discussion about political Islam’s role in Malaysian politics cannot be confined to the Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS) alone, for it is clear that in PAS’s contestation against UMNO, both parties will be turning to Islam as a source of politically and ideologically loaded symbols and ideas. Looking at current developments in Malaysia, it is obvious that many of the issues that divide — but which may also unite — PAS and UMNO happen to be Islamic ones.
Witness, for instance, the difficulties faced by the opposition Pakatan Rakyat coalition when dealing with the thorny issue of Islamic law and whether the word “Allah” could be used by non-Muslim Bumiputera Malaysians in their Bahasa Indonesia bibles.
PAS’s unease with the stance taken by its coalition partners — the Democratic Action Party (DAP) and Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) — stems from a deeper theological question of whether the concept of a singular, monotheistic God found in Islam is similar to that of other confessional communities.
Though the pragmatists of PAS may wish the debate to be closed so that the party can focus on the coming elections, the theologians of PAS maintain that this is an issue that cannot be resolved simply through pragmatic political alliances.
It is for these reasons that the Malaysian public sphere has been dominated by debates of a religious character: From calls on Muslims not to celebrate Valentine’s Day, to demands that Christians be allowed to use the word “Allah”, Malaysia’s complex electorate seems to be guided by theological, as well as ideological, concerns.
The Founding Father and Imam of Islam Hadhari
As voters head to the polls in a few weeks’ time, religion and religious loyalties may well be the deciding factor for which parties and leaders they vote for. The recent statement by PAS leader Hadi Awang — that the party may leave the opposition coalition if its involvement in Pakatan does not serve the needs and interests of Islam and the Malays — shows that multiple loyalties are at work in PAS’s calculations.
PAS may wish to remain in the opposition coalition if that guarantees its path to power, but it will not countenance being part of a government where Islamist needs and aspirations are sidelined. If this happens, it could well choose to join forces with UMNO instead.
On the other side of the religious divide, the country’s Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and other faith communities are also more politicised today, and are likely to take into account their religious identities and loyalties at the voting booth too. This could be the case with the Christian Bumiputeras of East Malaysia, for instance, who insist on their constitutional status as Bumiputeras but who also zealously defend their Christian identity.
All of this means that Malaysian society is even more complex than ever before, with horizontal and vertical cleavages of ethnicity, language, culture and religion dividing them. To win power in Malaysia, all political parties need to cultivate a bridge-building capacity to narrow these divisions, but not at the expense of losing their religious identities.
Religion, in short, has now become a permanent variable in Malaysian politics that is not about to be transcended any time soon. ― Today
*Dr. Farish A. Noor is Associate Professor with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.