GE13: Political Religion in Malaysian Politics

April 10, 2013

GE13: Political Religion in Malaysian Politics

by Farish A. Noor

Farish-A-noor2It is significant that in this coming general election in Malaysia, many demands are being made in the name of religion and religious identity.

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.

PAS and religion

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.

10 thoughts on “GE13: Political Religion in Malaysian Politics

  1. Don’t turn GE 13 into a circus!

    Yes, we definitely need a change to make this country a better one and the first thing we need to eradicate totally is corruption.

    We want our leaders, whether old or new, to have the guts, commitment and the stamina to do and see that it is done and the aim achieved.

    We do not want to see any more misdeeds done or committed by our future leaders.

    With GE 13 lurking just round around the corner, many have already written in all media, electronic and printed, mainstream and alternative, about what they, the people, want GE 13 candidates should be like and how they want GE 13 to be conducted. As a layman, I understand that what they have asked for is pretty simple and straightforward and truly achievable and I also would like to give my 2 sen worth here.

    All media, electronic and printed, mainstream and alternative, must also be fair when coming out with statements or reports.

    We have been an independent nation for over 56 years, a peaceful country with the multi-racial people of this country living harmoniously and the level of education and exposure of our people have remarkably improved by leaps and bounds and so please, we do not want to see, read or hear about gutter politics that can turn GE 13 into a circus full of clowns anymore.

    Making allegations, accusations, innuendos, uttering rubbish or saying things that just do not make sense and cannot be believed should stop.

    We do not want to hear or read anymore curses thrown at each other, contestants making stupid or childish statements. Please stop all these name calling and calling the other ‘infidels’. Everyone has to grow up.

    What we want to see, read or hear about are sensible things, opinions, statements or arguments made with intelligence and rationale, well-researched and can be substantiated, promises that can be fulfilled. Would be leaders and GE 13 contestants must show dignity, be trustworthy, speak the truth, demonstrate integrity and giving us an indication that they are reliable.

    It is good news to hear about former representatives returning assets such as cars and other perks back now that their time being lawmakers has already expired since Datuk Sri Najib, when he was still the Prime Minister, announced the dissolution of the Malaysian Parliament on 3rd April 2013. All concerned should stop using public property, public funds and public servants in their campaigns. Actions like these are laudable carry with them a good name.

    Give us all a break please and let’s all pray for a peaceful and safe GE 13.

  2. Pingback: GE13: Political Religion in Malaysian Politics | Christian News

  3. For may who chose to stay even though they had option to leave, the question of religion in politics in Malaysia was always a deterrent for staying..Those who stayed had hoped that in the long run, material development would naturally make these forces to temper the progress of religiosity and ultimate keep it at worst to a long debate that never see a religo-state in reality..

    The fact is its the poor quality development that has forced the cooperation of the religo-statist and the secularist. Should the poor quality development NOT solved then religo-statist will definitely take over..

    The issue is after even if the material development is achieved, will it keep the religo-statist forever in check? Its arrogant to believe the quality of development will always be sufficient to keep the religio-statist in check. Eventually development will always have instances of crises and when it becomes difficult and politician again fail us, then the Islamist agenda will then have a real opportunity. The truth is the Islamic state agenda is very very possible in Malaysia not just a theory..

  4. “Democracy is not just the right to vote, it is the right to live in dignity.”
    ― Naomi Klein (Canadian intellectual and activist)

    “To view the opposition as dangerous is to misunderstand the basic concepts of democracy. To oppress the opposition is to assault the very foundation of democracy.”
    ― Aung San Suu Kyi, Letters from Burma

    “Being democratic is not enough, a majority cannot turn what is wrong into right. In order to be considered truly free, countries must also have a deep love of liberty and an abiding respect for the rule of law.”
    ― Margaret Thatcher

    “I realized that this was the big secret of democracy — that change can occur by starting off with just a few people doing something.”
    ― Michael Moore (U.S. film-maker)

  5. The good professor’s linking of “political religion” with “Hindu and Christian political movements” is too simplistic as he does not provide justifications to link the two.

    HINDRAF has nothing to do with Hinduism. It was a social and political movement like an NGO fighting against the marginalisation of Malaysian Indians pertaining to their abject poverty, social and economic woes and deprivation of job and business opportunities.

    The heightened stance of Christians, on the other hand, is an intuitive reactive response to incessant Christian bashing by radical Muslims and the Islamic movements and organisations they were connected to over allegations of proselytization of Muslims by Christians and issues like calling for a ban on usage of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims. Things were made worse with politicians jumping into the fray and championing these issues for political gains.

    Islamisation of the country started happening sometime in mid-1970 when Wahhabism , an ultra- conservative branch of Sunni Islam from Saudi Arabia started spreading its wings to Malaysia and other countries in the region. Wearing of tudung for Muslim women became “a must” norm. The clamour for hudud laws increased. Secular Malaysia was declared an Islamic country by Mahathir when he was the PM. The progressive march of this brand of Islam causes worry in the minds of the non-Malays and put them in unease.

  6. It is dangerous to mess up politics with religion, worse still if race included!!

    PAS is a Malay majority Islamic orientated political party is not acceptable in a multiracial-religions nation like Malaysia.

  7. Pingback: Comment on GE13: Political Religion in Malaysian Politics by Phua Kai Lit | Christian News

  8. 5 years of BN/UMNO is enough, let alone 55 years! Anyone would be mad, idiotic or evil (eg: BN Cronies) to vote for BN/UMNO. With 5 decades of corruption, cronyism, nepotism, embezzlement, mismanagement, theft, and illegal outflow of few hundred billion US$. Aparthied & racism. Govt’ controlled tv, radios, papers to deceive the people. Election rigging & cheating. Sabotage of the Opposition…& several murders thrown in. Your Dr MM, Najib, Taib Mahmud….hundreds of names – too many to mention, should have been in jail years ago. I speak neutrally without taking sides, from NZ – rated as one of the most transparent & democratic in the world – NZ

  9. Religion is a way of life and it is here and the world over to stay.period. For tomorrow if everyone is transformed to be the same visually and externally ,and white coloured, the very next minute some will say that they are whiter then the rest. Hence we need godly education to control our ego. When the great Onn Jaffar formed the Malayan Union, Who and why was it changed to UMNO? The hindus and the taoist are generally no no for proselytising but we cant say the same for others. Who are the religion and race cardist? The Armed Forces was controlled by askar Melayu since independence and pretty much the same till now. Who enjoys religion and race benefits,not the marginalised indians. The Sunni and the Shitte muslims are fighting ,oh for so long that it appears to be sheer madness. Mr Osama made a fatwa that all Shittes,Christians,Hindus and others are kaffirs and they must be exterminated. What Logic is this? Sadly these type of leaders are taken very seriously by many people. Their reactions are detrimental to the peace in this world. In this mordern day, the dynasty in North Korea wants to annihilate its brothers and neighbours. So the hope , as a stop gap measure, is in the leaders who are egalitarians and people who believe in good governance. We hope the good will rule Malaysia and pray chauvinistic trends will be controlled by law. We have pleanty for all so lets not kill each other.We can and we must live for peace.

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