With the rise of Anwar Ibrahim as Malaysia’s 10th prime minister and the fall of Mahathir Mohamad, whose once-in-a-lifetime defeat expedited the 97-year-old leader to an overdue retirement, Malaysia has entered a new political era. Since 2018, Malaysia’s tectonic political landscape has produced many surprises, and the outcomes of country’s 15th general elections (or GE15) were no exception to the new rule of Malaysian politics. Unexpected alliances between the former ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), plagued by corruption scandals, and its longtime radical opponent Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or Keadilan), led by Anwar, blurred the line between parties’ agendas and raised many questions regarding Anwar’s commitment to fighting injustice and corruption. The wave of support for the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) appeared to many to be a threat to pluralism—a threat that would justify any other alternative, even the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional (BN) and the Keadilan-led Pakatan Harapan (PH) alliance. In this frame of mind, UMNO, the biggest loser of this election, appears almost as the savior of democracy together with Anwar. Anwar’s campaign motto, largely inspired by U.S. president Barack Obama’s campaign slogan, was “Kita Boleh” (We Can); the question is now whether Anwar can deliver on his promises. Has the time come for Malaysia to finally achieve its democratic transition? Or will the compromises made by Anwar with his new UMNO family, as well as the emboldened voices of the conservative opposition, obstruct his long-promised reform agenda?
The Malaysian parliament has suddenly turned green. PAS won its all-time high number of 49 seats, and together with its Perikatan Nasional (PN) ally Bersatu (which landed at 25 seats following the Padang Serai by-election on December 8) forms a solid bloc. At 74 seats, the PN coalition is thus only a few seats away from the next largest bloc: Anwar’s PH, which holds 82 seats. After a period of political intrigue, Anwar successfully formed a majority together with BN (which holds 30 seats, including UMNO’s 26 seats) and the Bornean coalitions Gabungan Parti Sarawak (GPS, with 23 seats) and Gabungan Rakyat Sabah (GRS, with 6 seats). Anwar’s cabinet includes six key ministerial positions for UMNO, including the role of deputy prime minister for Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, the UMNO party president embedded in several corruption scandals. Squeezed between UMNO’s ambition to survive and the weight of the opposition, Anwar will have to navigate the very muddy waters of ethnic politics, pleasing his new allies for fear of losing their support to PN, all while maintaining his bloc’s non-Malay supporters by pushing for overdue reforms as the culmination of his decades-long democratic struggle.
UMNO, PAS, and Bersatu largely focus on the same Malay constituency and defend a conservative-ethnonationalist agenda. While PAS has a clear Islamist agenda, UMNO and Bersatu’s political lines are rather similar, although the latter claims to be a cleaner version of the former. The rise of the Islamist party PAS has long been feared by foreign observers and by non-Malay communities. This fear has built over the years in response to the Islamization of Malaysian society and institutions in mid-1980s and early 1990s under the influence of the Islamist movement. However, observers often forget that the Islamization of Malaysian institutions and public space was initiated by Anwar under the Mahathir government. When Anwar was co-opted by Mahathir in 1983, he was a figure of the Islamist movement and leader of Malaysia’s largest Islamist youth organization (ABIM, or Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia). His co-optation to the government was, for Mahathir, a way to undermine the movement and the threat it posed to the stability of his rule. Anwar would later change his tone into the more inclusive and democratic rhetoric that he is known for today.
For some observers, PAS represents the antithesis of democracy and pluralism. However, while the global Islamist movement is not a homogeneous entity, and PAS is surely not as progressive as some of its counterparts across the Islamic world, it remains a political player within and limited by a pluralistic reality. Thus, PAS is not entirely Taliban-like, despite the support given by PAS leader Abdul Hadi Awang to his Afghan brothers. The PAS agenda is also limited by the Malaysian monarchy, as no member of the royal families, nor the Malay urban elite, wish to see their liberal lifestyle compromised and civil liberties shrunk by religious conservatives. Rather than simplistically depicting PAS as an imminent threat that would need to be countered by all means, even un-democratic alliances, it is more important for observers to look at what this “green wave” means.
Malaysia’s Muslim majority represents a little over 60 percent of the entire population. A vote for the Islamist party does not necessarily mean a vote for an extreme form of Islamic law (although, for the record, Islamic law is already applied in Malaysia). Moreover, PAS ultimately obtained their votes as member of a coalition they do not lead (Bersatu does), and in some states their candidates were running under PN coalition colors and not the PAS flag. The Islamist vote in this election was often a vote for PN. Rather than mere bigotry, the PN vote was the expression of a rejection of UMNO leaders, and the voice of a new generation of Malay voters who fear resource deprivation and the loss of economic privileges in a highly tense economic context. Because of the scandals that emerged within UMNO, the traditional protector of Malay interests, voters went for the second-oldest political formation known for undeniably championing their interests: PAS.
The conservative vote for PAS and/or PN came as a surprise for many observers who had expected that the influx of first-time voters (6.9 million, 16 percent of whom were youth aged 18–20) would translate into a liberal wave. However, Malaysian youth in general, and Muslim youth in particular, are conservative and cultivate an illiberal vision of politics. In addition, many of the youth show a strong disinterest and/or a very shallow understanding of politics and Malaysia’s political system. In a survey by the Merdeka Center in 2021, 66 percent of youth respondents believed that public officials and politicians “don’t care what people like me think.” The same study revealed that 70 percent of youth said they were “uninterested in information related to politics.” In another survey in 2022, the Merdeka Center found that 47 percent of Muslim youth respondents agreed that “A strong authoritarian leader should bring order and stability to our country” and that 83 percent believe that “Gender segregation between men and women in public areas is necessary to protect public morality.” The same study concluded that “Generally, Muslim youths strongly support democracy; moderately support freedom, equality, and diversity; moderately against with gender equality but quite clearly against secularism and religious freedom.”
Civics education in schools is extremely shallow, and programs generally promote the agenda of the government of the day and avoid any solid intellectual training that could lead to breeding critical minds. Religious education, as it exists in Malaysia, also lacks the flexibility to include critical thinking and debate. Politicians themselves avoid any situation where they may be challenged, and political debates are entirely absent in political campaigns. Civic and dialectical education is certainly one of the most pressing issues for Malaysia to meet its ambition as a young democracy; the acceptance of critics and freedom of expression is another.
In the first few days of his government, Anwar and his cabinet ministers opened investigations and filed police reports against political opponents for defamation and slander. The opposition has done the same. The other game at play is one of corruption accusations; while UMNO leaders have been accused (with some being sentenced) of embezzling billions, Anwar recently accused PN leader and former prime minister Muhyiddin Yassin of the same; and Muhyiddin answered by accusing Anwar of corruption too. To human rights activist Kua Kia Soong, “both BN and PH coalitions are equally guilty of treating corruption as a political game.” Beyond Anwar’s announcements that he will not take a salary as prime minister nor use a government-provided Mercedes Benz limousine, Malaysians are yet to see if this government will be any different from its predecessors and if Anwar can deliver on his promises.
Sophie Lemière is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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