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An Islamic Surge Deepens Malaysia’s Old Divisions


Malaysia’s election has not immediately resulted in a new government, but it has produced an instant winner — political Islam.

The conservative Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, known as PAS, has broken out of regional confines, claiming the largest number of seats in parliament for a single party at the expense of some of the most established pro-Malay stalwarts. It’s a surge that threatens to deepen existing divides and to open new ones, at a time when the country can ill-afford to rattle investors.

Much is still unclear. As Monday’s deadline to form government was extended 24 hours, coalitions and parties were still horse-trading. Muhyiddin Yassin looks set to return as prime minister at the helm of the Perikatan Nasional coalition that includes PAS, and claims enough support from regional parties and others to control the 222-seat lower house. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s reformist, multi-racial Pakatan Harapan will struggle without arch-enemy Barisan Nasional, the third electoral bloc, which has the United Malays National Organisation as its linchpin.

This may well result in a familiar outcome — Yassin was briefly premier after a 2020 political coup and until August 2021 — but there is no glossing over the lasting implications of Saturday’s vote for identity politics in a country that was supposed to be moving in a healthier direction.

A party that has championed hardline Shariah law and has not shied away from hate speech in its campaign, PAS won 49 seats — more than double where it stood after the electoral earthquake of 2018, when the 1MDB corruption scandal ended pro-Malay UMNO’s six-decade dominance, and that of its wider BN coalition. It’s the clearest winner from the political upheaval that followed. 

UMNO, meanwhile, appears to have crumbled. Badly bruised at the last election, UMNO-led BN had seen a recovery, returning to the ruling bloc and doing well in regional votes, specifically in Johor and Melaka. With its well-oiled electoral machine, veterans were eager to cement the revival, betting voters tired of revolving-door politics would go back to the familiar. Never mind the graft allegations that continue to dog the party, with leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi cleared of multiple bribery charges in September and former Prime Minister Najib Razak in jail.

It turns out Malaysians are more tired of corruption than they are of instability. BN secured just 30 seats, 26 of those coming from UMNO — far worse than 2018, as it lost dozens of constituencies. 

And the wider old-school, pro-Malay establishment did little better. Former leader Mahathir Mohamad, elder statesman of Malaysian politics and former UMNO man now with a fledgling young party, ran again at 97, but suffered his first electoral defeat since 1969, losing his election deposit. His son (and political heir) flopped just as painfully.

Of course, the exact implications of the vote will percolate over time, as the government and the priorities of its component parts become clear. But a few things are already apparent and worth noting.

For one, racial and religious politics have rarely been stronger, and Malaysia is skewing considerably more conservative. PAS, a party that attacks those it sees as enemies of Islam and accuses the opposition of being communist, has long had an influence in Malay politics, but it could now be in a position where it can demand key government positions — even finance and education, where its views almost certainly do not align with the interests of an open market economy in dire need of competitive, competent workers and capital. Political scientist Wong Chin Huat of Sunway University points out this will drive foreign investors elsewhere, but will also keep Malaysians away from state institutions. It also suggests increased divisions even among the country’s Malay majority. 

With the stock market index nearly a quarter below its April 2018 peak, there is now downside risk — and not only for the gaming and alcohol companies.

Second, the increase in young voters did not push the electorate towards a more liberal position. Yes, more young people were able to have their say after Malaysia lowered the voting age to 18 from 21 and introduced automatic registration. But many did not cast a ballot at all, perhaps predictably given high apathy and cynicism levels, and many backed PAS. As James Chin at the University of Tasmania put it to me, young Malays feel the current economic model is not delivering for them, and are happy to try an alternative — a lesson with regional repercussions.

Key state elections due before next summer will test the resilience of the Islamist surge. PAS may also moderate to hold on to the limelight. Until then, voters can at least take comfort in the fact that changes are a hallmark of democracy.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• Will Malaysia’s Young Voters Use Their Power?: Clara Ferreira Marques

• Jailing Najib Is a Win for Malaysia, While It Lasts: Daniel Moss

• Malaysia Migrant Labor Abuse Is a Shot in the Foot: Adam Minter

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, the U.K., Italy and Russia.

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