An Islamic wave is deepening Malaysia’s old divisions



Malaysia’s elections did not immediately result in a new government, but they did produce an immediate winner – political Islam.

The conservative Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, known as PAS, has broken out of regional borders and is claiming most seats in parliament for a single party at the expense of some of the most established pro-Malaysia supporters. It’s a wave that threatens to deepen existing rifts and open new ones at a time when the country can hardly afford to unsettle investors.

Much is still unclear. With the deadline for forming a government being extended by 24 hours on Monday, coalitions and parties were still horse-trading. Muhyiddin Yassin is expected to return as prime minister at the head of the Perikatan Nasional coalition, which includes the PAS, and claims enough support from regional parties and others to control the 222-seat lower house. Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim’s reformist, multiracial Pakatan Harapan will fight without nemesis Barisan Nasional, the third electoral bloc centered around the United Malays National Organization.

That may well come down to a familiar outcome — Yassin briefly served as prime minister after a political coup in 2020 and until August 2021 — but it doesn’t gloss over the lasting impact of Saturday’s vote on identity politics in a country that was supposed to be getting healthier Direction.

A party that advocates strict Sharia law and does not shy away from hate speech in its election campaign, the PAS won 49 seats – more than double the number it gained after the 2018 electoral earthquake, when the 1MDB corruption scandal shattered the six elections of pro-Malaysia UMNO finished. decade of dominance and that of his broader BN coalition. It is the clearest winner of the political upheavals that followed.

UMNO, meanwhile, appears to have collapsed. Badly battered in the last election, the UMNO-led BN rebounded, returning to the ruling bloc and doing well in regional votes, particularly in Johor and Melaka. With its well-oiled voting machine, veterans were anxious to solidify the revival, betting that voters weary of revolving door politics would return to the familiar. Not to mention the bribery allegations that continue to dog the party, with leader Ahmad Zahid Hamidi acquitted of multiple bribery charges in September and former Prime Minister Najib Razak in prison.

It turns out Malaysians are more fed up with corruption than instability. BN secured just 30 seats, 26 of which came from UMNO – far worse than in 2018 when it lost dozens of constituencies.

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

Of course, the exact implications of the vote will emerge over time as the government and the priorities of its constituents become clear. But a few things are already obvious and worth mentioning.

For one thing, racial and religious policies have rarely been stronger, and Malaysia tends to be considerably more conservative. PAS, a party that attacks those it considers enemies of Islam and accuses the opposition of being communist, has long been influential in Malayan politics, but it may now be in a position to demand key government positions even finance and education, where his views are almost certainly at odds with the interests of an open market economy in dire need of competitive, skilled labor and capital. Sunway University political scientist Wong Chin Huat points out that this will drive foreign investors to other countries, but will also keep Malaysians away from state institutions. It also points to growing divisions even among the country’s Malay majority.

With the stock market index down almost a quarter from its peak in April 2018, there is now downside risk — and not just for the gaming and alcohol companies.

Second, the increase in young voters has not pushed the electorate towards a more liberal position. Yes, more young people got a say after Malaysia lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 and introduced automatic registration. But many did not cast a vote at all, perhaps predictably given the level of apathy and cynicism, and many supported the PAS. As James Chin of the University of Tasmania put it to me, young Malays feel they don’t like the current economic model and are keen to try an alternative – a lesson with regional implications.

The important state elections due before next summer will test the resilience of the Islamist upsurge. PAS can also moderate to stay in the spotlight. Until then, voters can at least take solace in the knowledge that change is a hallmark of democracy.

More from the Bloomberg Opinion:

• Will Malaysia’s young voters use their power?: Clara Ferreira Marques

• Najib’s detention is a win for Malaysia while it lasts: Daniel Moss

• The abuse of migrant workers in Malaysia is a shot in the foot: Adam Minter

This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion and a member of the Foreign Policy and Climate Editorial Board. She previously worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, UK, Italy and Russia.

For more stories like this, visit


About Author

Comments are closed.