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Malaysia, Islam and Politics in (Mahathir Era to the Present)

Hussin Mutalib
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Malaysia, Islam and Politics in (Mahathir Era to the Present)

Like “race” (ethnicity), the religion of Islam has been closely intertwined with politics in Malaysian society. This is more than understandable when one considers that Islam arrived on Malaysian shores as early as the eleventh century, and that the faith played a significant role in state affairs during the Malaccan Sultanate in the fifteenth century. Over time, the faith and its adherents have undergone evolutionary transformations as they made their way through the changing landscape of Malaysia, which, by the time of independence in 1957, was a multiethnic and multi-religious polity. Since then, the majority of the Muslim population have been ethnic Malays (who are defined in the constitution as Muslim), while peoples from the Indian subcontinent, Arabs, indigeneous tribes in East Malaysia, and converts form sizable ethnic Muslim minorities.

Today, about 60 percent of the total population of Malaysia are Muslims (of the Sunni school). The remainder are Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Taoists, Confucianists, and adherents of indigeneous faiths that are mostly practiced in the eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak. Constitutionally, Islam is the state religion, but freedom to practice other religions is also guaranteed. Malaysia is a constitutional federal monarchy consisting of thirteen states. The king (Yang diPertuan Agong) is the titular head of state, and much of the political and executive power is vested in the prime minister. The latter heads the cabinet and governs a hybrid, bicameral, Westminster-style parliamentary system.

This article will discuss the nature, roles, and challenges confronting Islam in the vicissitudes of modern Malaysian society and politics, focusing primarily on the period from the Mahathir administration since 1981 until today. An examination of this thirty-year period will show the nature and extent to which Islam has been embedded in Malaysian politics, and how this Islam-politics dialectic has served as both a stabilizing and a divisive force in a bi-modal country of 30 million people in which the number of Malays and non-Malays is about equal. Although ethnic Malays constitute roughly 55 per cent of the total population, they are a minority in East Malaysia; nationwide, non-Malays hold the upper hand in the economy.

Mahathir Administration.

Tun Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad became the country’s prime minister (PM) when he was 56, and served from 1981 until his resignation in 2003, making him the longest-serving PM in Malaysian history. In more ways than one, he was a powerful and visionary, albeit controversial, figure of many talents. He spearheaded the rapid modernization of Malaysia, championed the aspirations of the Muslim world (including adopting an anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian stance), antagonized the West (including defying the International Monetary Fund during the Asian financial crisis), adopted a tit-for-tat approach in bilateral relations with Malaysia’s closest neighbor Singapore, and under his slogan of “Malaysia Can!” (“Malaysia Boleh!”), not only launched numerous privatization programs, but also delivered many ground-breaking, showpiece edifices, including the Twin Petronas Towers, then among the tallest buildings in the world, together with the first made-in-Malaysia car, the Proton. In spite of the hiccups in his political career, Mahathir appeared to have outwitted many of his erstwhile political enemies with uncharacteristically strong and decisive leadership.

Mahathir’s more than four decades of political activism are also remembered for their many debatable policies and politics, including his role in the greater intensification of Islam in the country. He did, during his administration, antagonize some influential Muslim segments of the population, by means of his battles with the sultans and his sacking of High Court judges, including the Chief Judge Tun Salleh Abbas, then the Lord President of the Supreme Court, in 1988. But he also launched numerous pro-Islamic policies and initiatives: building more mosques and Islamic schools; establishing Islamic universities, banks, and related institutes and think tanks; elevating the status of the Islamic judicial system (such as the shari’ah courts and laws); increasing Islamic radio and television programming; pursuing a pro-Islamic foreign policy orientation whereby the Muslim world replaced the Non-Aligned Movement and the British Commonwealth as the country’s first foreign-policy priority; and other Islamic projects that remain a legacy of his rule, culminating in his controversial declaration that Malaysia is an Islamic state.

During Mahathir’s long term in office, he seemed to use Islam not only to exercise leadership in the Muslim world, as manifested in his active participation in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), but also domestically, by his struggles to draw the Muslim vote away from the Islamic political party, PAS. Mahathir did not hesitate to declare to Malaysian Muslims that only the United Malays’ National Organization’s version of Islam—which he described as modern, progressive, and in tune with the times—would safeguard their status and influence in the country.

Arguably, though, it was his about-turn treatment of the once charismatic Muslim youth leader, Anwar Ibrahim, that is best remembered today by many, both in Malaysia and overseas. Starting as Mahathir’s deputy, Anwar was originally given a free hand, which resulted in the revival of Islam in Malaysian society and politics beginning in the 1980s. Midway through his administration, however, Anwar had to face serious charges of misconduct (particularly sodomy) from his own mentor, leading to a protracted politico-legal struggle that involved both men and, given the wide and regular media coverage, captured worldwide attention. Forced to retaliate politically upon his dismissal, Anwar launched his Reformasi (Reformation) political movement that was instrumental in Mahathir’s decision to resign, having lost a sizable number of electoral votes, including the crucial Malay/Muslim vote, in the 1999 general election preceding his departure.

Badawi Administration.

After serving as deputy prime minister since 1999, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi succeeded Mahathir in 2003 and remained in office until 2009. His administration survived a relatively short six years, marked by the profoundly shocking electoral contrast of the 2004 and 2008 general elections.

Riding high on the wave of anti-Mahathir fervor and post-2001 Islamophobia, Badawi sounded a new clarion call, captured by the Islamic slogan of “Islam Hadari” (Civilizational Islam). Consequently, he led the United Malays’ National Organization (UMNO) and its umbrella national coalition ruling government, the National Front (Barisan Nasional), to a resounding landslide electoral victory in 2004. They won 199 seats, crushing the opposition, including in Trengganu, and almost regaining Kelantan from PAS. Significantly, it was the highest margin of victory since independence in 1957. In the process, the PM managed to recoup many of the votes that were lost during Mahathir’s last electoral run.

For a while, Badawi seemed to have won over the hearts and minds of Malaysian Muslims in particular and the multiracial citizenry in general to accept the UMNO’s version of Islam, as opposed to that of PAS. PAS, under its greatly respected religious leader, Nik Abdul Aziz Nik Mat, had long agitated for Malaysia to become an Islamic state, to the anxiety of many non-Muslims. However, immediately after this electoral euphoria, an equally sharp about-turn of political fortune was to threaten the new PM’s newfound legitimacy.

Many factors accounted for Badawi’s decline in support. They included the many political lapses of his administration; the growing strength of the new opposition coalition front (Pakatan Rakyat) led by Anwar’s wife, Datin Azizah; charges of nepotism and cronyism towards his sons and in-laws; the sheer ineffectiveness of Mahathir, who resigned his UMNO membership in protest of alleged betrayal by Badawi; and the general profile of a weak leader who was unwilling (read: unable) to counter the divisive ethnic and religious unrest in the country. All of these factors colluded to push this former long-time diplomat toward an early eclipse of his political leadership.

Exacerbating Badawi’s already fragile position was the spate of ethnic and religious conflicts besetting the country at that time. These included the Muslim burial of the mountain climber M. Moorthy against his wife’s wishes in 2005 and the prosecution, on the grounds of “indecent behavior,” of a non-Muslim Chinese couple caught kissing in public in 2006. Further incidents were to haunt the PM and his administration in 2006. Muslims called for state action when two Muslims—sales assistant Lina Joy and former religious teacher Kamariah Ali—attempted to change their religious affiliation through the legal system. In the same year, in a further blow to some segments of the Muslim community who wished to see greater intensification of Islam in the country, the Court of Appeal, Malaysia’s highest court, upheld an earlier decision to forbid Muslim students to wear Muslim headgear (serban) on the grounds that Malaysia was a secular state. Thereafter, the religious public space continued to be strongly contested by religious groups, including the then unprecedented road show (“Article 11 Forum”) organized by many human rights’ NGOs calling for freedom of religion in the country. Muslim NGOs such as TERAS (Malay Empowerment Movement), FORKAD (Action Front against Apostasy), and Jemaah Islah Malaysia, led by PAS, held counter-demonstrations to object to these groups, arguing that such public pressures compromise Malay and Muslim rights and interests and open the sanctity of their faith to abuse. Wary of the potential religious turmoil—especially when sensitive slogans like “Don’t dare to challenge Islam” and “We will defend Islam with our blood” were publicly proclaimed—the government banned such demonstrations.

Barely holding ground in the 2008 general election, Badawi’s UMNO-led Barisan Nasional lost not only on his own home turf, Penang, but also, for the first time in modern Malaysian history, the crucial two-thirds parliamentary majority, which is needed to pass new legislation. These results chipped off whatever political gains Badawi had made earlier and placed him in an unenviably precarious position, rendering his overall image as the leader of the nation somewhat tarnished.

Najib Administration.

Dato’Sri Najib Tun Razak, the son of the country’s second PM, Tun Abdul Razak, succeeded to the highest political office in 2009 against the backdrop of a huge groundswell against his predecessor, Tun Abdullah Badawi. As the sixth PM (he had served as deputy PM since 2004), his task was similarly challenging. Not only did he have to regain the states won by the Islamic Party (PAS), he had to embark on a much-needed unifying mission to reconstruct the Malaysian national identity, damaged by the divisive ethno-religious politics. One of his first substantive policy initiatives was the official launching of the slogan “One Malaysi,” intended to reassure Malaysians that every ethno-religious group would have a stake in the progress and destiny of the nation.

The slogan foretold the loosening of the long-held bumiputra (son of the soil) policy, by virtue of which Malays and other indigeneous groups had been entited to special privileges and affirmative action programs in education, economic matters, and civil service. In 2009, Najib launched the “New Economic Model” and the “Government Transformation Program,” both aimed at ensuring a more efficient and transparent civil service and a knowledge-based economy that would allow Malaysia to join an increasingly global economy. This was followed by the bold decision to halve the minimum quota for Malay ownership in publicly traded companies from its original 30 percent. The relative success of all these initiatives, together with other economic stimulus packages, and more cordial relations with its neighbors, including Singapore, have led Najib to declare that the country is well on target to become a developed nation by 2020.

Although he had had to use Islam to legitimize his campaign for the Malay/Muslim vote, Najib now decided to create a new Islamic image for himself. He called for a more moderate and futuristic Islam in which Muslims would embrace new technology and skills and embark on a new mindset to confront the globalization wave. Besides the desire to equip Muslims with the necessary knowledge and skills that would make them less dependent on government handouts, he hoped, by this approach, to regain the lost Malay/Muslim electoral ground from PAS and Pakatan while also calming the uneasiness of non-Malays and non-Muslims. To this end, a Chinese leader, Tan Sri Dr Koh Tsu Khoon, the former MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) chief minister in Penang state, was made the minister of Unity and Performance.

It appears that Najib’s new political and religious ventures have not been allowed to proceed smoothly. Although relatively new as the PM, he was subjected to a series of pressures, if not protests, about his economic and religious policies and stances. In this latter regard, he had to mitigate the groundswell of Christian anger when the use of the word “Allah” (God) in some Malaysian Bible publications was loudly objected to by many Muslim parties and pressure groups. The Christians challenged the ban in court, and the ensuing Christian–Muslim antagonism created a rather tense atmosphere in many cities in the country, calmed only by a spate of conciliatory meetings between church leaders and the government. Then came the legal decision to bar a qualified but non-Muslim shari’ah lawyer from practicing in the shari’ah court. In 2010, Najib had to assuage Hindu anger at plans to demolish some Hindu temples and places of worship by promising to build a costly rail service at the foot of a famous Hindu tourist spot, the Batu Caves, to transport visitors to this popular Hindu site.

Throughout 2010 and 2011, the general perception was that Najib echoed Mahathir’s clampdown on Anwar Ibrahim. More than merely trying to discredit the opposition Pakatan coalition, the official attack against Anwar was relentless, as the latter was continuously subjected to charges of sodomy and revelations of videotapes purportedly showing Anwar in a room with a prostitute. The Malaysian media went on a frenzy, with Utusan Malaysia, RTM (radio and TV station), and other government-linked institutions joining in the chorus of what some commentators interpreted as a smear campaign against this once potential PM, much to the dismay and chagrin of his wife and family as well as his supporters nationwide and overseas. In his attempt to cast an image of a moderate, reasonable Muslim leader leading a similarly moderate Muslim nation, Najib delivered speeches at international fora, including the United Nations General Assembly in 2010 and the Conference of the Global Movement for Justice, Peace and Dignity, hosted by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), in 2011.

As if all of these tests early in Najib’s term were not enough, in the 2011 election in Sarawak, a huge and resource-rich state with a non-Malay majority, the government’s Barisan Nasional—especially its Chinese affiliate, the MCA—was thrashed by the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP). This party is a member of the Anwar-led Pakatan, which secured an overwhelming Chinese mandate. The mostly Christian Iban community also doubled its share of the vote from seven to fifteen seats, to the utter disbelief of UMNO and the Barisan Nasional. Apparently, the situation in Sarawak (and Sabah), whose majority population is non-Muslim, needed special management. After all, these two states had entered only reluctantly into Malaysia in 1963 and Islam is not the majority religion in either state. Compared to Malaya, the two states are more ethnically diverse, including the Kadazan, Murut, and Kelabit in Sabah and the Iban, Bidayah, and Melanau in Sarawak. In both states the Chinese make up about 25 percent of the population and could affect the voting substantially, given their residence in mostly urban areas where voters tend to be more politically active.

Unless Najib can find a way to counteract this particular election result, it will not only serve as a plausible foretaste of the upcoming nationwide general election, but will also reinforce the worrying trend of race politics in the country, a trend that the PM must stop if his many bold economic initiatives and calls for unity are ever to bear fruit.


Many pertinent factors shape the contents and contours of Malaysian politics. Of these, race (ethnicity) and religion (specifically Islam) have been the most compelling, as evidenced in the history of Malaysia, including its more recent modern era from the time of Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in 1981, through his successor, Tun Ahmad Abdullah Badawi, until today, under the leadership of Dato’ Sri Najib Tun Razak.

Islam seems to have performed both a unifying and an unsettling role in Malaysian society and politics. The politically dominant Malay ethnic community and their leaders have often resorted to the rallying call and symbolism of Islam in moments when their interests and aspirations were perceived to be under threat, and Islam has indeed been helping to elevate its adherents’ quest for identity and progress. At other moments, the faith has been exploited for political ends, especially the perennial electoral struggle between UMNO and PAS, unsettling the political landscape.

The reality that Malaysia is a bi-modal, heterogeneous polity of many ethnicities and religions has added to the stresses and strains of governing Malaysia. All three of the prime ministers discussed in this article have confronted this reality, even as Malaysia is trying to move ahead and harness the globalization wave in its favor. Recent events, particularly the rise in ethno-religious tensions, do not seem to augur well for Malaysia. However, with its rich natural resources, an increasingly educated population that is gradually connecting to the global architecture, and hopefully enlightened and effective political leadership, there is much to look forward to in the country’s future.


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