Will Malaysia Succumb to the Rising Tide of Islamic Populism?
Some of the political ingredients are in place, but no demagogue has yet emerged
Malaysia has been making international headlines lately. Despite impressive economic growth and a history of political stability, the multi-ethnic country has just installed a deeply divided new parliament that appears to reflect an Asian variant of the West’s culture wars. Whether its politics will now give birth to full-blown populist authoritarian movement is an open question—but the key ingredients are there, and the outcome could well matter on the world stage.
A Rising Economic Power, Both Multi-Ethnic and Islamic
Malaysia may not be familiar to most Americans, but it is not a trivial presence in the world economy. Since its independence from Britain in 1957 and the settling of its current borders in 1964, Malaysia has capitalized on its strategic position on the longstanding naval trade route of the Strait of Malacca and its abundant resources of tin and rubber to become an increasingly powerful commercial state. Its gross domestic product was 38th in the world in 2021, close to Singapore’s and Denmark’s. True, Malaysia’s population of 33 million is much larger than theirs, but as the Tun Razak Exchange, a government-sponsored commercial development center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s capital, observed in 2019:
The country’s [economic] performance was so dramatic in the late 1980s and 1990s, when the economy grew more than 9 percent annually for nine straight years, that Malaysia was named an “Asian Tiger.” … Unemployment has dropped to around 3.3 percent, and dependence on agriculture has been lessened. … Kuala Lumpur [is] now one of the top Islamic finance capitals of the world.
Note the modifier Islamic. Islam is the country’s national religion, and a majority of the country—about 64%, according to 2020 government data—are Muslim. About 69% are ethnic Malays and indigenous peoples. The country includes, however, substantial minority populations of ethnic Chinese and South Asians (Indian, Pakistani, and Sri Lankan)—approximately 23% and 7%, respectively. Both groups have been more successful economically, prompting the government institute policy preferences to increase economic opportunities for Malays and indigenous peoples—an example of affirmative action programs for the majority population. Chinese and South Asians compose much of the country’s Buddhist and Hindu populations, though some are Christian, as are many of the non-Malay local peoples.
A Degree of Social and Political Stability, But …
All this gives rise to an interesting tableau: Since Malaysia’s independence, two minority groups of different ethnicity—and, often, religion—have been perceptibly more economically successful than the Malayan majority. Even before independence, much of the area’s wealth was concentrated in British hands. There are lingering resentments among ethnic Malays, and some definite tension still exists.
The most famous example came in 1969. Following the electoral success of two political parties dominated by Chinese and Indian members and a loss of political power by Malay-affiliated political parties, race riots between Malays and ethnic Chinese broke out in Kuala Lumpur in what is now known as the “13 May incident.” Most of those killed were Chinese. The official death toll was nearly 200, though other observers placed it higher. Many of the country’s affirmative-actions programs for Malays were enacted in the aftermath.
In general, however, the country’s rapid economic growth has managed to benefit average Malaysians, with poverty dropping from most of the population prior to independence to less than 6% by 2019, according to government statistics. To some extent, then, economic growth has been widely shared. Preferences for Malays may have provided a cultural relief valve, as well. By and large, the country has avoided recurring social and political unrest, an impressive postcolonial achievement.
Corruption, Political Uncertainty and a New Parliament
But public corruption and the ensuing political fallout have challenged this stability. The 2018 election saw the defeat of the long-dominant Barisan Nasional, a coalition of Malay-dominated political parties led by the United Malays National Organisation. The previous prime minister and leader of UMNO, Najib Razak, was implicated in a massive financial scandal involving a major state development fund in which, according to U.S. Department of Justice estimates, as much as $1 billion of development fund monies were deposited in Najib’s bank accounts. Public outrage led to a political revolt, kept alive in subsequent years by courtroom proceedings that produced guilty verdicts for corruption against Najib and his wife, who face 12- and 10-year prison sentences, respectively, and tens of millions of dollars in fines.
The 2018 political comeuppance for Barisan Nasional and UMNO was followed by a series of three weak, short-term parliamentary governing coalitions that fell in 2019, 2021, and 2022, raising concerns for the first time over the stability of Malaysia’s government and leading to the national elections on Nov. 19. The result of the election was a divided government and a historic realignment.
Barisan Nasional, led by UMNO and long the political powerhouse coalition, came in third, mustering only 30 seats in Malaysia’s 222-seat national parliament. The most successful coalition of political parties was Pakatan Harapan, which won 82 seats under its veteran Malay leader, Anwar Ibrahim. Another major coalition, the Perikatan Nasional, won 73 seats under a former prime minister, Muhyiddin Yassin, who resigned in 2021 over popular dissatisfaction with his government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Neither coalition commanded the 112 seats needed to form a majority. The two were deeply divided. Both sides reached out to various parties within each other’s coalitions and the Barisan Nasional, but despite several days of negotiations and increasing anxiety, neither side was successful. A resolution was reached only last Thursday, on Nov. 24, when Anwar Ibrahim, the head of the coalition receiving the most votes, was appointed prime minister by the country’s constitutional monarch.
The New Hope—and a Potential New Threat
The result grants a temporary stability, but key divisions remain. Ibrahim is well known in the West, a source of some criticism in the Islamic community. U.S. Secretary Anthony Blinken sent him immediate congratulations, saying the U.S. looked forward “to working with Malaysia to advance a free and open … Indo-Pacific region.” Part of this support is due Anwar’s historic opposition to political corruption: He helped lead the political charge in 2018 that ousted Barisan Nasional following its financial scandals. Anwar has also served two jail terms that were generally viewed as politically motivated and a sign of his distance from the center of power in the recently discredited UMNO.
Moreover, Anwar is widely seen as an eloquent Malay and Muslim leader who has historically and credibly called for a multi-ethnic Islamic society, garnering support from Chinese and Indian voters in his victorious 2022 coalition. He has even spoken against affirmative action programs for ethnic Malays.
This has been seen as particularly important given that the coalition that came in second, the 73-seat coalition under Muhyiddin Yassin, is home to a more conservative and assertive Muslim political force. As Reuters frames Anwar’s election:
Anwar takes over at a challenging time, with the economy slowing and the country divided after a tight election. … The campaign pitted Anwar’s progressive, multi-ethnic coalition against Muhyiddin’s mostly conservative ethnic-Malay, Muslim alliance. …
Anwar’s supporters expressed hope that his government would avert a return to historic tensions between the ethnic Malay, Muslim majority and ethnic Chinese and Indian minorities. …. “All we want is moderation for Malaysia, and Anwar represents that,” said a communications manager in Kuala Lumpur.
James Chai, a fellow of the Malaysia studies program at Singapore’s Yusof Ishak Institute, which studies Southeast Asia, told Reuters, “Always regarded as the man who could unite all warring factions, it is fitting that Anwar emerged during a divisive time.”
Anwar’s opposition, however, includes the surging Parti Islam Se-Malaysia, which receives much of its support from Malaysia’s rural voters. The PAS garnered 49 seats in the election—more votes than any single party in the Malaysian parliament, and more than any in the second-place coalition led by Muhyiddin. As Reuters reported,
Under current president Abdul Hadi Awang, PAS has been pushing for the expansion of sharia that allows for harsher punishments for Muslims nationwide. Malaysia has a dual-track legal system, with Islamic criminal and family laws applicable to Muslims running alongside civil laws.
PAS pressed for the law aggressively as the opposition, though analysts say it moderated its views while it was part of a governing coalition after 2020.
In regional governments that it runs, PAS has enforced stricter rules. In Kelantan state, cinemas have been banned since 1990 for causing “social ills,” and in 2017, a man was fined for wearing a pair of shorts that exposed his knees. In 2018, two women were publicly caned after being accused of attempting lesbian sex in Terengganu state. PAS has [also] called for tighter controls on alcohol and gambling.
PAS’s support has remained strong, despite the party’s being implicated in a 2019 graft investigation and despite a PAS leader later admitting that he had publicly lied about the evidence. And while, as the Cato Institute’s Mustafa Akyol has pointed out, Malaysia is generally considered a more moderate Islamic country, it also true that Akyol himself was briefly detained in Malaysia in 2017 for stating at a Malaysian conference that Muslims should be free to fall from the faith without legal repercussions.
There are also signs that Malaysia harbors some Muslim extremists: Just following the recent hung election, Reuters reported that it had “reviewed about 100 videos on TikTok, some of which featured people displaying weapons such as knives and machetes. Some addressed ‘young Malay warriors’ and warned that Anwar’s supporters should ‘remember the May 13 incident.’” Anwar himself is no doubt suspect among some conservative Muslims: Though his jail terms were widely seen as politically motivated, both included charges of sodomy, which is illegal in Malaysia.
A Possible Populist Uprising?
The strength of PAS does not automatically portend a populist Islamic insurgency and a fracturing of the government. Even within the coalition to which PAS belongs, PAS leader Abdul Hadi is second to Muhyiddin.
Still, the situation is thorny. Malaysia’s new prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, must unite a fractured parliament in which he has yet to demonstrate majority support (despite reports of his having enlarged his base), and he must do so after several years of weak governments. Moreover, he does so against a historic backdrop in which a majority Malay-Muslim population for decades has watched other ethnic and religious minorities—British, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani—achieve greater economic success.
This same majority has also watched the Barisan Nasional, after years of receiving Malay votes, indulge in corruption on a monumental scale—a scandal spanning six countries, including the United States. This betrayal could sow the seeds of an anti-elitist feeling that a talented demagogue—one of the stamp of, say, India’s Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi—might well tap.
The result, then, is a long Malaysian climb from poverty and colonialism that has stumbled. Only time will tell whether—and how—it rises.
Civic state, democratic constitutionalism and individualism cannot exist due to affirmative action, religious populism and group think policies. What Malaysia could benefit from is a basic income policy, as economic basic income or negative income tax that goes to poor, unemployed, students, etc. If things become better, Malaysia could become another example of a society where democracy and Islam can co-exist.